The parking lot was bright with moonlight when I arrived at Norris, just in time for the “Stars Above Yellowstone” ranger walk. As we started down the hill, Ranger Ken pulled out a laser pointer and told us stories about the night sky. We did our best to make out the shapes of rams and campfires in the constellations, and he told us old native legends and ancient Greek myths. We saw Cassiopeia, the Queen of Ethopia, and her husband Cepheus. We learned of her daughter Andromeda, who was sacrificed to a great sea monster to appease Poseidon, and of Perseus, who arrived on his winged horse just in time to save her.
We walked through the volcanic basin on a narrow boardwalk without handrails or sides. It seemed dangerous to be out there at night with no protection. One false step and I’d be face down in a pool of acid, or so I thought. I hadn’t been to Norris in the daylight, so I had no idea what I was walking through. The moon was bright but not bright enough to get a sense of where I was. I could see and sense a great open space, but I didn’t know how far the expanse went.
Ranger Ken explained how rain and snow fall on the park and seep into the ground, only to get heated up by the great volcano under our feet. When the heated water turns to gas it expands, eventually finding a way to push through to the surface in the form of a spring, a geyser, a pool, etc. He said that the water coming up around us tonight probably fell on the park some 500 years ago. Before he could finish his sentence, we heard a loud noise and turned to see the geyser behind us erupting high into the air. It was the first time any of the features had made a sound.
As I looked back in the direction we came I saw a scene from another time, another world. The bright, brilliant full moon was rising above the black tree line. It cast its light down on the basin, where it lit up the plumes of steam. The vapor came up straight from the mud, wispy but constant. All along the ground the light reflected off of thin streams of water caused by the geyser overflows. The image was layered perfectly: dark trees on the horizon with a lightly bubbling pool of water in the back, a patch of mud in the center, then a small stream in the foreground. I felt like I had vanished to another planet. I kept changing my focus as Ranger Ken talked, and in every direction I saw a perfectly composed image. I saw the light shine behind a patch of two dozen dead tree silhouettes, with their short, thin, broken limbs sticking out. It would be another two days before I learned that those trees were calcified, and had been dead and frozen for hundreds of years.
After the talk I ran back to my car and pulled out my computer. I typed as fast as I could, trying to remember every detail and moment, trying to find the perfect description for the scene. I wanted to hurl the damn machine to the ground because I knew I would never be able to explain what I saw to my satisfaction. I wished I was a photographer, the kind that would have had a case full of lens that could properly capture the layers of shadow. I wished I was a fantastic painter, the sort that could freeze the image in her mind and go home to a canvas where she could refashion the whole magnificent picture. But I am only a writer, and I could have sat there motionless for a thousand years and never found the words to describe it.
I didn’t even have my cheap little point-and-shoot camera, and perhaps that was for the best. I didn’t bother trying to get the perfect shot, or any shot. I just stared into the dark and chastised myself for the inferiority I knew I would feel later. Ranger Ken told us something I’d heard before, but it still gives me chills to hear it. He said that all the elements throughout the universe come from stars living and dying. All the metal on earth, all the air you breathe. All the iron in your blood came from a star that died millions of years ago.
In another eon or so, when the sun swallows us up and our galaxy collides with Andromeda, all the iron and oxygen we have left will be pushed back out into the universe to be broken down and made anew. We are star dust, and to stars we shall return.