“The mountains are calling, and I must go.” – John Muir.
It’s only been a year since my first visit to the Rockies, but the mountains started calling long before that. Ever since I was a young child, I wanted to go out west. I loved watching the Discovery Channel and Travel Channel, and National Geographic was (and still is) my favorite magazine. Yellowstone captured my imagination most of all. In fact, I partially credit National Geographic’s article on how the wolf reintroduction ultimately changed the geography of the park with inspiring me to pursue a career in science.
So, when it came time to find a honeymoon spot, it isn’t hard to guess what I suggested. Yellowstone. America’s first national park, the cornerstone of a system that would preserve millions of acres for humans and wildlife. It felt like the Mecca of the wildlife world, and the place to start a lifetime of exploring the wild places of the planet.
The first stop of our trip, simply because it was one of the closest airports to Yellowstone, was Salt Lake City. I was instantly in love. Everywhere I looked were peaks I’d only seen on TV or in pictures, the perfect snow-capped behemoths I had hoped for. I couldn’t wait to dive into those peaks. We headed for the Blanche Lake trail in the Twin Peaks Wilderness, and it was stunning. We didn’t make it to the lake, mostly because it turns out a Midwestern girl isn’t quite capable of getting enough oxygen at 8,000 feet above sea level to climb all the way to 11,000 feet. The views were spectacular all the way up, including snow-capped peaks, a mountain stream fed by the snowmelt, and a waterfall snaking its way down the side of a mountain. We even saw a moose peering from the brush. Someday I want to go back and finish it, maybe after spending some more time getting used to the elevation.
After Salt Lake City came Yellowstone. What can one even say about Yellowstone? If a single photo is worth a thousand words, then all the beauty in that wild landscape is impossible to describe in a lifetime. Rivers raged white through canyons carved deeper each century, periodically forming huge waterfalls where they plunged over cliffs. Herds of elk and bison ranged over vast meadows dotted with a profusion of wildflowers. Lake Yellowstone stretched out blue into the distance, its waters mirror-calm. The very earth seemed alive, geysers steaming and spitting into the dry air. And mountains. Everywhere I looked they were there, looming in the distance. The sheer size of the park stunned me. It would take days to see everything along the roadsides, let alone any of the interior of the park. I can’t say I’ve ever felt as grateful to a president as I did to Teddy Roosevelt during that trip for working to preserve such an amazing place.
Maybe part of my awe of the west is that where I grew up was so tame. Gone are the days when bison and elk roamed the landscape, pursued by packs of wolves. Bears and mountain lions are simply memories too, except the occasional wanderer far from its native home. Trees and meadows became farmland. The huge wetlands that once teemed with flowers and birds were drained and plowed, the rich black earth seeded with corn and beans. It is very thoroughly a place for humans now, rather than the wildlife that once called it home.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how important places like Yellowstone and Twin Peaks Wilderness are to wildlife. As part of my research project I’ve been reading about energy development, and realizing that state and private lands are so vulnerable to development. With development inevitably comes pollution, fragmentation, and noise in wildlife habitat. Pennsylvania alone is projected to have 60,000 natural gas wells by 2030, 64% of them on forest land. While I understand that these resources are needed, it makes me appreciate how incredible it is to have such large tracts of land preserved at the national level. It makes me hope that even as our demand for energy resources, timber, water, and other materials grow, the mountains will continue to call, and young people will continue to protect our public lands so that they may answer.