I sleep late this morning, awakening at 6:30AM. I stick my head out the front door. Mmm! The air smells so nice! And it’s wonderfully cold. I look at the Lake, visible at the end of my little street of cabins, sparkling in the clear morning. I smile at how lucky I am to be here and see it.
I head over to the Hotel to check out and as I pass Tim‘s parked camper I knock on the wall with a cheery “Good Morning!“
My mission today is to get to Artists Paint Pots by 9:30AM to meet Loons for another backcountry geyser hike so off I go into the beautiful morning. The drive is nice despite the abundance of pot-holes. The forest is thick here and many birds are flitting this way and that, some extra-fat robins and some pretty little grey and white birds, too. As I near the area that I will always associate with Cathy W‘s surfing bear I see a great blue heron on the shore, long pointed head poised over the water, a statue of avian grace.
Although traffic is not heavy, a bit further on I notice a distinct lack of oncoming cars. And soon I see the “stop” sign and the orange-vested construction worker. I have left plenty of time for delays like this, and I’ve got a view of the sparkling river through the trees on my right. I use the time to tend to my budding blisters from yesterday. And just as I finish that job, the pilot car appears, trailing its obedient fleet.
Then off I go through the open sections of Hayden Valley, past our two trailheads from yesterday. There are many less bison to see than is usual but I suppose the ongoing construction is why. There is a bull-elk jam on the hill below the horse corrals and several small bison jams where the great beasts are chomping close to the road. I make the turn at Canyon and cruise up the hill over to Norris.
Then I head south toward Madison. I can’t remember exactly where the Artists Paint Pots are so I go slowly, enjoying these new views of Yellowstone, and secretly hoping for wolf sightings! I find the parking lot with no trouble, pick a spot and begin to get my pack ready. In no time at all Loons begin to arrive. KenD, Dan M and Dani, Mo Pat, Bison, Jessica and Nathan, KenT, Tim A, Jake and Leslie and Brian all arrive. I lather on sunscreen since today looks like it’s gonna be a hot one.
We are going off-trail to explore the Geyser Creek Basin. KenD, Tim A, Jake and Leslie have been here before; the rest of us are novices. We are told the hike isn’t particularly long but there is ample deadfall and some marshy areas. Artists Paint Pots is a popular destination for flip-flops-and-shorts-tourists so we must look quite Loony with our day packs, hiking poles and boots! But off we go in high spirits. I miss Frank, though, and his way with words and knowledge of history.
There is a narrow foot-trail branching off at a point on the boardwalk and this is what we take. It doesn’t look like much, just a way to traverse the considerable hill that looms up. We need to skirt this hill to get where we want to go. KenD leads for a while until Tim and Jake call out that they think he is going too high. I know that Ken simply wanted to avoid the marshy areas they ran into last time. But the footing on this slope is getting very tricky and some of us are beginning to slide.
Tim A comes to the rescue by forging a different path, a bit lower and in thicker brush. This works for me and Dani and Pat. Darryl’s niece and nephew are excellent hikers and seem to be enjoying themselves immensely. We tease Ken and he accepts it with good humor. Then Jake strikes of on a different track. I warn the rest of the group that one follows Jake at one’s peril. When there is ample deadfall and marsh to negotiate, Jake will find a way across it but unless you are equally fearless and blessed with his “Ever-OK Power“ you may want to choose a different leader. On the other hand, there is no better scout than he.
I find myself following my old buddy Tim A most of the way. There is marsh to avoid, but it is challenging and fun, not overwhelming. We find elephant-head stalks too! And wild iris, and even some early paintbrush. There are several logs that require a Wendy-roll to get over them and a few tricky stream crossings. Again I find my Lekis to be extremely helpful.
We get to a lightly forested area through which Geyser Creek flows in many twisting channels. We cross that creek over a dozen times and finally come out into the lower end of the thermal basin. It is quite large. The variety of vents and pools and steamers is astonishing. We stay to the right and are careful to avoid some ominous-looking spots that could be undercut.
