The first time I visited Yellowstone National Park was 16 years ago in late September. Winter was not far off, and since the park was so far north, I was unsure of whether my little adventure would turn out to be a bust, or if I’d slip under old man winter’s radar and be able to sneak in a little late autumn exploration in this part of the country that I had not yet visited. Fortunately, the weather that year in northern Wyoming was mild and beautiful. When I rolled up to the gates of the East Entrance of the park very late at night and after a 20-hour drive from Santa Fe, New Mexico, I felt energized and excited, albeit mainly from running on the last bit of adrenaline that one gets when wandering into a new and wild landscape like that of Wyoming and Yellowstone, regardless of how many hours spent behind the wheel of a Honda. I paid the park attendant with the iconic wide brimmed hat and proceeded to drive under the arch welcoming me into the land known as Yellowstone. As I slowly drove along the winding two lane road under a dark, moonless, pitch black Wyoming night, I didn’t really know what to expect. If the park was anything like the rest of the state that I had just driven through, I knew it was going to be beautiful and hopefully hold inspiration for some new paintings, and at the least, be a nice escape to nature. Man, did I underestimate this part of the world.
I was a huge desert fan and had been in love with the high desert of New Mexico and Colorado as well as the deserts of Arizona, since I was a child. I first felt the lure of that landscape when I was 10 years old and experienced the Rocky Mountains outside Colorado Springs for the first time. Their magnificence was unexpected and I felt unsure how to digest what I was seeing and feeling. The mountains appeared to me to be jagged, spiked teeth, aggressively protruding from the earth towards the heavens like a violent, beautiful abstract Tower of Babel. I was hooked.
As I drove through the state of Wyoming towards Yellowstone, I realized that this amazing western state was not only as beautiful as the previously mentioned states which had captivated my attention and had my admiration for so many years, but was even more beautiful in many ways. I had fallen in love with and painted hundreds of paintings of the New Mexico desert around Santa Fe, Pecos, Cerrillios, Madrid and Taos; the Rio Grande as it cut through the desert outside of Taos; Aspen trees from the Colorado mountains of Telluride, Ouray, Breckenridge and Durango; these were landscapes that were very dear to me and I had become very familiar with them over the years. I had become even closer to them after living in Santa Fe and travelling to those landscapes, experiencing them at different times of the year. I had become very familiar and had developed an intimacy with that gorgeous part of the American Southwest. Now I was faced with the reality that I had not yet experienced the best the West had to offer.
|The extreme vastness of the Yellowstone landscape overwhelmed my senses and intoxicated me every second of every day for more than a week that year. Each day was met with a new surprise, a new amazing discovery around every corner. Fast forward to summer 2017. I had to see if this area still held the same magic it did for me all those years ago. After all, I was younger then, perhaps that influenced the powerful experience I had back then. The only way to find out was to return to that beautiful area and see if it still held the same power over my senses as it did in 2001. I booked a cabin in the mountains, packed some gear and hopped a flight to Jackson Hole to see what, if anything, had changed since the last time I was in that wilderness.
Landing in Jackson, I knew it was going to be a great week. Driving north through the Grand Tetons, I felt I was in heaven. As I continued to drive up Highway 89, I saw the aspen slowly start changing to alpine. I smelled the familiar fragrances of evergreen and mountain air, and I was once again taken aback by the expansiveness of the landscape as it opened up in front of me, challenging my eyes with the multiple layers of texture and depth extending in every direction and towards the horizon. I once again experienced the inescapable feeling of how truly miniscule we are in the face of such beautiful vastness. I could tell that my first visit here was not a fluke. It was not an experience of a 20-something who was motivated by beauty and the need to create art. This area of our globe is just amazingly breathtaking. There is a specific and exclusive power to this area. When you enter the park, it’s as if the other humans around you (and there were a lot of other humans around) are all on the exact same wavelength. As if a shift of consciousness occurs once you enter the boundaries of Yellowstone, and suddenly no one cares about anything but binging on beauty.
My first stop was to Old Faithful. It was true to its name. It churned, spit and spewed before bursting forth and creating a mushroom cloud of smoke and mist in the cloudy afternoon sky. It had rained hard half an hour before, but the storm parted just long enough to enjoy the display. My hat goes off to the bikers who were riding in front of me during the downpour. The raindrops were the size of silver dollars striking my windshield and a constant sheet of water was being frantically swiped away by the wiper blades, only to be replaced with another in quick succession. I can only imagine how tricky it is to be exposed and on two wheels, navigating through treacherous mountain terrain with cliffs on either side of the road. Fortunately, the deluge only lasted a few minutes before the storm subsided. Mountain weather. After a quick trip to the lodge and some food for the road, I was westbound again.
Next was The Grand Prismatic Spring. The area between these two sights was a mix of thermal pools, visible by their eerie white smoke wafting up through the trees as well as lush grasslands with wildflowers and streams snaking their way through the countryside, disappearing momentarily behind an outcropping of evergreens or obscured by the rise and fall of the rolling hills that create the orchestral feel of the landscape. This area is a mass of thermal activity with cascading falls of scalding water and steam rising to let you know that you have arrived. The color of the land near these features is amazingly vibrant – vivid oranges, yellows, cyans, copper and chalky whites. The Grand Prismatic Spring is breathtaking. Often bison are seen walking over the Grand Prismatic, which is an amazing sight. Yellowstone sits on top of a dormant volcano and is home to more geysers and hot springs than any other place on earth. Approximately half of the world’s hydrothermal features are located at Yellowstone National Park.
As I continued driving the loop further north, my odds of seeing one of the park’s famous bison wandering in the middle of the road becomes much more likely, and this day was no different. Traffic jams are quite common in the park as the wildlife wander wherever and whenever they choose. I saw several bison that day. One was swimming across the Yellowstone river, a few were napping in fields of wildflowers and prairie grasses and another I watched as he rolled in the dirt, creating a dust storm as its mass crash, rocked and rolled on the ground.
I ended the day at Yellowstone Lake, watching the whitecaps crash, rise and fall. It’s always hard leaving the park; hard to turn away and exit the gate. But the beauty of realizing that, God willing, the only changes that will take place in the park over my lifetime, and many more years to come will be the changes caused by the living landscape that is Yellowstone. It’s amazing that there are places like this that have been protected and valued for what they are, in order for future generations to experience what this part of the world holds in store for them.
"National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst."
— Wallace Stegner
"High Plains Drifter"
Original acrylic on canvas painting by Johnathan Harris
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