The Basin Creek Lakes trail in the Custer National Forest northeast of the park represents another return, this time to the place where we took Tom to learn the pleasures of backpacking. Basin Lakes has a waterfall, some history in the form of a dilapidated cabin, and the lakes themselves, the lower of which is greened by conifers and lily pads. When we overnighted here in the early nineties, probably in June, we camped just above the lower lake, close to the receding snow line, and picked our morning way across eroded drifts to the still half-frozen upper lake. Two months later in the season and a little over a decade later in the insidious process of global warming, there's still a patch or two of snow in the bowl above the upper lake. The cirque is not jagged like many Beartooth Mountain lake backdrops, but is almost flat across the top, just like a sidewalk, as Cara observes. Well, not exactly, since this sidewalk features a drop off of a thousand feet or so. But her point is well taken. Unlike the splintered granite stacks that jut from other Beartooth peaks, the cirque at Basin Lakes is a simple rim, giving the impression that a hiker on the Silver Run Plateau above could just walk to the edge and look over at the lakes below.
The obvious parts of the trail come back to me-the lakes themselves, the falls- and some more subtle things, like the trailside kinnikinnick, for example. But there are other things I don't remember. Just above the falls, the forest seems to be struggling a bit, some of the needles browned, perhaps by beetles or drought. And, oh yes, the trail is steep. Of course it always has been, but Basin Creek requires a different kind of walking than the sandy plowing of our hikes in the Florida scrub, and the trail seems a lot more demanding than we recall it being.
The sky above the lakes is clear enough for a mountain afternoon, but over to the West, a brown-bellied white sheet marks the Derby Mountain fire, a drought-fed conflagration covering over 200,000 acres, that will still be burning weeks later, consuming summer homes and inspiring heroic mobilization by a small city's worth of firefighters and support staff. Fire is endemic to the Rockies, essential even for the long- term health of grasslands and coniferous woods. But the number, size, and intensity of wildfires have spiked alarmingly, a development keynoted by the iconic infernos that swept Yellowstone in 1988. I've never seen the park without the burned slopes, and, like most park visitors, I've generally accepted the scarred landscape with equanimity as befitting the grand and violent forces that shape and define the place. But a new study concludes that increased temperature is the dominant factor in the prevalence of both drought and fire in recent decades. Nature's adjustment to human-generated changes can be catastrophic, as people living under Derby Mountain, and elsewhere in the West, are finding out.
The "gateway" to the Beartooths is the town of Red Lodge. Bogart's, our traditional after-hiking spot, is so unchanged that I probably would have known instantly where I was even if I had been taken there blindfolded. The food, a mix of Mexican and traditional American dishes, is still good, especially after a mountain ramble.
At the beginning of August, I travel east to see my mother in Rochester. It has been longer than usual since my last visit, in part because of the time and effort expended in selling our house, packing, and moving to Montana. When my son, who has been spending his first summer in Pasadena, decides to visit his grandmother, I take advantage of the opportunity to see them both before he starts his senior year and I begin my new job.
The last time I was in my hometown was for my father's funeral well over a year ago, when I was only able to stay for a weekend. Since then, my mother has moved across town to be closer to my sister, and has, in effect, begun a new life in a senior citizens' apartment building. She has new friends-we're introduced, without names, as "my son and grandson." Son and grandson do most of the requisite Rochester things-stroll out the Ontario Beach Park pier, visit at a backyard picnic table with my old friends as evening grows around us, enjoy a Sunday dinner with my sister's family. And there's a new Rochester activity. In addition to my father, my Uncle Fran and Aunt Fran-his brother and sister-in-law-have died recently. Neither Tom nor I have seen any of their graves before. We pay our respects, then roam the grounds of Holy Sepulcher Cemetery with my sister, who has taken to stitching the generations together through genealogy charts, old photos, headstone maps. Surrounded by so much family history, I can't help but think about my relationship with this city, my first home. Will it still be my home, will I come here at all, when the last of my parents' generation is gone? And will the Upstate New York voice I was born with ever say canyon and coulee with the ease with which it says pier or gorge . Maybe, as novelist Harry Crews believes about his own experience, everything important in one's life dates from childhood. At a conference earlier this summer, a Rochester native asked me if I ever wrote about the city where I was born. Without hesitating, I answered "all the time." I suppose I've been writing about my birthplace from elsewhere for decades. Nothing's really changed, then, except that I now have what's sometimes called an "adopted home." Far from the marshes, woods, and fields of New York, the gray skies and cobble shores of Lake Ontario, I intend to stay.
