Mr. Bubbles and The Fevered Brain
Primordial Soaks in Yellowstone
YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK sits upon a supervolcano, the largest on the continent. Though it’s unlikely to erupt anytime before the human race first destroys itself, just the knowledge that it might erupt, thereby leveling the entire region and instantly killing close to 100,000 people, as well as cloaking the Western U.S. with a devastating ashfall, makes it a pretty badass destination.
Not to mention that in 2010, after over two decades without a single bear-caused fatality in Yellowstone, a grizzly snatched a sleeping camper out of his tent, dragged him 25 feet and then ate him (she also mauled two campers at a nearby tent site in a similar rare predatory attack, although they survived, albeit with some broken and bitten limbs). That same year grizzlies died in record numbers despite growing in population and rebounding from threatened status in 1975: unable to feed themselves in their habitat due to declining huckleberry supplies from the record hot weather, the bears had been pushing out into inhabited areas where they were often shot. So not only were there more now grizzlies around than in the past but they were also hungrier, surlier, and more desperate.
Again, badass destination, or at least so it seemed to me, an East Coast newbie to Yellowstone who had no experience with grizzlies or ‘geothermal features’ like cauldrons of steaming water, where one misstep or collapsing crust of earth underfoot could transform the lovely aquamarine pool into a highly efficient human deep fryer.
That’s why when a Montana friend invited me last year on a weeklong September camping trip through Yellowstone’s remote rainfall-heavy southwestern Bechler region I jumped on it. When you spend summers teaching swimming in the Hamptons and the rest of the year in NYC, a weeklong trek over a grizzly-populated supervolcano is just what you need.
Of course, for my friend Pete, as well as for his half-dozen friends from neighboring Mountain States who were also coming for the trek (one of whom had even been a ranger there) the camping trip was just another stroll in the park. Not that they thought of it as any old stroll. There’s something awesomely primal about Yellowstone. The vast majority of its visitors don’t venture more than 100 meters from their vehicles. Not to be a sanctimonious backpacker-snot about it, but the only real way to soak up the landscape is to trek through it, liberated from the tyranny of email or phone access. It’s also the only way to just plain soak. Supervolcanoes come with their advantages, one being the diversity of hot springs they offer. And, as you’d expect of a badass camping destination, the soaks are badass too.
Take my favorite, The Fevered Brain. An elevated pool with a raging boiling center spills down in rivulets over a slimy orange sienna bulk, waterfalling over a cerebellum of green and white cauliflower formations into rocky pools that abut an icy river. It’s into any of these small pools that you gingerly lower yourself. The Fevered Brain is a violent macho soak – the pools are small, and the scalding water splashing into them is only a few feet from your face, so you’re gazing into a kind of otherworldy menacing steambath. If the Partnership for a Drug-Free America were ever to resurrect its classic late 80s “This is Your Brain on Drugs” ad, this location would make a fine sequel to the fried eggs.
Since we had to carry a week’s worth of food along with cold weather gear and camping equipment, the soaks were the rejuvenation and rehabilitation clinics for our sore bodies (although the icy river water was best for the feet). But they were unpredictable clinics. Yellowstone hot springs aren’t soaks of uniform temperature. They’re generally found when boiling water bubbling up from the earth pours down a slope into a river. The water flowing down the slope is scalding and the water in the river is freezing, but their place of intersection – if dammed up with rocks – forms a natural hot tub, one that varies dramatically in temperature depending on where you are in it. Settle in closer to the river and you’re in 90-degree water. Move towards the source of the hot water and it’s now 110 degrees. And even within each section, alternating currents of cold and hot water flow through so your perfect 105° soak can suddenly become 120° on your right thigh and 80° on your left arm. Any good vigorous Yellowstone soak always involves gasping sounds and abrupt recoiling movements (although they’re not always due to the temperature, like during our Day 2 soak when Mike felt something brush against him and he glanced down to find a water snake coiled up like a drowsy housecat on his chest).