One of the first features we come to is a beautiful aquamarine-colored pool with scalloped edges. We take a rest here, eat some lunch and cool off. Across the basin is a very active geyser Jake says is called Oblique. I can only see its steam from where I’m sitting but Jake says it is due to erupt soon. Apparently, this baby goes off every 7-9 minutes!
We explore and admire all sorts of features, small little smoking openings, a few odd plopping mud pots, a yellowish-puce-colored pool with wavy edges, like the patterns you see in beach sand. There are bones here and there and we find what I think is wolf scat. Then Oblique goes off and I am surprised to hear it roar. I can‘t see all of it from my angle but the spout is quite high. Very impressive.
Then on we go, clambering about the edges of the sinter basin, on up to one of the main features here, the famous Subterranean Blue Mud Geyser. This feature is so unusual that it makes the hike well worth it. It’s a deep, winding funnel-type hole, Leslie says it’s about 12 feet deep. Technically it’s a geyser, but instead of water it spouts blue mud, and I mean blue! And where it flings that mud is quite unpredictable as one can see in the area around the opening. When it’s not spouting blue mud it grumbles and rumbles like a cross between an broken toilet and a grouchy bison. Jake and Leslie say it was putting on a better show last time they saw it but I am completely content with what I see.
I am quite cautious around the hot pools, as several of them remind me distinctly of Cavern Springs, where poor Sarah Hulpers met her death. They are extremely beautiful, with clear water through which you can see the shape of the cavern walls below but they are prone to undercutting and I don’t trust them! One is two shades of blue, dark and light and another is yellowish. And all over the hills to the right and left are thin little runoff streams, lined with colorful warmth-loving algae and bacteria.
Above us the Geyser Creek drainage continues and we can see a large steam-plume from something up there, but the deadfall and vegetation looks so thick that none of us venture into it. We now circle around to the other side of the basin, to catch an eruption of Oblique. It has already gone off a few times while we were exploring. On our way over we see numerous bison tracks and a few that look as though the ground gave way beneath one hoof or another. You really have to watch your footing around here.
We reach a spot above Oblique were there are numerous large rocks that offer a bit of shade. I take a break behind one. The view downhill from here is excellent, with the basin spread out before me giving way to trees and marsh-meadows below. This day has turned simply gorgeous! A perfect Yellowstone day, bright sun, bright blue sky and a cool breeze.
I am encouraged to clamber down for a better view of the eruption. Jake is standing quite close to it, watching the “indicators”. I remain further back, thinking this will be just another fountain of hot water. Hah! When this geyser goes off, I change my mind completely! Here’s why: This geyser has 17 spouts and each of them shoots out water in a different way or at a different angle. There are low cones that bubble over, there are cones that splash out unpredictably. One shoots straight up about 20 feet, another shoots 20 feet but at a 60 degree angle, another at 90 degrees, another backwards, another arcs out in a Riverside-sort of way, and another shoots up about 3 feet in a thick, low fountain. This Geyser is so mixed up it is trying everything to get rid of its hot water. Really, it’s got to be seen to be believed. AND it makes great geyser noise. AND it lasts a good long time, several minutes at least. I give it a round of applause and insist that I be allowed to bestow upon it a new name. Sybyl Geyser, for its multiple personalities.
We do a bit more exploring, gawking and gazing and then begin our trek back. As usual, the getting out is easier than the getting in and Loons are such delightful company that we seem to reach the boardwalk in record time. No-one wants the hike to be over so soon, though, so we finish up with a tour of the “normal” areas of Artists Paint Pots. And the stuff to see there is great, but a bit anticlimactic. Only at the very end, where the pools are brightly and varyingly colored, does the area live up to its name.
Out we go to the cars to unload our gear and to make plans for the rest of the day. Jake and Leslie and Brian are drumming up accomplices for more thermal area exploration. And other folk have to check in at campgrounds before they get ready for tonight’s convocation at Mammoth.