There was a time, just after high school, when I thought I might spend the rest of my days happily enough in Rochester. I still return to New York State regularly, and I read everything I find about the Great Lakes. No doubt, I'll always be a bit of a foreigner in the Rockies-an Easterner to boot-despite my eight years, so far, in the West, to say nothing of all those High Country News articles I've read. It seems more than a bit presumptuous for me to say anything about such iconic places as Yellowstone, the Tetons, the Little Bighorn. Unlike Hayden and Moran, by the time I got to Yellowstone, everyone already knew about it. I had known about this fabulous place myself since, at maybe eight years old, I discovered a public library copy of National Geographic's America's Wonderlands: the National Parks, with its page-spread glossies artfully framed to eliminate all but the most benign human presences, these consisting mainly of smiling circa-1960 car-camping families seeing the great West for the first time. There were all of the obligatory views-Old Faithful, the Mammoth terraces, the Lower Falls-and a considerable wildlife sampler as well. Fashioning an absurdly ambitious itinerary that would probably have given us at best a couple of hours in each park, I launched a bid to convince my parents that we too should see America's Wonderlands. But my plans never panned out, broken on the reality of my family's limited finances and, perhaps more important, by the close horizons of our eastern perspective. My parents enjoyed traveling to the Adirondacks and New England, as did I, but felt no great need to go further, especially westward, where distances were so famously vast. When at twenty-seven I rode the Greyhound to Louisiana, my personal western horizon was already expanding by the time I reached the Pennsylvania-Ohio border.
The night before I fly back to Billings, my mother and I watch a Travel Channel documentary about Yellowstone. Wonderland again. I know the sights, the issues, even recognize one or two of the interviewed experts. I haven't had time to adjust completely to living in Montana, but, crammed as we are into my mother's tiny apartment, it also seems a bit strange to be in Rochester. I can easily imagine circumstances in which I would return to Upstate New York to live, but I have no real pressing desire to do so. It's almost as if Rochester, confident in the primacy of childhood and resigned as a Northeastern city to losing parts of itself, has made room for the series of other homes that have become "my places."
On our way to the airport to catch our separate planes, Tom says he will soon be a human being again. I think I know what he means. We've been camped in chairs and sleeping bags in my mother's living room for several days, after all. When it comes right down to it, I guess he'll probably feel more-or-less the same way when he returns to California after visiting us this Christmas. He hasn't been to Billings since those occasional shopping trips when he was in grade school. Even with the traditional household objects and his four childhood years in Powell, it's not likely that our new place will seem like home to him. Like military families, the families of college professors tend to move frequently; Tom grew up without the reliable connection that Crews calls an "anchor in the world." But perhaps under any circumstances, the end result of a trip to the past-one's own past-is something like a release, however temporary, into a revitalized present. And despite the best efforts of memory, the present is where we inevitably find the places we return to.
The gray expanse of Lake Ontario follows alongside the plane until, over what I know must be Hamilton, Ontario, it turns back to the east. By that point, Lake Erie has already cut under Ontario's south shore, the two lakes linked by the silver tether of the Niagara River. A while later, the plane's shadow crosses Lake Michigan like the ghost of a voyageur, headed west.
The day before classes start, we visit Powell on a warm early September afternoon, the Bighorn Basin sky filled with smoke from the still-blazing Derby Mountain fire. The Bighorns, Beartooths, and Absarokas are reduced to vague scrim shapes. Heart Mountain slouches, distinct in form but stripped of dimension and color.
Northwest College's once-vibrant flower gardens have grown a bit shabby, but, except for the dorm that burned down a few years ago, it's all pretty much the same. I find my old department just where I left it. We visit friends on campus, make tentative plans to meet in Billings, still the "Magic City" where needed supplies can be obtained. I stop by the "new" science building, under construction when we left, to look for a biologist friend. It turns out that he's teaching. Through the door of his lab, I hear him explaining chlorophyll and photosynthesis. I drop in on another of my former colleagues, a chemist, who doesn't remember me, pointing out embarrassedly but correctly enough that it's much easier for me to identify him since his name is on his office door.
