YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK – Rain, then marble-sized hail pelted the silver surface of Slough Creek, water splashing into the cool mountain air.
I hid under two fir trees that had grown close together.
This was the second storm of the day, and I’d already changed out of my wet clothes to dry ones that were now in danger of also getting soaked.
How long would this downpour last?
I eyed the nearby metal bear boxes, used to store food and coolers in campgrounds, as a possible dry spot to wait out the storm. What if the wind blew the doors shut and I was stuck? That would be embarrassing, or possibly fatal if the sun came out. A self-induced sweat box.
The nearby latrine was another possible dry spot, but who wants to hide in an outhouse? Better to get wet.
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So I stood tall, with my back to the tree and camera sheltered under my jacket, letting the hail pellets bounce off my shoulders. My Achilles tendon, sore from an earlier hike, kept urging me to sit down, but then more of me would be exposed to the downpour. Better to ache.
It was hard to be happy for the much-needed moisture. I felt selfish for cursing the storm as thunder rumbled up the valley, amplified metallically by the surrounding granite cliffs.
The air was tainted with the campfire smell of wildfire smoke that drifted into the mountains overnight, providing a gauzy appearance to distant views and charring my throat as I hiked. Walking back to the car through a field, the sharp, welcome smell of freshly wetted sage greeted my nostrils.
Despite the storm and sore tendon, Thursday, Sept. 8, 2022, was another perfect day in the nation’s first national park.
It’s hard to imagine what would constitute a bad day in Yellowstone, possibly a grizzly mauling or bison goring. But those are relatively rare, and often self-inflicted. For the most part, even on sub-zero cold winter days, Yellowstone is a wild wonder to behold, as unique, beautiful and ever-changing as a child’s expressions.
For me, growing up with Yellowstone as a neighbor, the park is also an old friend. I’ve played in, worked, lived in and visited the park for six decades. I even met my wife there.
The landscape and its inhabitants are always good to reconnect with, no matter how long we’ve been separated. “Hello old mountain, in your gray, green and beige suit,” I say to myself, thinking of the story “Goodnight Moon” I used to read and reread to my children. “Good morning Lamar River, ever churning, your rushing hiss music for my spirit.”
The day’s other music came from Yellowstone’s wildlife. A bugling, six-point bull elk stalked his harem around old Fort Yellowstone’s grounds, challenging megaphoned park rangers to herd curious tourist to safe distances. The elk bugle is unlike most other sounds in the wild, one my colleague said would sound like a banshee if you didn’t know where it was coming from.
Down the road near the Wraith Falls trailhead, bunches of bison grazed as bellowing bulls paced among the females looking for mates. Bellow doesn’t really do the bull’s sound justice. It’s closer to an African lion’s roar, deep and threatening, especially given the size of the bulls. One bull raked his horns threateningly on a pine tree, showing off for nearby females like a chiseled WWF wrestler before jumping into the ring.
The piercing cry of an osprey and then a hawk offered the day’s other pleasant melodies as they circled overhead.
Leaving the park I always feel physically exhausted – feet aching, lower back sore – but spiritually rejuvenated and light-hearted. It’s a strange mixture, a Yellowstone yin and yang. I can’t wait to return to discover what new things, and old, Yellowstone will reveal next.