I decide to head towards Madison since I have not yet seen that area of the park. But as I drive the sun keeps beating down and I begin to feel the need to cool off. I pull off at a sheltered pullout near the Gibbon River, change into cooler clothes and walk down to the river. I soak my bandana in the water and drench my head. Oh yeah, baby! That is the best feeling! I step carefully into the stream. Oh man! That is delicious! I think this river is supposed to be warm by Yellowstone standards, but it feels mighty cold to my feet! I love Tevas.
I climb back up to the car, comb my hair and leave my damp bandana around my neck to catch the drips. Thus soothed, I lower my seat and lie back for a nap, easily drifting off to the music of the Gibbon. I get about 45 minutes of sleep and wake up again, feeling great. I have a quick lunch and then head back towards Mammoth. At a curve in the river I see three elk resting on a grassy island and many tourists taking their photos. And lo and behold! There is a calf with them!
At Swan Lake Flats I stop to scope. The lack of cars tells me there is no bear out here today. And when I find two elk in the meadow where the grizzly was yesterday I figure it’s a lost cause. I wonder if the warmer weather has sent her up higher? Today is far more typical for this time of year than the overcast and cool days we’ve been having.
I see a lone swan on the Lake as well as geese and ducks. I scope the surrounding hills for wolves and bears and remember the time when I saw two moose feeding in the meadow below Bunsen Peak. But today I only get elk and bison. The wind is relentless today and keeps trying to steal my hat!
At Mammoth I am issued a particularly large cabin which fronts the grassy courtyard full of peeping ground squirrels. I sit on the porch and watch them, trying to make sense of my camera. A cottontail rabbit bounds by. Well how about that! Then across the way a mom and two kids appear on their porch and it dawns on my that they are feeding the ground squirrels. I hold my tongue because I know so many people do it and I don’t want to come off as a crab or a busybody. But when I hear the girl ask the mom if she can give one an olive and the mom says yes it is too much for me. I stand up and walk their direction. “Excuse me“, I say. “I know it’s hard to resist them, but please don’t feed these animals.” They stop instantly and seem shocked to see another human nearby. I say “I’m sorry, I know you mean no harm, but the Park rules say “no feeding”.
I go back inside my cabin and hope I’ve not made their trip unpleasant. I gather a few things, lock the door and walk over to the Hotel, feeling terribly guilty. In the lobby I buy a chocolate-mint-flavored latte from the friendly man at the latte bar, sit in a comfy chair, pull up a footstool and catch up on my notes. It is extremely pleasant here. I get absorbed in my notes until a dark-haired woman enters the lobby with her husband. What makes me notice them is their bright yellow Loon pins. I figure they are some lurker Loons I’ve not yet met. I raise my hand and call out. “Hi there, if you’re a Loon, so am I. I’m Wendy.” They turn and walk back as I get up. The woman says “I’m Allison’s sister, Marcie.”
Oh! Oh! I wasn’t prepared for this!
I rush to her to give her a hug and all of a sudden I’m bawling like a baby! Marcie introduces her husband, Terry. I give him a hug too which makes me cry harder. Then in come a whole lot of people with Loon buttons. I can see Allison in their faces! I meet Brenda and Holly and Jill and Sally and then Karen, Allison’s mom. My tears come streaming out all over again as we hold each other. I say “I’m so sorry”. I feel like a complete idiot but I can’t stop myself. These things are emotional and I’m no good at hiding mine. I meet Allison’s step-dad, George, too. I tell them that there are many Loons in the Park, that we expect a good turnout because Allison was so beloved. I tell them we had a hike yesterday and named a very pretty Lake for her.
You know, I had gotten wrapped up in my visit and my animal sightings and how nice it is to be with Loons and I just wasn‘t thinking how raw it would be for Allison‘s dear family, to go through their loss again, after all these months. But it’s sweet sorrow I suppose. It’s good to connect with them.