After leaving campus, we walk around downtown. Some businesses-Powell Drug, Hansel and Gretel's Restaurant-have somehow survived this far into the age of chains and chain wannabes. Kragler's five-and-dime has finally been put out of its misery, its dusty artifacts no doubt packed away in boxes cluttering the former proprietor's attic. The War Surplus Store has updated its name and inventory, perhaps reflecting a change in ownership. The most significant new development is the Powell "Merc," for Mercantile, an independent cooperative community business venture that has endeared Powell to reformers across the country and that even earned the town its fifteen minutes of fame in the form of a featured spot on Good Morning America.
Of course, we pass our house, which, equally of course, has been ruined by an eclectic array of alterations that seem to us completely at odds with the original 1914 structure: there's a long, absurdly varnished front stairway replacing the graceful framing columns, and a boxy addition overwhelming the back yard. The old neighborhood has been invaded by faceless contemporary housing. More interesting in a macabre way is the "Coffins of the West" outlet that has ghoulishly appeared around the corner from the house. We don't go in, opting instead for Polecat Bench, where our stay is shortened by biting gnats we don't remember being there before.
A Northwest College friend predicts that the twenty miles between Powell and Cody is filling up so rapidly that in ten years it will all be one big housing tract. Maybe it will, but so far sprawl peters out a mile or two west of town, though the stretch between Powell and its outlier Ralston has been ominously five-laned, a move that smells of visionary boosterism, or maybe just local political corruption. Some government entity has been busy posting wildlife-watching binocular signs and historical markers- not only for genuinely noteworthy "points of interest" like the Heart Mountain Relocation Camp, but also at obscure places like Willwood Dam and Ralston Reservoir-perhaps in an effort to slow down some of that Yellowstone tourist traffic now zooming by on the widened road. For whatever reason, it seems the whole valley has become one big amorphous National Historic Site.
For me, ordinary little Powell will always be a place with great personal resonance-my first job, my first house, my son's elementary school. And Powell was the base from which I first experienced so many things-geysers and badlands, mountain lions and grizzly bears. The Powell Valley was the looking glass or rabbit hole that led to Wonderland. In a different way it still is. The life of the community has, of course, gone on without us, but versions of ourselves will always be trapped in their own bit parts in its receding history, just across the century divide.
As a late September afternoon slips into evening, we sit on rocks above the gravel shores of Mary Bay on Yellowstone Lake. It has been raining all week in Billings, and fresh snow dusts the Red Mountains and Absarokas. It's evident that a hot blaze has surged east of the lake sometime in the past few years, long after the 1988 fires, but only the fumaroles of Steamboat Point are smoking now.
Cloudbanks left by the week's storms strain color from the sunlight, leaving lake, mountain, and sky shades of a metallic silvery gray. Even the pied goldeneyes scattered on the bay have given up their crisp markings to the season and the general silver gilding. A ridge of burned trees holds onto some yellow, but the live pines across the water etch black mirages of island and promontory.
From somewhere far behind us Cara picks up the bugling of an elk, at this distance melodious, almost thrushlike. After a while, a closer answer sounds over our left shoulders. The nearer bull, stationed atop the lakeshore ridge, unleashes jazzy runs, high trumpet squeals breaking downward into deeper treble registers, all underlain by bass huffing. A long howl turns our heads. Wolf? Again the canine voice preempts the elk music with another searching howl, this time collapsing into the insane giggles that separate coyote from its larger, reintroduced cousin.
Earlier in the day, we had driven through robust young forest growth, naturally reseeded, a sign told us, after the great 1988 fires. At Norris Geyser Basin, we stopped to immerse ourselves on this cool fall day in the heat and smell of geysers and hot springs. Norris roiled with the sounds of various thermal features: the spitting of tiny boiling springs, the hiss of steamvents, the popping of hot mud, the oceanic heaving of Steamboat Geyser, the streaming of its runoff channel. Overhead, the occasional quoik -Bernd Heinrich's onomatopoeic term-and heavy flap of ravens, along with the small chips of chickadees and juncos, added organic notes to the geophysical, mineral music of geysers and springs. Cara and I took turns, one of us hiking the boardwalks while the other read or strolled around the parking lot so Rita could get her fill of the scents of buffalo and elk. Whether these essences recalled her to the puppyhood before her doggie-lifetime absence I couldn't tell, but she certainly seemed to be enjoying herself. A passerby commented that she was doing well for a "senior citizen."
