My Happily Unsuccessful Hike on the Mt. Washburn Spur Trail during "Christmas" Day in Yellowstone, 2006
My Happily Unsuccessful Hike on the Mt. Washburn Spur Trail during "Christmas" Day in Yellowstone, 2006
by Jim Macdonald
So much happened to me August 25, 2006, also known to employees in Yellowstone National Park as "Christmas in Yellowstone," and I am not going to paint for you the entire picture now or even the most poignant moment of my day. Please do not be too disappointed with me. We cannot successfully make it through every trail, and sometimes we have to be content with having our way blocked. I ask for your patience and respect. Wonder all you want about what I might have shared, but please do not press me. I cannot say I have good reasons, but your way is blocked.
On August 25, 2006, most of the excitement in the Canyon area of Yellowstone had little to do with Christmas but with the grand opening of the new Canyon Visitor Education Center. Dignitaries and politicians showed up in droves to witness this historic event, the first new development of its kind in Canyon in many decades. As a student of history, you think I might have stayed. However, I see plenty of puffed up self importance in the town I live, Washington, D.C., and so I went on a hike into the backcountry instead. Later, I would go to the new center and educate myself by learning quite a bit about the Yellowstone supervolcano from geologist Bob Smith. While that was swell and while stuff left unsaid will stick with me even more, my trip into backcountry is the story I want to focus on here.
First, however, what brought me to Canyon on August 25 so that my stars would align with Yellowstone National Park, the Canyon area in particular, the opening of a brand new center, and all the oligarchs who come with that, on Christmas in Yellowstone no less?
I guess a lot of it was an accident. That is, it started with an accident. In October 2005, I broke my clavicle in a bicycle accident (head on at 20 mph with another bicycle) on the Memorial Bridge between the Lincoln Memorial and Arlington National Cemetery while trying to help organize a march in commemoration of all the dead Iraqis as well as the 2,000 dead U.S. soldiers. We were supposed to meet up with another event being held simultaneously by Cindy Sheehan, but that part of things never happened for me. This accident took me off my bike for the next 10 weeks, in essence blocking me from my main form of transportation (and a lot else besides). When I got back on the bike in January, I became obsessed with building my strength back to what it was prior to the accident. However, I had never been much of a person for self discipline. In March, a light bulb went on inside me. I asked myself whether it might be possible to take a trip to Yellowstone where I didn't bring a car and only biked and hiked. That inspired me to train like I have never trained before. Since that time, I have religiously done sit ups and push ups almost every day at increasingly growing difficulty. When I began, I could hardly do any, and the pain in my shoulder was still profound. Over time, I gained strength and now would easily score above the 100th percentile in both sit ups and push ups for any age class on the Army Physical Fitness Test. I also began biking longer and longer distances, doing so at times with all of my camping gear. In humid heat rising to the upper 90s, I once biked 98 miles with a touring bike and about 40 pounds of gear, albeit on the flatter paths of the Washington & Old Dominion bike trail in northern Virginia. This kind of training opened trails of possibility for me that had been closed by my accident. It wasn't that the accident was a direct cause of my training; it's ludicrous to say that something stuck in your path is the reason you got through something. However, in a world where the accident was a reality, it served as a point in the story that gave me focus for further inspiration.
As for the rest of it, that more or less was an accident. I chose to travel to Yellowstone in late August so that I could be there while it was still warm but at a time the crowds dramatically decreased. That allowed me no problem in finding camping spots, and it made the roads just a little less dangerous for me. During the trip, I took it relatively easy compared with my training regimen. While I ultimately biked more than 400 miles during the trip, I never biked more than 50 in a given day. I also hiked about 80 miles of trails during the period.