Another highlight soak, and a less menacing one, is The Fevered Brain’s friendly neighbor, Mr. Bubbles. Unlike other springs, the boiling water that powers Mr. Bubbles doesn’t trickle in from above but is self-generated: it bubbles up from underwater fumaroles. Mr. Bubbles was the biggest spring we soaked in. It’s more like a watering hole. Most of our soaks could handle between two to five people, while this one could comfortably fit dozens. (The smallest spring I saw was a glorified shin-deep puddle that Pete and I hiked out to the day before we set off. “Wow, that’s a small one,” I said, having expected something deeper and wider. “I hope you’re talking about the soak,” said Pete, who had just shed his clothes and was stepping in).
At first glance you wouldn’t expect that anyone could soak in Mr. Bubbles: as far as hot springs go, anything with thrashing water generally means fast painful death. But for whatever reason – probably due to underwater jets of cold water that were seeping in – the temperature of the pool was just right. In fact, in an aquatic equivalent of firewalking, you could even dive through the bubbling center; it was very hot and you had to be nimble about it, but it looked far more dramatic/ballsy/stupid than it actually was. Adjusting the hot tub temperature in Mr. Bubbles was easy. Move to the center to heat up, move to the perimeter to cool down. And then of course, if you want to go with the Finnish hot/cold sauna sequence you could alternate from hovering around the nucleus of Mr. Bubbles to sprawling in the river, where you’d lie face down, gripping a fallen tree branch, and let the icy water rush over you for as long as you could take it.
Yellowstone gets frosty overnight – several mornings I had to slap the ice off my tent – so it’s worth making the trek from your campsite to a spring for a starry dip. One of the best back floats of your life can be had during a night soak in Mr. Bubbles. You lie there, eyes shut, undulating lightly, warm and hot currents washing over you, while innumerable cold water bubbles break upon on your back. You open your eyes and you’re confronted by the Milky Way. Then, in that dark and starry silence, when you eventually do let your feet fall and sink into the sulfurous bottom, you feel the muddy earth pulsing under you, rumbling with all that hot gas and pressure.
The only downside of the night soak is climbing out into the freezing air and trekking back by flashlight to your campsite, all too aware of the possibility of grizzlies. It’s even worse when it’s a few miles and you’re first in line and the others are walking in silence behind you and your breathing is in your ears and every tree is some gnarly hunched creature and around every corner surely awaits a malnourished grizzly with her cub looking for one last big meal before the long winter hibernation. But of course you make it back to your tent without incident and zip up into your zero degree mummy bag. Ahh that’s better, except now you’re thinking about the “Bear Frequenting Area” sign or the deep vertical gouges on the trunk of the bear bag tree or the story about the brown bear that two years ago made a single vertical
tear down the camper’s tent before hauling him out. The fear of grizzlies isn’t quite as irrational as the fear of sharks, but it’s comparable in the way it lingers once it gets into your head (I could never fully lose myself in the sky when I went out to look at the constellations because the slightest rustling of brush would yank me back to more immediate mundane concerns).
But of course the presence of large lumbering creatures with big teeth and claws is essential and integral to the territory. In Yellowstone you feel like you’re back in some primordial gestational era. In fact, astrobiologists, including NASA scientists, are studying the thermophile microorganisms unique to Yellowstone for insights into the origins of life on earth and the possibilities of life elsewhere in the universe. It is a mythic land where earth gods still reign and rumble underfoot. Walking through those thermals fields, the steam billowing up from the earth in the distance like sundry forest fires and water spewing out of knobby phallic formations and elk bugling and wolves howling and mudpits gurgling and splooging next to you like some obscene mudman knockoff of Jabba the Hut, you feel like you’re on location for a film set either during Earth’s origins or in its final apocalyptic moments. You wonder why no one has staged some epic scene of battle or post-cataclysm here (“Lord of the Rings” and “The Road” comes to mind) but that same moment your footsteps ring hollow and you look down to see little holes peppering the ground, actually it’s more crust than ground, and you realize you’re traveling atop a vast pond of steaming water, it’s what you might call walking on thin earth, so you stop in your tracks and carefully retrace your steps to firmer ground and you now understand exactly why they don’t shoot a film here and never will.
And then you make your way to the nearest soak.
*Next month I will post a slideshow and video from the Yellowstone Trip
(which has now been posted so CLICK HERE to view them)
- Yellowstone (Part II), The Video
- Walking the Cyprus E4 (Part I)
- Seeking the Eiffel Tower in London
- Open Sandman: Salvia Divinorum, Lord of Dreams (Part I)