Marcie manages to let me know that they are heading over to the Grille for something to eat. She very kindly asks if I’d like to join them but I say no. I tell her rather that I will stay here to be the contact person as Loons start to arrive. I have a short conversation with Terry and I am able to convey some of Frank’s concerns for the evening, namely, that it is the Family’s wishes that are to be served. I sit back down and compose myself, and try to write some more, but it’s not possible. Luckily Cloudbase and little Taylor come in so I talk to them a while.
And then many Loons begin to gather. I introduce myself to those I don’t yet know. I meet BJ who has put together a most remarkable scrapbook of Allison’s writing from the Chat Page, as well as photos other Loons have sent to her. Because of her work, lots of Loons who could not be here in person can still share the evening. In fact, BJ has made a copy of the scrapbook, one for Allison’s family to take with them, and one for us. She asks the Loons to help identify faces in the photos. Over near the gift store I meet the delightful, unsinkable Tracy, and right behind her is Bonnie CO and her mom, so I re-meet them. Here also is Green Gene, friend TJ and his two sons. And also over here I meet Francoise, widow of James, a lady with a French-accented twinkle in her eye.
The Loons from this morning’s hike arrive as well, Tim A, KenT, Bison, Jessica and Nathan, Jake, Leslie and Brian, Dan M and Dani, KenD, Mark R and Carl, JohnD, Jen and Jack, as well as Janet and 46er. And here is our Loon ambassador, Ballpark Frank, carrying some Smoking Loon Merlot.
Then a familiar looking woman says hi to me. It’s Chloe! Chloe and Becky have come out from Lamar to pay their respects to Allison. This really touches me. And then I see another familiar face over my shoulder, Matthew the FunkyGeyserMan and his fiance Julia have come from Old Faithful. I know they can‘t stay but they wanted to connect with us and meet Allison’s family.
It is an overwhelming feeling for me to be amongst such a crowd of well-wishers, most of whom I know, so I can barely imagine what it must have felt like for Allison’s family to be among us. Everyone is visiting and chatting and looking at the scrapbook. After a little while, Ballpark and Terry join forces to guide our group out the back door and across the parking lot. Those with hiking poles pass them around and Janet is happy to accept one of mine. Before we start up the hill Frank reminds us all that we will stop as frequently as we need to. And when we stop I offer to get the ball rolling with a story of sharing drinks with Allison at the Bear Pit in Old Faithful a few years ago. I told them how Matthew had come in to join us, wailing and bemoaning his trouble with women. Being the wise older women we were, Allison and I could definitely relate to dating trouble! I told them how Allison generously offered advice and comfort and encouragement, and how it must have worked because Matthew is now proudly affianced to Julia!
We hike a little further and everyone helps those who are having trouble. We are a happy group if a tad subdued. The evening is a fine one, still warm even with the sinking sun and I thank Allison that the threatening skies of a the last two days seem to have gone elsewhere this evening. I notice that Dan is taking video of the hike and I tease him when I have the breath to do so. Finally we reach the windswept top of Kite Hill, which is rocky with small sage plants, scattered wildflowers and a few gravestones and old markers. In front of us is a stunning view of Mt. Everts, behind us looms the shadowy Sepulcher Mountain. The wind dies down and the air grows still.
When we are all collected and have caught our breath, Terry and Marcia step forward and set up a few items they have brought with them around a low rock spotted with orange lichen. The group sort of gathers itself for what’s to come. Some folk are standing alone, others together but all are thinking the same thing. This is the hour in which Allison will be reunited forever with the place she loved best.
Terry speaks of Allison and reminds us why we’re here. Marcie speaks of Allison‘s knowledge and love of music and then pushes a button on the boom box. Out come the opening notes of an early Beatles tune, from one of their most introspective albums, Rubber Soul. John Lennon‘s melancholy voice intones:
“There are places I remember, All my life, though some have changed
Some forever not for better, Some have gone and some remain,
All these places have their moments, With lovers and friends I still can recall,
Some are dead and some are living, In my life, I’ve loved them all.