The mountain passes were a lot different than the meandering hills of metropolitan Washington, but I was ready for it. I was helped by a time of unusually good weather. It rarely rained during the entire trip. Luck had me in Canyon on August 25; if I had planned things differently, I might have organized it so that I could be in Grant Village for Christmas where I had worked for five summers. There, I could have maybe joined the employees as well as my old friend Jay Clayton--the only former co-worker still working in my store--for their holiday celebration. However, if I was going to see the whole park during that time while doing the kinds of hikes I wanted to do, it made more sense for me to be in the Canyon area during that stage of my trip. I did not know that a new visitor education center was going to open that day or that I'd be staring at Lee Whittlesey mere feet from me in the Canyon Lodge, a man whose histories on Yellowstone I have devoured (though I was too shy to introduce myself).
I had a hike planned, and so little was going to keep me from going on the hike. And, Whittlesey aside, I was not really impressed. It truly is what I can see on any day of the week. Tonight, George W. Bush is going to give a speech where he is expected to increase troop levels in Iraq. Outside of the White House, some protester friends of mine will be trying to create a disruption, especially with the mainstream media who will camp themselves outside the White House--though inside the gates--to give their impressions. Their noise may make it into your house like it did another time. A dozen of us sounded like 50 to NBC anchor Brian Williams, which became 500 in a report about the reporting by Washington Post style guru Tom Shales. What was happening in Canyon was much like the world of Washington I was already pretty disillusioned with, and so that was not going to stop me from going on my hike.
My hike, as the title suggests, was on the Mt. Washburn spur trail. Mt. Washburn is 10,243 feet high. Most people climb it on a relatively easy trail from the top of Dunraven Pass, and I had done so on at least three other occasions, once in the middle of the night. However, I had never taken the spur trail, which is much longer but passes by a number of backcountry thermals. The mountain was named after Montana Surveyor General Henry Dana Washburn, who was the leader of the famous 1870 Washburn Expedition that was the precursor to the Hayden Expedition of the next year, which led to the founding of Yellowstone National Park. From the top of Mt. Washburn, it feels like you can see forever. Even the Tetons over 70 miles away (in some cases further) are plainly visible on a clear day. Through the binoculars on top of Mt. Washburn, it looks like the forests of the Tetons are painted on the lens.
All of that description of Mt. Washburn is all well and good except I never made it anywhere near the top of Mt. Washburn on this day; I still left happy.
The first part of the trail for me began by the Glacial Boulder near Inspiration Point on the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. The previous day, I had also hiked along this trail as part of the Seven Mile Hole trail down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River. That was an astonishing hike that I'll never forget, slipping and sliding down the canyon where at one point only my catching a small lodgepole pine on my way down protected me from total disaster. However, I should describe that hike another time. This hike was far more subtle, and while I was on it, relatively flat. Exhausted from previous hikes, bike rides, and fighting with rocks all night under my tent, I chose to conserve energy as much as possible during the early part of the hike knowing that a climb up a mountain awaited me. It was a pleasant walk in the forest, with occasional views of the canyon and the 1,000 plus foot Silver Cord cascading into the canyon.
I was the only person on the trail.
The hike meanders along going up and down until finally breaking with the Seven Mile Hole trail near a secluded little meadow. The only thing that would break the silence of the trip was the extremely annoying sound of two fighter jets flying really low across the sky above me. These two jets had done the same thing the day before, a reminder that however isolated I felt in the wilds of Yellowstone, the world I had thought I left was still all too close. I refrained from flipping off the jets like I had the day before, but you can bet that I had some choice things to scream in those woods. And, who knows, maybe they were heard.
The sky became increasingly cloudy, not a good sign for a trip up a mountain known mostly for its view. The days before, the sky over Canyon had been very smoky. Smoke from nearby forest fires had blown miles over us, blocking out the sky while keeping the temperature relatively cool. However, today was different. The sky was not cloudy from smoke; it was just plain old cloudy. Nevertheless, weather changes quickly in Yellowstone, and I knew that it might just as well be sunny again in a matter of moments. In fact, at times, the sun would peak out through the clouds. While the extremes of the weather are always omnipresent in Yellowstone, the extremes are so erratic and unpredictable that I never make my plans based on what it looks like it might do. On sunny, hot days I carried rain gear. On days that threatened rain, I continued as though nothing interesting was going on. You get burned more often than not in Yellowstone, and I was definitely burnt as it was from the intensity of the sun in the thin mountain air.