Leaving Mary Bay, we cross Sylvan Pass before the nightly closure turns the road into a work zone. The east entrance reconstruction is still not finished after eleven years, the summit a semi-permanent building depot and a reminder of how dependent our travels are on that singularly destructive means of transportation, the private car. Today we will drive about 400 miles to, through, and from the park. The more frequent, shorter trips for Beartooth hiking trails, prairie birding, and visits to Cody or Powell also add up. We adopt mitigation measures, minimizing in-town driving, avoiding buying gas from the most vicious oil companies-good things to do for certain, but bearing a taint of rationalization. Of course, we would support and use a Denali-style shuttle if one existed, but such a fundamental reform would have to break through the region's stubborn and not altogether charmless traditionalism. Besides, we'd still have to get from Billings to wherever the shuttle routes started. The inveterate wilderness hiker and advocate Bob Marshall claimed that some people need access to wild places to retain sanity and spirit. I can't be much use to anyone, I suppose, without either, but the fact remains that the car that brings us to Yellowstone-with its never-ending demands for oil and its universal invitation to a world of irresponsible mobility-represents an insidious danger, far more formidable than grizzly bears, fires, or the terrorists who have cast such a pall over American actions and ideals.
Construction conditions on the pass are hard, with snow falling from September to May. Even during the summer building season, work shifts are limited to the night hours to allay the fears of tourism cloutmasters in Cody, some fifty miles down the North Fork canyon. In truth, despite the challenges, progress has been made. The roadway is basically smooth and graded, if as yet unpaved. The stone walls built to keep the road, and the Winnebagos that lurch along it toward the RV camp at Fishing Bridge, from sliding into the creek below evoke the WPA remnants of twentieth-century American history I've seen in parks throughout the country.
I have to admit that the Wyoming Department of Transportation has done a pretty good job modernizing the North Fork road, our original and most frequent route between Yellowstone and Powell. Eleven years ago, this road was slated for a controversial upgrade. Highway engineers and Cody tourist interests wanted a safe, fast, modern parkway to Yellowstone while wildlife and status quo defenders, myself included, feared that a new high-speed road would fundamentally alter the canyon. The finished product, according to Cara, who is driving, is easy and safe, while the fifty-mile-per-hour speed limit maintains a fair semblance of the mountain drive atmosphere the road had before the project (by contrast, the approach to Mammoth through wildlife-rich Paradise Valley carries a speed limit of seventy).
But if the highway hasn't altered the canyon profoundly, the North Fork has changed nonetheless. After feasting on dying timber left from the 1988 Yellowstone fires, douglas-fir beetles careened into the canyon, leaving mountainsides a mosaic of dead and living conifers, with the skeletal ghost trees predominating. An estimated 50,000 North Fork trees were killed by beetles between 2000 and 2002. A 2003 Forest Service assessment predicts a douglas-fir mortality rate of 40-70% in some areas, barring the use of "anti-aggregation hormones" and some "sanitation harvesting" of damaged trees. The beetles are native, an expected agent of ecological renewal. But they are encouraged by drought and fire, and shorter, milder winters have resulted in extended
outbreaks. If the current nearly decade-long drought ends, with or without Forest Service intervention the douglas-firs are likely to recover, but when they do, the beetles will be waiting for the next round of drought and fire.
By the time we've lost the mountain clouds and made the lower reaches of the canyon, most of the remaining daylight is locked in the gold of riverside cottonwoods. We spill through the three tunnels-the bear and cubs we used to call them-into the Bighorn Basin. At Cody we seek out Zapata's, which has relocated to a downtown storefront right across the street from the
elegant, long-established La Comida, a business risk exhibiting chutzpah to match the restaurant's name and the photos of rebels from Robert E. Lee to Ché Guevara that adorn its walls. The enchiladas and rellenos are covered with enough hot green chili sauce to make us glad we have some water left for the ride home. On our way back to Billings, we stop several times for deer and pull over twice, first to lose ourselves in the Basin stars and a second time to watch an eerie green sheet pulsing just above the horizon ahead of us, our first northern lights since we left Maine seven years ago.