But of all these friends and lovers, There is no one who compares with you,
And these memories lose their meaning, When I think of love as something new.
Though I know I‘ll never lose affection, For people and things that went before,
I know I often stop and think about them, In my life I love you more.
Though I know I‘ll never lose affection For people and things that went before,
I know I often stop and think about them, In my life I love you more.
In my life I love you more.”
Well, this gets me going right away of course. Carl steps closer to me and puts a strong arm of comfort around me. The song is beautiful and appropriate, made more so by its setting. After this other people speak, Allison’s family and various Loons. It is all quite unique and moving. Our shadows grow longer and longer and we all feel Allison with us.
The sun dips behind the mountain and a slight wind arises. Most of us dig out the jackets we hauled up in our packs or slip then on from around our waists. Then Marcie plays the next song, Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World”. As these sadly sung lyrics float about the hillside, Terry begins to scatter Allison’s ashes. There are few dry eyes up on the hill and a number of folk are downright sobbing. I think a lot of us miss her as keenly at this moment as we did the moment we heard the unbelievable news. The difference is a marvelous one, though. We are not alone. We are united, in love of her.
The scattering takes its sweet time. Most of Allison’s family participate, and Terry generously invites any Loons who wish to participate to come forward. Several of us do, and for my part, I’m glad I did. In a way it helps me make the transition, from wishing she were still here, to knowing she is always here. That‘s why we have these rituals. That’s why they are both hard and helpful. I can tell you this. I felt Allison was up on that hill that night and I bet I will feel it every time I go back.
The visiting hours on Allison’s Hill are 24/7.
When the scattering is finished, we remain on the hill, talking, comforting, sharing Kleenex. We look at the markers, the sky and the views up, down and all around us. Then we begin to wander back down, a little more cohesive than before. We start out subdued, but Loons and laughter cannot be long parted. Before long people are chuckling again at this or that. We meet a family finishing a hike of the Beaver Ponds Loop, a hike Frank led many Loons on in the spring of 2001, the very day that Allison and I met face to face. The family excitedly tells us of a bear and cub encounter they had on the trail. Frank knows this bear and had a similar encounter with her and his group of Loons a month ago.
The plan is to gather in the Lobby again to have a toast with the many bottles of Smoking Loon Merlot. But someone remembers the web cam and thinks a group wave is in order. So over we march to the Parade grounds. We do an Allison wave, both hands in the air, bending back and forth. KenD contacts Geri and she and Bruce capture the shot for the rest of the Loons at home. This is our tradition!
Then back we go to the lobby. The corks start popping and everyone who wants a glass gets one. (Some get two!) We sit along the fireplace and in the chairs and on the floor. The staff at Mammoth Hotel is very understanding (I think Mark R helped) because there is absolutely no room for any regular guests! Tim A tells the story of Smoking Loon Merlot, how Allison surprised us on the eve of our Thorofare Hike when she arrived with the wine, plastic stemmed glasses, and Swisher Sweets Cigars, in order to give us a proper send off! She was so proud of having found such an appropriate wine for the occasion!
So we toast Allison, our Queen, and tell more stories. It‘s so nice just to sit and visit with each other. How I wish time could have stopped so I could have chatted with each person as much as I wanted. I feel very bad for those who have to drive any distance this evening, but I learned later that everyone got back alright.
It is a memorable evening and very satisfying. I say goodbye to Carl in the lot behind the hotel and then head back to my cabin. The stars are out and I feel with all my heart that Allison is at peace. I look up at the mountain and ask it to please watch over her tonight and every night.
Goodnight, Allison, goodnight.
Today I saw: bison, 5 elk (including one calf), a great blue heron, ground squirrels, a cottontail rabbit, a swan, 44 Loons and one Queen Loon laid to rest in peace.