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By Staff | Jun 4, 2010

Drive west and the corn and soybeans gradually give way to wheat and milo, which gives way to rangeland and cattle, which gives way to sagebrush and the occasional bug-eyed antelope. Keep going and you’ll eventually find an area where it appears that hell hath boiled over.

Welcome to the caldera of the supervolcano known as Yellowstone.

My wife and I recently completed an expedition to Yellowstone. Why? “Because we’re adventuresome” or “we like to learn new things” would be good answers, but the truth is, I was inspired by the Yogi Bear cartoons I watched as a kid.

After successfully white-knuckling our way through two mountain ranges, we finally arrived at Yellowstone. As we neared Lake Yellowstone, my wife wrinkled her nose and shot me a look. “It wasn’t me!” I protested.

For once it wasn’t. The park’s volcanism causes many areas to have a decidedly sulfuric odor. In essence, Yellowstone smells farty.

It’s also a land of steam and snow. At the end of May snow still lay thick in the high country while steam rose from the shores of frozen Lake Yellowstone.

Steam pours from random openings in the earth, as if someone is running a humungous underground clothes dryer. These features are called fumaroles, from the Latin “fuma” meaning “really stinky” and “role”, which means “hole in the ground.”

There are also geysers. More than half of the planet’s geysers are in Yellowstone, including perhaps the most famous of them all, Old Faithful.

We drove up to the Old Faithful site, which is highly civilized, containing top-notch hotels, paved roads, T-shirt vendors and so on. A piece of road had been recently upgraded and steam rose from the new road cut.

Old Faithful blows its top roughly every 90 minutes. We had time, so we hung out on the benches thoughtfully provided by the Park Service.

We heard voices from all over the world. People were speaking French, Russian, Italian. I chatted with folks who had come from Germany and saw others who were from India and the Orient. It was as if the U.N. had convened in the midst of this steamy, farty wilderness.

Old Faithful doesn’t go off with a bang. Its eruption builds slowly, in fits and starts, huffing and chuffing and tossing out puffs of steam like a balky locomotive. As with many anticipated events, it was over all too soon.

Strolling from the viewing area, I was stopped by an elderly New York gentleman who asked if he’d missed the eruption. I said it had just finished.

“Was it worth it?” asked the old guy. I said it was. And besides, how many times do you get to sit and watch a scheduled geyser? He decided to hang around for the next eruption, so I guess you could say I sent the geezer to the geyser.

We decided to motor around the park and see what else we could see. Wildlife, especially bears, was high on our list.

It wasn’t long before we encountered a herd of bison. The buffalo lumbered unhurriedly across the road as if they owned it. No one seemed willing to challenge this perception.

A cluster of cars at the roadside marked the site of several grazing elk. These animals were so accustomed to being photographed, I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a tourist pose with his arm around an elk’s neck.

We soon became expert at spotting wildlife. The main spoor we followed was clumps of cars at the roadside. Another useful sign was photographers who had miniature Hubble telescopes bolted to their cameras.

We stopped at one such cluster and were treated to the sight of a lone wolf loping along in the distance.

I spoke to the guy next to me who turned out to be Mike Hassell, a volunteer ranger at the park. I asked him about the wolf population at Yellowstone.

“We have eight packs and about 120 wolves,” he said. “That’s down from a total of about 300 some years ago. Before the wolves were reintroduced, the park had 14,000 elk; it now has 10,000. The slow and the stupid elk are no longer with us.”

Hiking up to the yawning crater that’s known as Excelsior Geyser, my glasses suddenly fogged over. And no, it had nothing to do with the fact that I was walking briskly uphill at 8,000 feet altitude. A cloud of steam had billowed over me, exposing me directly to the heat of Earth’s beating heart. I now know how it feels to be a steamed carrot.

We never did see any bears, which was a huge disappointment. They must have been out in the woods, doing whatever it is that bears do in the forest.

My guess is that they were enjoying “pic-a-nic” baskets.

Nelson is a freelance writer from Volga, S.D. Reach him by e-mail at jjpcnels@itctel.com.

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