When I was a high school kid living in Denver, my father had a federal job inspecting the new, huge strip mines that were then tearing into the ancient coal beds of western Colorado, North Dakota, Montana and Wyoming. While I stayed with my mother in the Denver suburbs, Dad would drive off in his government-issued Fury III and be gone for a week or more at a time, living in motels in places like Dickinson, North Dakota, and Craig, Colorado, and eating his way through his per diem food allowance, courtesy of the U.S. Department of Interior.
On one of his trips he picked up an extra copy of a Wyoming road map, compliments of Texaco, and handed it to me when he got back to Denver.
“Study this map, son,” he told me. “It might come in handy someday.”
I still have that map, a 1959 work of art, minted by the H.M. Gousha Company of Chicago. It came in handy.
Throughout his years of traveling the West – and the travels increased in scope as the coal industry rapidly expanded operations – my father became particularly smitten with Wyoming. “A small town with long streets” is what Wyomingites called their state, and I think my dad really tuned into that idea. Wyoming, in his mind, was still The West, a land of wide-open spaces and big-hearted people, where a handshake was a contract and a rancher would let an urban deer hunter onto his property without a fee, as long as that hunter presented himself honestly and forthrightly and knew to close the gates. In Dad’s mind, Wyoming still held an abundance of what other Western states were losing fast. His handing me that road map was his way of granting permission for me to explore. And explore I did.
By the time I finished college in the early 1970s, I was already a veteran of Wyoming’s “long streets.” I knew to take the back roads and visit interesting little spots like Elk Mountain and Story, Shell Canyon, Atlantic City, and Buffalo. Mostly what I knew through personal discovery, summer after precious summer, was that Wyoming’s northwest quarter is perhaps the most magical landscape in the Lower 48. Everybody knew about Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons, of course, and I did too. But I also knew places that mostly native Wyomingites visited then – this being the largely pre-motor home era, when the word Winnebago still meant something vaguely Indian. I knew about the Gros Ventre Range and the Washakie Needles; I had caught cutthroats in the Upper Green River and gone swimming with the chartreuse and purple dace that inhabit the Kendall Warm Springs. I had entered the Wind River Range and its Jim Bridger Wilderness from five different entrances over five different summers. I was an avid backpacker then, and I saved my grandest trips, my hundred-plus milers, for the mountains of northwest Wyoming.
I didn’t much discover the magical lands off the northeastern corner of Yellowstone until several years out of college. The truth is that grizzly bears have always scared me. I grew up around predators and omnivores; black bears never much put me off, and the occasional rumor of a cougar nearby tended to give me a thrill. But there was something about Ursus arctos horribilis that warned me away. Certainly, that Latin name didn’t help. For many years I had been padding around the edges of griz habitat, but only rarely had I been willing to pitch my tent within the domain of the scratch-bark pine. I wished the silvertip bears no harm, mind you – in fact, I was so much in favor of their recovering lost habitat, I used it as a cover for my fear. I somehow felt that people just didn’t belong where these bears lived, in the few paltry spaces we moderns had finally left to them. I think at some level I felt that any guy who dared audaciously to hike and camp deep in griz territory had it coming. I didn’t want to be that guy.
But somehow the lure of the wild – the wildest of the wild – continued to beckon, and I soon found myself planning a trip deep into the Clarks Fork River basin. My hiker’s investigations turned up North Crandall Creek, a Clarks Fork tributary, as my next backpacker hot spot. My work that summer held me off until mid-September; then I packed my old Ford pickup and headed toward Cody and the Bighorn Basin. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I may have been calculating a murky, barely conscious plan to lose my fear by confronting it. As we middle-agers now know, that’s normally a bad idea.
A U.S. Forest Service ranger station happened to stand near the spot where the trailhead began. Hikers were instructed not only to sign the trail register but also to check in with the ranger to learn about recent trail and hiking conditions. My hiking companion and I dutifully obeyed. It was a mistake. The ranger soberly reported that only a day earlier, a couple coming out after a week’s trip had accidentally trodden between a grizzly sow and her cub, somewhere in the vicinity of the Tepee Creek and North Crandall confluence. The bear had charged, knocking the woman to the ground without serious injury but with a serious rearrangement of human consciousness. The woman and her partner had made their way the final six or seven miles and had arrived blubbering and incoherent on the ranger’s doorstep. Other than that, they had had a wonderful trip.
Then the ranger did something that I do not think would be possible today. He urged us to go ahead with our hike, “but just be real careful when you get to Tepee Creek.” He also pointed out that elk season was well under way – a fact that explained the several truck-and-horse trailer rigs parked in the lot at the trailhead. There were no other vehicles.