Eventually, I began to walk by puddles of water, only they weren't puddles. The ground was alive with thermal activity. People are becoming more and more aware that Yellowstone sits on top of a magma chamber of one of the world's largest volcanoes, one that could destroy much of North America as we know it. This supervolcano, which was the subject of Bob Smith's lecture later that evening, sits under an area in the mountains that is rife with earthquakes. These mountains are right at a spot which is the source of many of the major rivers of both the eastern and western United States. It is perhaps the coldest spot in the United States outside of Alaska. The ice, the water, the earthquakes, and the heat produce the thermal wonders of Yellowstone, which houses more than 10,000 such features, more than half of the thermal features that exist on Earth. Millions of people every year see Old Faithful; however, Yellowstone has thermal features that are nestled throughout its backcountry. Some never get seen. Others get seen by an adventurous few. The thermals I was seeing on the Mt. Washburn spur trail are probably seen by a couple thousand people each year, and as I already mentioned, I was the only person on the trail this day.
These thermals are known as the Washburn Hot Springs. Wow, they sure are acidic and violent. I was stunned and even a little scared to be standing next to them. Acidic thermal features will bubble and belch at temperatures much lower than boiling, but they are hot nonetheless. The backcountry trails through these thermal areas is not always well defined. You do not have a boardwalk here, but that does not mean the crust of the earth is any more stable. At times, you have to ford a small stream of water from thermal run off. The thermals were not necessarily photogenic, but they stunned me all the same. The color of the water in many places was black. In the quiet hills, meadows, and woods nearby, except for those fighter jets, one would not have imagined a world of such violence so near at hand. Moments before I had faced one of my fears by crossing a river with a log strewn over it (having fallen off such a log as a child in cold November waters), but that was nothing compared with this. If the hike were to end now, I was happy that I had seen these thermals. My past trips up Mt. Washburn had not been quite so amazing. Going up Mt. Washburn from Dunraven Pass is no special feat; the trail is an old road wide enough for many people to walk side-by-side. Back in 1993, I had no idea that there were these peculiar thermals nestled in the nearby woods. You can catch a glimpse of some of the thermals from the Dunraven Pass road, but a glimpse does not really make for an experience. As has been often the case in Yellowstone, I felt uniquely fortunate.
After a short while, I continued on with my hike believing that I was soon to start climbing. Not far from the thermals, I noticed what looked like a giant horse hoof print in the dirt. I thought that that was strange because I had not remembered seeing any evidence of horses prior to that. I was hoping I would not come up on any horses, but I did not think much of it beyond that. Not more than a minute later, I was stunned to see in front of me about 15 yards away not a horse but a cow moose standing right on the trail.
In 1993, I probably would have kept walking, not thinking anything of it, happy to see a moose. However, in 2006, I knew better. I became quite frightened. Whenever I go to Yellowstone, someone inevitably annoys me by telling me to watch out for bears. Bear incidents are rare anymore and were never nearly as bad as anyone made them out to be. Yet, a moose is something else altogether. The first night of my trip I had been playing hackeysack with some guys in Jackson, and they were relating hiking experiences. All of them unanimously expressed their fear of moose on the trail.
Why are moose so scary? Moose do not think twice about charging and beating you with their hooves. Unlike elk or deer, they are not likely to run away. Unlike bears, they are not necessarily likely to back off if you start backing off. While a moose is not likely to kill you, a moose can seriously hurt you. On a day when I was hiking in the woods by myself on a trail that had no one else on it, one could not be so sure whether the injury from this moose might not have been fatal.
While frightened, I did not panic and even managed to let out a small laugh at my predicament. What I did was step off the trail, while continuing to look at the moose, moving behind one of many nearby trees. Later, I discovered that that was exactly the right thing to do. Since moose have somewhat awkward bodies, they are not especially agile at cutting around corners. The tree gave me some hope of escaping a charging moose. For the next five minutes, I continued my stare off with the moose, wondering if she would leave the trail.
