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.

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