“You’ll want to keep an eye out for the hunters, too,” the ranger said. “You don’t happen to have any blaze orange with you, do you?”
I would have loved to have possessed then the kind of book you are now holding in your hands, Bob Carson’s geological paean to the magnificent country east of Yellowstone, because my first trip into the gorgeousness of the upper Clarks Fork River basin was aborted halfway through.
We did take the ranger’s advice. Having driven all that distance along the mostly blue highways of my Texaco map, we were not about to turn back or in any sense chicken out. Instead, we spent the next six nights wide awake in our tent, hearing thousands of tiny sounds that perhaps did not exist. We heard human voices in the rushing stream waters; we heard twigs cracking all around; we heard snorts and barks and woofs of a most disconcerting variety. We heard drunken elk hunters howling at the moon. And once we heard something terrifyingly animal and real. A small herd of elk passed a few paces from our camp and elected to cross the stream just below us. If I close my eyes and concentrate today, I can still hear the underwater clatter of rocks against their hooves and the excited yelps of the youngest calves who must have felt there in the dark, as we did, that their lives were about to end.
After a week of what was supposed to be a two-week trip, we emerged haggard and exhausted. In our absence, the ranger had closed the station for the season, so we had no one to advise us on interesting places to see – from the highway – in the time we had before needing to return home. We had nothing left to do but drive home, chastened and unenlightened. We had no guidebook to enlighten us on the fabulous country all around us. All we had was the scenery, gorgeous but devoid. Scenery without knowledge is merely empty landscape. Thus, we fled, embarrassed and appalled at ourselves, and spent the next week drinking beer and watching TV, including a lot of college football, which was then wisely limited to Saturdays.
If I had had Bob Carson’s book, the whole affair might have ended well. Start with the language alone.
Geologists use the most interesting vocabulary in all of science, for much like the sense of time encompassed in the geological imagination, the very terms geologists use routinely span eons of imaginative human experience. As Professor Carson reminds us, plutonic rocks are those that arise from the earth’s greatest depths, the realm of Pluto, god of the underworld. So here we start with deep mythology and drag it to the surface with our lips. But there is more.
A nunatak is a lonely peak among the Inupiat; but we find lonely peaks in Wyoming too, which may be the best reason for going there. Add to that the image of those plutonic monoliths rising above the ocean of continental ice in the late Pleistocene, and you have something truly wonderful to contemplate – something not even a grizzly bear can scare away.
The very idea of molten rock can appeal to anyone; the idea that we live on a planet with a skin so hard and cold and a belly so mushy and hot is simply a delicious notion. As far as we know, no other animal thinks this way. The andesites and granites and sandstones and shales here photographed by Duane Scroggins and Bob Carson can stop us in our tracks as we ponder the soft origins of all that rugged hardness.
The vestigial poet in all of us can thrill to the sheer music of geological description. Cemented grains of quartz. Lithologies of shale and limestone. The intriguing and beautiful word feldspar. The difficult word jökulhlaup. Intrusion and extrusion; the complex origins of simple dirt. And then we say lahars aloud as we read, an act as spontaneous as a volcanic eruption; and then we say stratovolcano and a massive pointed peak appears in our mind’s eye, a smoking gun hinting at the re-enactment of cosmic crimes so vast we can scarcely imagine. Where else can one find such things except as they tumble like debris flows from the minds of geologists?
But the best thing to do with a book like this one is to carry it along on your own investigations of the land east of Yellowstone. In my travels there in the 1970s, I did not possess a vocabulary that included the term, “Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem,” nor had our Western environmental politics yet devolved to the point where such a term would be considered dangerous or ugly, a kind of green profanity. We reached that nadir in the ’80s, when the West’s political polarities had become fixed; the rock had hardened if not cooled. As to the citizenry, all of whom professed a deep and genuine love for the landscapes of the West, the paleos now stood brow-to-brow against the neos – old-timer vs. newcomer – much in the way that the Absaroka Mountains and the Beartooths stand and stare at each other today. Those 3 billion-year-old ’Tooths must think ill of the upstart Absarokees, who weigh in at a mere 50-something – 50 million-year-old something, that is. Placed in a geological context of time and space, our daily debates seem so Lilliputian as to be absurd. What’s not simply to adore in the canyon of the Clarks Fork River? Congress apparently came to its senses and agreed in 1990 when it designated a scant 20.5 miles of cloven rock and the water that cleaved it “wild and scenic.” At least that’ll keep the trophy homes off the rims. Perhaps even the Absarokas would approve.