Then, I got really scared because out of the woods what looked like an adolescent moose came to join his/her mother. The young moose made a very endearing sound and rubbed up against the mother who continued to stare at me. I knew that I was in potential trouble now. Not only did the two moose not move, I was now upon a mother protecting her young. My hike was definitely over; my trail was blocked. Later on the trip I would learn that the young moose was probably no more than 2 months old even though she/he had grown so much. This was still a baby. Gradually, stepping backward and protected by trees, I made my way back to Washburn Hot Springs. I stopped to notice the hoof print from before. That was the print of a moose for sure. I retreated to the Washburn Hot Springs for awhile and was quite happy about my experience.
It made me feel good to know that I could go on a hike, not have it go according to plan, not reach my goal, and yet still find myself quite content with the outcome. I had very little reason to be on that trail; for the two moose, it was a matter of survival. To have come out of the experience safe and refreshed was more than enough. Having seen the Washburn Hot Springs was plenty astonishing for a day. Thus, while the trail beyond might have been more impressive, I felt wonderful knowing that I didn't need to find out. When I first went up Mt. Washburn in 1993, I came back down taking switchbacks, thus helping to erode a mountainside that had already suffered enough abuse. Now, in 2006, in a moment that tested my own sense of right and wrong, I was not only able to turn back when the moose stopped my hike, but also I felt like my hike was perhaps more worthwhile because of it.
Back in Washington, D.C., in October 2003, during a time my life where just about everything possible went wrong, I was mugged about 6 blocks from my home in the Capitol Hill area, ironically seconds after reading a chapter of Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine where a woman was afraid she was being followed. During that experience, I did not panic. Those who mugged me did not hurt me, took some meaningless things from me, and ran off never to be caught. However, that night they failed to take away what had been a rare nice evening during a very difficult time. I felt empowered by my reaction to that event and felt a sense of pity toward the two men who robbed me. I hope like the moose needed the trail that they needed what they got more than I did. Perhaps, that night was preparation. And, while in some sense on this trail, I was the invader, my experience was no less empowering because I did not feel a need to assert my domination over the situation. Empowerment is not always squelched by our obstacles. It sounds like a particularly stupid bit of advice that people often give, but I think we still often forget it. Things go wrong; some of those things can't be ignored. We should not pretend that they are somehow good things or expect people to be positive about experiences which are often very detrimental. I simply had my trail blocked by a moose; I got mugged but wasn't hurt. Others are raped, beaten, and murdered. Others have their countries destroyed first by mad dictators and then by forces like the United States military that claim they are only coming in to help. People get AIDS, die of cancer, live hungry and without shelter on the streets of our cities. Others suffer the humiliation of racial discrimination. Others have to live with all kinds of disabilities. What I'm talking about is truly small, extremely small. It would be presumptuous of anyone to say that people should just turn back and feel good about their situation based on a couple incidents where I was able to do so. Nevertheless, in the worst of situations, some others have found strength to be empowered, and I must imagine those people happier as a result. Whether we are in a position to do something positive in a situation with a great roadblock is deeply personal and dependent on the situation, but if we in any way can do something satisfying in the face of an obstacle, we should. It does not mean we should or can always remove the obstacle; it does not mean that the obstacle was somehow always as good a thing as moose on a trail are; but it does not also always mean that we have reached the end of our exploration just because one trail is closed for us.
As it turned out, I probably missed little by turning back. As soon as I returned back to my bike by the Glacial Boulder, I endured one of the very few rains I would encounter on the entire trip. There would have been no view from Mt. Washburn. It would rain for the next couple of hours. It also set the stage for the rest of my day, some of which will remain blocked from your view. At least in this particular tale, it will. One day, I may make it up Mt. Washburn via the spur trail, and on another day, you may get the rest of the story.
That takes us part way along the path of my "Christmas" in Yellowstone. I don't know if it is very satisfying; my life is hardly as astonishing as the Washburn Hot Springs. However, I'm also just as sure I haven't wasted enough of your time so that you couldn't recover.
For more on Jim and Yellowstone, including political essays and news, see The Magic of Yellowstone.