You wouldn’t know it from the headlines, but not everyone is having a bad year. The bison are calving in Yellowstone National Park’s Lamar Valley — unmolested, for the first time in decades, by nosy bipeds holding expensive cameras to their faces. Glacier lilies are blanketing the meadows, boldly popping up in yellow tufts where people would have otherwise trod.
Even in the highlands, where it can snow on any given day in any given month, the animals have all left their burrows to enjoy the brief but glorious summer. The black bears and grizzlies lumber down from the mountains, looking for the elk and bison that didn’t survive the snows. Winter culls out the oldest ungulates, and they in turn pass their stored energy to the predators and their broods.
As we’ve sheltered in place, the rest of the biosphere has been coming out to enjoy our absence. Carbon emissions are down an unprecedented 17 percent; Venetians can actually see fish swimming in the canals.
I generally go to the mountains in the summer. I’m a Westerner by birthright, but got trapped in Boston by circumstance. I have no complaints, at least until the summer comes along and my heart seeks a higher elevation. We have mountains here too, of course, but it’s a wizened, worn-down topography, their vistas long since eroded by wind and rain. I grew up hiking in the Cascade Range of Oregon and Washington, where you can spend days above the tree line and the trout are wild and plump.
Despite a growing population and continued development, the West retains its austere charms, from the painted canyons of the Southwest to the glacial cathedrals of Montana’s Lewis Range. Even among these riches Yellowstone is a crown jewel, a giant caldera formed by some of the largest volcanic explosions in history. The result is a collection of wonders both natural and seemingly supernatural. I have waded cold water streams that boil like witch’s pots and crossed meadows dotted with wolves and elk and bears and pronghorns. There’s a reason they call it the American Serengeti.
Last summer I spent 10 days in the Yellowstone backcountry of Wyoming and given my druthers I would like to return this year, though that now seems unlikely. The park staged a partial opening on May 18, and most of the lodges, campgrounds, and hotels will open in mid-June. The situation, however, could change quickly if a new outbreak occurs.
Pandemics were far from my mind as I set off on the Hellroaring Creek trail last summer. Only a small percentage of the park’s annual 4 million visitors will spend the night in the backcountry, and the disparity between the perpetually crowded roads and the comparatively empty hiking trails is immediately evident. My first few days are spent in virtual isolation, interrupted only by a great horned owl that seems to watch me skeptically as I eat my evening meals, and, from time to time, the headlights I glimpse across the Yellowstone River valley as I drift off to sleep.
I’m awakened in the middle of the night by a great crashing sound. I sit up and feel for my legs, convinced a tree has fallen over me, but then it comes again, a great ripping noise on the heels of an impossibly bright light. For nearly an hour I close my eyes against the lightning. A lashing rain threatens to rip the tent from the ground, but it survives the storm. It occurs to me that at this elevation, you’re not under an electrical storm, but in it. A ranger later tells me that lightning started a few forest fires near my camp that night.
A few mild existential threats are what makes the Yellowstone backcountry thrilling — and edifying, in their way: Mild when set against a global pandemic, but real enough when you’re picking your way over elk carcasses laying close by the hiking trails. It’s a reminder that you are a spectator here — everyone else is either in the process of eating or being eaten.
When I was 21, I took a semester off from college to hike a portion of the Pacific Crest Trail. For three months I picked my way around the great volcanic cones of the Cascade Mountains. Some days I’d mostly read and fish, but on others I thought nothing of a 20- or 25-mile hike when I needed to meet a relative with the next food drop.
I am stunned to find, around my third day, that my body is no longer an ally, but an obstacle. A quarter-century of soft living has rendered me unfit for carrying a 50-pound bag over miles of rocky terrain. I am still several miles from my site when the toes on my left foot transform into a tangled mess of blisters. I slow to a shuffling gait, and finally hobble into my campsite by Slough Creek as the sun is beginning to drop behind the Absaroka Mountains.
After climbing up through a canyon, the trail drops down into a valley of perfect proportions. More rainstorms are whipping up from the lowlands, and as the cumulus clouds scud their way north, a double-rainbow frames the vista. I slump my pack to the ground. It is a testament to Yellowstone’s natural beauty that the throbbing pain from my left foot cannot detract from a sense of profound awe. As I cook a dinner of freeze-dried chicken tikka masala and put up my tent, a pair of pterodactyls seems to be calling each other from across the valley. These turn out to be sandhill cranes, but anyone who has heard their prehistoric cries or seen their silhouettes in flight will recognize my mistake. There may be someone else camped along Slough Creek that night, but I feel as alone as if I have set foot in the Jurassic.
