I could not catch my breath. I couldn’t go twenty paces without needing to stop and rest. The trail was uphill and pretty steep, but I had only walked a few hundred yards. I had been backpacking in Glacier National Park for a week and a half before coming here. In Glacier I was carrying over forty pounds on my back, but all I had with me on this trail was a single camera. Then it dawned on me… we must be at a higher elevation, the air is thinner. I hadn’t given it much thought but Yellowstone is one big, tall plateau surrounded by even taller mountains. On reaching the top of the short trail I found myself in a clearing filled with steam vents and boiling springs. One of the vents was more prominent than the rest. It was cone shaped and spewed steam from it’s peak; it was only about four feet tall but it put things in perspective. I was standing on an active volcano that measured roughly forty miles across. This is no secret. It’s a given that at some point in the future the whole place will go up taking a good chunk of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho with it and covering everything the wind blows towards with ash. It’s happened before. In fact, it’s been happening regularly for the past 18 million years, and apparently volcano isn’t a good enough word for what lies in wait beneath Yellowstone so it’s been dubbed a supervolcano. Supervolcanos are described as producing exceptionally large volcanic eruptions. The last eruption happened 640,000 years ago, the one before that 1.3 million years ago, and before that 2.1 million years ago. I’m no volcano scientist, but that adds up to super-exceptionally large volcanic eruptions every 600,000 – 800,000 years. And here I am, 640,000 years in setting my tripod up next to a steam vent. I imagine there will be warning signs and whatnot, and official people will clear out the park and outlying areas, maybe even a Noah’s Ark sort of thing for a select few bison, wolves, and bear. But ultimately people will lose their homes and businesses, the bison will be left to marvel at their finale, and 600,000 years of creation will be sent skyward leaving what will inevitably come to be known as Yellowstone Crater… or perhaps, with a sense of irony, Old Faithful.
For more photos from both Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks visit J.K. Putnam Photography on Flickr.