Essay by Michael Milstein
In the spray of Old
Faithful, in the shimmer of heat within Yellowstone's turquoise
pools, in the steam rolling through the pines, Rick Hutchinson
looks back at us.
Rick was Yellowstone's geyser
guy, a geologist who was the foremost authority on the world's
foremost collection of geysers and hot springs. I say "was." But I
imagine he always will be.
And more than that, he
may have been the best friend Yellowstone's thermal wonders ever
He talked about the cross-country skiing
trip he and Diane Dustman, a visiting geologist from Boston, were
going to take early in March, the trip from which they never
returned. They were beginning a park-wide inventory of hot springs.
On that trip, an avalanche claimed both of them as permanent parts
They had skied into Heart Lake,
the home of one of Yellowstone's two backcountry geyser basins.
Rick had been heartbroken several years ago when vandals tossed
junk into some geysers there, plugging them up. Every hot spring
seemed to talk to him, to tell him a different story, and he cared
about each one.
It was from Rick that I picked up
the annoying habit of collecting stray trash while walking through
the geyser basins. Annoying not because I didn't like doing it, but
because it always reminded me how much Rick cared for Yellowstone
and how much a few others did not.
Not that he
would fault them for it. He was proud of every person who came to
Yellowstone to absorb its geological melody.
his calm curiosity and wild beard, Rick tracked the geysers the way
biologists track grizzly bears. He wanted to figure out their
quirks, their habits, and he wondered what those said about the
subterranean furnaces that power Yellowstone from below. It is, he
once said, a mystery novel without an end.
years ago, he happened onto the birth of a new mud volcano in the
park backcountry. He considered himself lucky to be there, to watch
the widening abyss swallow trees like swizzle sticks and blow
bubbles the size of small cabins.
Rick was 49
when he died and had figured, he said, that he might think about
retiring when he turned 75. I suspect they would have had to drag
He had been fascinated with the thermal
systems ever since he came to Yellowstone in 1970 as a 23-year-old
naturalist, leading walks through Norris Geyser Basin. Norris is
Yellowstone's hottest and most dynamic geyser basin. Each day there
is different from the one before.
showed me a new spring that had simply opened up in Norris one
I asked him what had caused it. He supposed
a bit, and then he did something that too few government employees
seem to do. He asked me what I thought.
believed that anyone who took the time to admire Yellowstone's
geothermal treasures had just as much right to interpret their
behavior as he did, and he fiercely defended their
I remember sitting with him on a bench
near Grand Prismatic Spring, the huge expanse that from the air
looks like a pinwheel of color as steam streams off it. A
television crew was filming a scientist kneeling at the edge of the
spring, describing bacterial mats that had been fossilized by
minerals and time.
Right then, a family came
walking by, the children smiling, pointing and exclaiming. One of
the TV crew said to no one in particular, but loud enough for the
family to hear, "We can't do this with all that
"Then wait," Rick said, just loud enough
for the crew to hear.
It was the only time I
heard an edge to his voice.
In 1976, Yellowstone
Park's bosses wised up and hired Rick as a permanent research
geologist. He advanced our knowledge of the park and its geological
tics more than anyone. He figured out a way to make use of devices
designed to monitor temperatures inside refrigerated trucks to
track geyser runoff. The results revealed connections between
geysers no one had noticed before.
It is little
known that Rick in 1990 noticed changes in the eruption pattern of
Old Faithful and predicted an earthquake that measured 3.8 on the
Often, he just watched. He
realized that Monarch Geyser, a long-dormant pothole at Norris, had
reawakened, when he saw that its belches had pushed pine needles
out of its mouth.
He would embark on trips of
several weeks to backcountry thermal regions with canned goods and
plenty of Idaho Spud candy bars.
He took note of
simple things. The first ruddy bison calf of spring. The comet that
he got up at five in the morning to see. The chowder his wife,
Jennifer, (always his "counterpart" or "partner') had brewed
He once told me of a hammy old movie musical
set in Yellowstone and imitated the movie's singing rangers while
we were standing near Old Faithful.
A word about
Old Faithful. Rick loved it as much as any other corner of
Yellowstone, but puzzled over the park visitors who would watch Old
Faithful but nothing else. Old Faithful is faithful, he would
concede. But it's not the biggest, loudest, longest, highest or
If Rick were here, he'd probably remind
us that every geyser, at its peak, was the grandest. And he would
be happy to know that he opened our eyes enough to see
You cannot work around scalding water or,
as Rick did, float on boiling springs in a specially built boat and
not think about injury or death. Boating on boiling water, he would
say, is no time to worry about life preservers. He knew full well
that his house near Old Faithful is in the middle of a dormant
volcano and, I think, he relished it. He would speculate on the
chances the volcano would decide to erupt in his lifetime and, if
it did, all the paperwork that would ensue. The chances were slim,
but Rick was so amazed by the earth that I think he secretly hoped
it might happen when he was still around to see
Rick would no doubt disapprove of this sort
of gushy tribute. He'd probably say something like, "Turn your
computer off, go outside, and find something that's really
The last time we talked, he was
planning a two-week hike this summer south of Yellowstone Lake to
visit a remote network of hot springs. He always seemed to be
seeing some facet of Yellowstone for the first time, and it was
what he loved about the place.
Or, I should say,
"what he loves about the place." Because I know Rick is still out
there, and always will be, laughing and marveling at nature's show.
Michael Milstein lives in
Cody, Wyoming, and works for the Billings Gazette.