Blowing off steam

America’s landscape is nothing short of spectacular with its beauty and diversity from “sea to shining sea.” Unique splendor is evident whether at home in western New York with its lush countryside and rolling hills, crossing the plains, or venturing through the mountainous west.

Yellowstone, our country’s first national park (1872), is in a class by itself. I was fortunate to revisit it while on a trip to Idaho this summer. As highlighted in last week’s column, “Where the buffalo roam,” it was an adventure to enjoy and experience its distinctive geography and wildlife. I reminisced about past trips there as a youngster in our station wagon and when I had my own young family in the year of the fires, but this time the trip was special because it was with one of my best friends, Connie, from the days when I lived in Colorado.

As we continued on our “lower loop” route of the park beyond the Lower Falls in the “Grand Canyon” of Yellowstone and the wandering elk and bison, we moved on to some of the park’s trademark volcanic features – its steaming and bubbling pools.

Steam rises in random places throughout the park. It is full of “geothermal features” including hot springs, mudpots, steam vents, and geysers that are found in number like no other place on Earth. Old Faithful is the most famous geyser but over 300 others can be found in Yellowstone. These features are powered by magmatic heat from volcanic activity over a million years ago. I was reminded of a forgotten science vocabulary word from earlier school days when Connie talked about the “caldera.” A Spanish word for “large cooking pot,” that’s the basin we were in, the part of the collapsed volcano, which in the park is a 30 by 45 mile area.

This of course brought up the conversation of the next time Yellowstone will have its next major “blow.” We agreed it would be a quick demise, but probably wouldn’t happen the day we were there!

A little earth science review wouldn’t be a bad idea before visiting Yellowstone, and as Connie and I looked at a bubbling pool of some sort I thought of my late dad. An earth science teacher, he probably would have explained some of the finer differences, just as he used to do as he pointed out layers of rock along the roadside whenever we traveled, even on the Thruway to Buffalo.

With an overwhelming odor of sulfur, this pool was not a geyser that spews from constricted hot water, nor a hot-spring pool comprised of boiling water. The rotten egg smell was from hydrogen sulfide gas being released into what I thought was a geothermal feature called a “mudpot.” A sign nearby called it the “Sulphur Caldron.” Amazingly, the sign said it was home to billions of micro-organisms called thermoacidophiles. We stopped to see several other features with oozing hot liquids and steam, but there were also some areas of small creeks, making it difficult to tell what was hot and what was not.

None of these areas are places where one should wander beyond the designated walkways with their very clear signs of warnings posted. Just the week before, there was an area in the park where the road’s blacktop had “melted,” as well as a small fenced in area of the parking lot where we stood that had sunk with steam being released.

Connie, her husband, and I finished up the tour of the “lower loop” at Old Faithful Lodge with some ice cream. I chose the very appropriate “moose tracks” and “huckleberry,” which is like a wild blueberry of the west. A walk through the gift shop reminded me of my childhood yesteryears when I had the habit of purchasing postcards of all our family travels. I wish I had purchased a unique set of earrings, but that gives me just one more excuse to visit again, especially now that I have a grandchild in that neck of the woods, or should I say caldera. Family, good friends, and God’s beauty. How blessed we are. Make it a good week and enjoy it all.

Mary Deas writes weekly for the OBSERVER. Send comments to