Over the next few days I mostly stay put in this American paradise, spending my days exploring deeply wooded sections of Slough Creek for cutthroat trout that have lived here, more or less undisturbed, since the last ice age. New blisters form over the old ones, and I’m able to shoulder my pack in time to hike back out to my car.
You don’t get such experiences from the road, of course. About midway through my trip I come out of the woods and drive down to the south entrance to meet up with my friend Kent, who will spend the last five nights backpacking with me. Kent is as avid a fly-fisher as I am, and over the next few days we’ll catch and release a few hundred fish each. Yellowstone hasn’t allowed stocking in the park since the 1950s, and while non-native species remain, they are all wild and abundant.
At one point we get stuck in a 30-minute traffic jam behind overstuffed RVs hauling jet skis and other appendages. These drive-through visitors have stopped to watch a herd of bison trundle across Soda Butte Creek. Eventually I weave through the stopped traffic to a parking lot, and 15 minutes later we’re in the same herd. Up close, the bison are even more formidable than they seem in the postcards — their manes are dirty and ragged, their collective grunting like a thousand men snoring. More people are injured in Yellowstone by bison than will ever be threatened by grizzly bears, and we carefully skirt the herd on the way to that night’s campsite.
We spend the better part of a week without seeing more than a handful of humans. We spend one night slowly paddling a couple of float tubes around one of the most remote lakes in the lower 48, casting dry flies under the bright light of a full moon. I take Kent back to Slough Creek and we explore a canyon which may not see another fly rod all year. On our last day we have to bushwhack our way through grizzly country in the dying light — another mild, but very real existential thrill.
After nine nights sleeping on the ground, I’m ready to go. At 48, I’m a mountain man in spirit, but not in body. But the memories are indelible: To catch my flight out of Bozeman, Montana, we wake at 4 a.m. on the last morning and hike 6 miles out in the pitch black. As we come over the last rise on the trail back to my car, we spot a wolf trotting slowly uphill. He’s heard our lumbering steps, surely a foreign and clumsy sound, and is making his way into a stand of trees to wait us out. I look for him when I come level to the trees a few minutes later, but see nothing.
John Muir, Scottish-born father of the American conservation movement, once said that he went into the wild to “learn the news,” because, he lamented, “I am learning nothing in this trivial world of men.” We might not, very many of us, get to the woods this summer. But it is nice to know that somewhere, at least, the news is good.
I’ll probably settle for more local destinations this summer, but that’s OK. Yellowstone doesn’t need me, or any of us. And that’s the great promise of the wild — that there is life, abundant and exuberant, that predates us and will survive long after the pandemic, and our species itself, has passed.
Jeff Howe is an associate professor of journalism at Northeastern University and the author of two books, neither one of which address fly-fishing. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
MORE ABOUT YELLOWSTONE
Getting to the park
The National Park Service is charting this summer’s tricky waters as cautiously as possible. On May 18, Yellowstone National Park opened two of its four entry points — the south and east entrances — providing access to two of the most popular destinations: Old Faithful and the Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River.
Most visitors will choose to fly into either Jackson, Wyoming, to the south of the park, or Bozeman, Montana, to the north. The park is about an hour and 15 minute drive from either city, and both offer a wide selection of hotels and other amenities. Please note that if the north entrance stays closed, you’ll be in for a long drive from Bozeman.
Before Yellowstone was a park, it was a tall tale. The Lewis and Clark expedition came within a few days’ horse ride of the park. William Clark left a tantalizing clue in his journals: The Yellowstone River, he wrote, went over “a considerable fall” high in the mountains, which was surely a reference to the dramatic set of waterfalls by which the river enters the 1,000-foot-deep Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.
Over time, other mysterious reports of yellow rocks and mountains of glass began filtering into the saloons and trading posts of the Montana territory, but the first organized survey of the park was not made until 1869.
The traditional creation myth of Yellowstone tells of a campfire conversation one night among members of an 1870 expedition. It’s said the men fell to talking about how the wonders they had seen might be protected from the ravaging development that was already driving the bison and the Native Americans from the land. One proposed a kind of “national park,” and the idea percolated in time to the nation’s capital. Two years later, President Ulysses S. Grant made it so, and what the writer Wallace Stegner later called “the best idea we ever had” came to fruition.