Storm on Lava Creek: A season in Yellowstone

  • Hikers watch a storm roll in over Wyoming's Yellowstone National Park.

    Jeff Wilson
 

By the second mile of my third hike during my first season in Yellowstone, thunder booms near. I wonder if we'll have time to finish the hike.

• • •

Ten days ago, my best friend, Alison, and I began our new summer jobs as Xanterra lodging reservation agents at Mammoth Hot Springs, after a two-day drive in her parents' Ford Explorer with its Minnesota plates. Every day since then has been a discovery.

In training, we've learned the stand-outs that make Yellowstone unique in the world: the first national park, the most diverse concentration of geothermal features, the tallest active geyser. For a couple of college students who have spent their first 20 years in the Midwest, this is a wonderland of superlatives. We love this big new Western country, we love Yellowstone, and we love that we have 10 whole weeks to enjoy it. Contract end-date: August 16.

• • •

Alison and I have joined a few co-workers for a short evening hike after work. We're on the Lava Creek trail, which drops along the base of Mount Everts east of Mammoth. By the second mile, white curtains of rain band the view of Terrace Mountain and sweep across the canyon to the east. The air is thick and lush, filled with the feeling that something's about to break. We decide to keep hiking in spite of the weather and maintain a good pace.

A few minutes later, my body halts and my muscles shudder before I realize why: Thunder cracks overhead. In a few moments, rain comes. The drops are broad and cold, pocking my pink fleece jacket with dime-sized water marks.  The trail becomes grease. Mud grabs our boots and holds them. Like snowshoes, the soles of my boots leave behind wide depressions unrecognizable as footprints.

When the knees of my jeans begin to suds up with soap bubbles -- answering my curiosity about the quality of the employees' washing machines -- I burst into laughter.

"I love this place!" I shout. We stop to study the confluence where Lava Creek joins the Gardner River, not far below our trail. My co-workers are smiling, too, but I don't know if they are charged as I am charged -- with an energy greater than the charge of lightning overhead.

I have never hiked in a serious thunderstorm, never experienced any of this: The stream rush of the Gardner River, running high with spring and turbid with runoff, 50 feet down a steep bank. The weighted clutch of earth at my feet. The contrast of the cold, raw rainwater grabbing the salt of my sweat and slipping between my warm lips. The hammering wind gusts, which seem to come from every direction, tugging my hair and the juniper limbs. The icy shots of raindrops pelting my scalp. The scents blooming around us as water meets a naturally arid landscape: the spice of wet sagebrush brewed with the syrup-thick aroma of black cottonwoods, seasoned by juniper. Dense sweetness grips the air as firmly as mud clings to our boots.

My clothes and hair and skin are soon saturated. My companions move quickly, aware of the risks of hiking in wet clothes, on slick trails, along steep banks, above fast rivers. But I don't think of any risks. Instead, I remember John Muir in the Sierra: If I were alone, I think, I might find a tree to climb and ride out the storm in its branches, the way he did.

When the storm calms and the rain becomes drizzle, a chill starts to seep into my shoulders from my wet fleece. A little water on the trail has become a lot of water on the trail -- running along the earth at our feet, collecting as opaque pools in bison tracks. Drawn from high above us, rivulets of water as thick as chocolate milk course across the trail and draw my eyes to the Gardner River.

I start to understand the land textures I have noticed, from evening hikes up the Old Gardiner Road at Mammoth, on the mountain along whose base we now walk. From the highest ridges of Mount Everts, broad draws of erosion cut down the mountain like Vs narrowing to slender waists. Below, earth collects in mounds that expand toward the base of the slope. Above, drawdown; below, buildup.

That night, I flood my journal with joy for place and grief that two weeks of our season have already passed. All the swooning hyperbole and intoxicating danger of first love.

"There are hourglasses on the side of Mt. Everts," I write. Summer erodes under my feet.

Lauren Koshere, a freelance writer in Washington, D.C., is completing a nonfiction manuscript about her time as a seasonal employee in Yellowstone.

High Country News Classifieds
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field Seminars for adults: cultural and natural history of the Colorado Plateau. With guest experts, local insights, small groups, and lodge or base camp formats....
  • PLANNED GIVING OFFICER
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks a Planned Giving Officer. Do you find energy in...
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    The Methow Valley Citizens Council has a distinguished history of advocating for progressive land use and environmental values in the Methow Valley and Okanogan County...
  • ACTING INDIGENOUS AFFAIRS DESK EDITOR
    High Country News is seeking an Acting Indigenous Affairs Editor to oversee the work of our award-winning Indigenous Affairs Desk while our editor is on...
  • GRANTS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation seeks an enthusiastic, team-oriented and knowledgeable Grants Program Director to work from their home in Montana. Established in 1983, the Cinnabar Foundation...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Artemis Program Manager will work with National Wildlife Federation sporting and public lands staff to change this dynamic, continue to build upon our successful...
  • ALASKA SEA KAYAK BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Well-known and successful sea kayak, raft, hike, camp guiding & water taxi service. Sale includes everything needed to run the business, including office & gear...
  • MEMBERSHIP AND EVENTS PROGRAM COORDINATOR
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a detail-oriented and enthusiastic Membership and Events Coordinator to join our small, but mighty-fun team to oversee our membership...
  • PROGRAM DEVELOPMENT FACILITATOR
    ABOUT THE HIGH DESERT MUSEUM Since opening in 1982, HIGH DESERT MUSEUM has brought together wildlife, culture, art and natural resources to promote an understanding...
  • LAND STEWARD, ARAVAIPA
    Steward will live on-site in housing provided by TNC and maintains preserve areas frequented by the visiting public and performs land management activities. The Land...
  • DEVELOPMENT WRITER
    Who We Are: The Nature Conservancy's mission is to protect the lands and waters upon which all life depends. As a science-based organization, we create...
  • CONNECTIVITY SCIENCE COORDINATOR
    Position type: Full time, exempt Location: Bozeman preferred; remote negotiable Compensation: $48,000 - $52,000 Benefits: Major medical insurance, up to 5% match on a 401k,...
  • EXECUTIVE ASSISTANT
    ArenaLife is looking for an Executive Assistant who wants to work in a fast-paced, exciting, and growing organization. We are looking for someone to support...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Driggs, ID based non-profit. Full time. Full job description available at tvtap.org. Submit cover letter and resume to [email protected]
  • ENVIRONMENTAL AND CONSTRUCTION GEOPHYSICS
    - We find groundwater, buried debris and assist with new construction projects for a fraction of drilling costs.
  • SPRING MOUNTAINS SOLAR OFF GRID MOUNTAIN HOME
    Located 50 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada in the pine forest of Lee Canyon at 8000 feet elevation. One of a kind property surrounded...
  • MAJOR GIFTS MANAGER - MOUNTAIN WEST, THE CONSERVATION FUND
    Cultivate, solicit and steward a portfolio of 75-125 donors.
  • NATURE'S BEST IN ARAVAIPA CANYON
    10 acre private oasis in one of Arizona's beautiful canyons. Fully furnished, 2123 sq ft architectural custom-built contemporary home with spectacular views and many extras....
  • HEALTH FOOD STORE IN NW MONTANA
    Turn-key business includes 2500 sq ft commercial building in main business district of Libby, Montana. 406.293.6771 /or [email protected]
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.