Y-Stone. Monday. The National Park Service at Yellowstone is very good at protecting its customers. Signs abound enumerating the dangers of abandoning the paved walkways and boardwalks in favor of the earth which is invariably referred to as a “thermal area.” This seems reasonable – spots that look almost stable are, upon closer inspection, littered with small holes spewing sulfuric steam, belying the volcanic turmoil beneath. Hot springs and thermal pools, with their bubbling surfaces and Caribbean-blue depths are sirens (Greek sense) of the oft-barren and acid-scarred terrain, tempting gullible explorers into their cavernous depths. But half covered by thin shells of rock and luring one into seeming never-ending depth the temptation is tempered by wariness of what lies beneath. Undulations of rock continue as the blue get darker, evidence of their violent and tumultuous nature. Red-rimmed circles surround their surface, the presence of organisms so extreme they can only survive in the most unwelcoming of conditions, or possible denoting the presence of some mineral, uniquely harmful to life as we know it. What lies beneath this surface?
The best signs are those discouraging trespassing on Thermal Areas. There is evidently a high likelihood of falling through thin crust into vast inescapable pools of superheated and highly acidic (it can, apparently, burn through boots) volcanic geothermal outgassing. Death is imminent. This would, of course, be far easier to believe if the amount of buffalo excrement didn’t almost surpass said evidence of Earth’s indigestion. I don’t see any buffalo sticking out of geysers. But then, I suppose that’s what the woolly mammoths in the tar pits said, too. I suspect buffalo are good at figuring out which parts are Thermal Areas and which are just ground. After all, they live here, and are animals (and therefore have instincts), and walk (lumber?) really really slowly. And we, humans, are just dumb enough that if we were allowed to walk outside of tightly constrained areas we would just go get ourselves boiled and burned.
It does seem, though, that “we” (species) are just that stupid. Some car (which you are inevitably behind) always has to stop every time they see bison. Granted, they are very cool animals. They have evolved so that they can stand in deep snow and swing their giant heads back and forth to dig deep enough to feed on the grass underneath. Plus they look really cool because they don’t seem to give a shit that so many tourists drive slowly by gawking at them. Anyway – why this makes people stupid – upon park entry you receive a little 5×8 bright yellow flier alerting you to the dangers of being gored by a buffalo. It seems to me that incessant staring and pointing and picture-taking would agitate these otherwise cool-as-a-moose characters and set them on a gore-the-tourist rampage. This seems like a far more violent – at least bloodier – death than the vague possibility of treading across the thin crust concealing a volcanic sinkhole. Certainly it seems likelier than the latter since I have in the last three hours seen more buffalo within goring proximity than I have new sinkholes spontaneously appearing in the sulfur-scarred landscape of the caldera. Henceforth, I believe buffalo are a more relevant threat to one’s livelihood than the volcano burping gaseously beneath your feet.