I’m planning a trip of my own after examining this book. I now not only want but need to see Heart Mountain again. I want to drive slowly down State Highway 296, the Chief Joseph Scenic Highway, and behold the Heart as it draws nearer to my own. At the intersection with Highway 120, I’ll turn south toward Cody, and in a few miles I’ll stop the car and maybe have lunch along the road. I’ll chew slowly and sip a cold soda and try to imagine, as I stare at that lone mountain to the north, a mass of rock more than a thousand square miles in extent somehow sliding – skidding? rocketing? shooting? – thirty miles to the east, to end up where we see it today. As I learned from this book, geologists call that extravagant event – perhaps the largest landslide in the Earth’s history – the Heart Mountain detachment. It happened 50 million years ago, apparently the result of a quarrel – a quarrel among rocks so severe that a stone sibling the size of some American counties was suddenly ejected from the mother-fold and hurled across space at a velocity that may have exceeded the speed of a modern jetliner. Today’s Heart Mountain, a small chunk of the original detachment, stands alone, like a limestone tooth knocked from the jaw of its Absarokan mama.
I suppose that mostly what I’ll end up contemplating, as I ruminate slowly like a cow and stare uncomprehendingly at the detached peak, will be the geological imagination itself. These rock-folk see things I don’t see, but I’m surely glad we share enough of a vocabulary that I can at least obtain a glimpse into lithic expressions more dazzling even than our greatest ancient mythologies.
For the more time-bound mortals among us – people like myself – I would add only one final note from an historical imagination, enthralled by more recent time, to what I hope will be your satisfying travels through the lands east of Yellowstone.
The naming of the Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone occurred amid a spate of confusion. It happened during the rapid return trip of the Corps of Discovery during a period of several weeks when Captains Lewis and Clark had split the expedition into five groups. The small party led by Clark had crossed over Bozeman Pass for the purpose of exploring the Yellowstone as they followed it all the way to its confluence with the Missouri where the parties were to reunite. The Clark assembly, which included Sacajawea along with her husband Charbonneau and infant Jean Baptiste (aka “Pomp”), were delighted to find the Yellowstone easily but were less delighted at the condition of the river – swollen with snowmelt in mid-July and running too fast to risk floating it in the tiny “bull boats” they planned to build, using buffalo skins and willow sticks, until they could find trees mighty enough to craft large, safe canoes. The Clark party traveled on horseback until they encountered massive cottonwoods along the river near the present-day town of Park City, Montana. Clark and his small party set camp and proceeded to find two trees of sufficient size to make a pair of canoes 28 feet in length. It took the men only three days to craft the boats, using the burn-out method the captains had learned from the Nez Perce on Idaho’s Clearwater River a year earlier.
On the morning of July 24, 1806, the Clark party christened their canoes, lashing them together for greater safety against the frothing river. In less than a mile they encountered a broad tributary entering from the south. Clark took this river to be the Bighorn, which the captains had learned about from their winter with the Mandans in early 1805. The redheaded captain described the tributary as “150 yards wide at it’s (sic) Mouth … water of a light Muddy Color and much Colder than that of the Rochejhone” [his name for the Yellowstone, or Roche Jaune as he had heard it called in French] (Moulton 1993, 217). Ninety miles later, Clark realized his mistake when his party encountered the real Bighorn, a branch nearly as wide as the Rochejhone itself. In his correction later recorded by Nicolas Biddle, Clark noted in hindsight that he had also been informed of the existence of the Clarks Fork Yellowstone, noting that “The Indians call this [smaller river and its outwash plain] ‘The lodge where all danc (sic) (Moulton 1993, 217).’ ”
The Clark journal here lapses into a moment of ambiguity when the captain modestly notes that the “all danc” river had now been dubbed, apparently in hindsight, “Clarks fork.” It is not clear which member of the party named it for the captain.
And so we travel, still, in mystery through the vast and gorgeous terrains that slope away from the Yellowstone Plateau. Yellowstone remains indeed what geologists call a “hot spot,” vague in outline and shrouded in the smoke of wildfires and the rich vapors emanating from its geyser basins and fumaroles. We can never know these lands completely, and perhaps that’s a good thing. Long live mystery. Long live the search.
Senior Lecturer, Environmental Studies Program,
Moulton, Gary E., ed. 1993. The Journals of the Lewis & Clark Expedition: June 10 – September 26, 1806, V. 8.Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press.