The Wonderland tinfoil wrapping geysers, canyons, wildlife, for a hundred and fifty years, shaping and shading my own experience since National Geographic's America's Wonderlands: the National Parks makes, on the face of it, a cheap and silly way to think about a real place presumably indifferent to our adulation. But is it really so unfortunate to think of such a place as "full of wonders"? For myself, I can't say whether the nature of the Yellowstone country declares its own sacredness-its impressive array of singular features is after all pretty unusual-or whether its global status as a landmark of environmental conservation is the source of its power. In Searching for Yellowstone , Paul Schullery, whose thirty years of writing about the park has made him something like its official literary voice, cites the postmodern notion "that we humans decided to set Yellowstone apart because it was important to our culture," but concludes that park "exploration is always a mixture of wondering and wonderment, of awe at the place and excitement at what it has come to mean to us." All of our experience is phenomenological in the sense that the past, both cultural and individual, shapes and defines our perception as well as our ideas.
Yellowstone mists and steams in dynamic beauty at the center of a field of experience and landscape so inextricably intertwined that, even if I thought it was important to do so, I could not separate the elements of my reaction. The National Geographic books, the Thomas Moran paintings, an evening walk around Geyser Hill with my family, a mountain lion slinging itself like a rope along the Chief Joseph highway late one night when we were on our way from Mammoth to Powell, a covey of sharp-tailed grouse poking through tall grass on the hill where Reno waited for Custer, the oddball dialect we developed to play mountain man on the North Fork road from Cody to Sylvan Pass-my own idiosyncratic constellation of place, event, and experience forms a smoky aurora I could not dispel even if I wanted to.
Most years, the road leading through Crow Reservation farmland toward the northern end of Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area would rattle with trucks bound for the sugar refinery in Billings, but today it's nearly empty. Flocks of Canada geese drift across beet fields, the harvest dangerously delayed by inopportune rains. There's plenty of bitter irony in agriculture, especially in this marginally arable land; in the midst of a ten-year drought, farmers are unable to bring in their crops because of mud. Election Day was two weeks ago; colorful but obsolete signs pushing Burns or Tester, candidates in the hotly contested United States Senate race, cling to fences in the wind. Burns seems to have the advantage here, but it wasn't enough in the actual election, which went, narrowly, to Tester.
Most of Bighorn Canyon's sites of interest-the wild horse range, the historic ranches, the thousand-foot overlook into Devil Canyon, are to the south, accessible only through Wyoming. At the north end visitor's center, closed for the season, imperative signs warn us that the Department of Homeland Security will apprehend anyone approaching the Yellowtail and Afterbay dams. Overkill to be sure in such an obscure place: Fort Smith, Montana, its few streets
muddy, dusty and icy by turns, seems an unlikely target for foreign terrorists. Such diligence is probably just standard procedure in the post-9/11 world, although the Bighorn River between the dam and its confluence with the Yellowstone is the epitome of a western blue-ribbon trout fishery, attracting well-heeled sports, among them the Vice President of the United States.
Today it's unseasonably warm. A few small flies waver in the air as we descend the Beaver Pond Trail past Lime Kiln Creek's extensive beaver workings. The short path ends at an overlook view of the distant "Afterbay," its mergansers apparently untroubled by the water control structure that defines their refuge. Later, we try the official scenic drive through the Bighorn foothills to Yellowtail Dam, which, of course, we have already been warned not to approach. The dam is a 1960s Bureau of Reclamation project, its environs managed by the National Park Service "with input from the Crow tribe," part of a history of cooperation which, if it served the tribe poorly on the Greasy Grass in 1876, has arguably worked mostly in their favor. Not that Crow acceptance of the water project has been universal. While not an opponent of the project as such, Robert Yellowtail, a tribal chairman for whom the dam is named, considered the federal government's approach to Crow water rights exploitative. Other objections were more fundamental. As with many such projects, lands were condemned and graves were inundated. Like other Indian nations, the Crow are beset by a variety of economic and social problems, and the tribe has been involved in long-standing legal disputes on issues ranging from water policy to coal extraction. Still, the extensive Crow Reservation-the largest in Montana-incorporates a prime portion of the people's traditional homeland, and the tribe is at least able to influence policy not only in the National Recreation Area, but also at the Little Bighorn Battlefield, which, ironically enough, is surrounded by Crow land.
Scenic drive motorists are instructed not to wander away from the road without tribal permission. A pulloff interpretive display, designed by Northwest College art students and faculty while we lived in Powell, explains the Crow heritage, reprising the oft-repeated assertion by a Crow leader variously called Eelapuash or Arapooish that "The Crow Country is exactly in the right place. Everything good is to be found there. There is no country like the Crow Country." The open range and brushy meadows, with early snows already dressing the forested slopes of the gently rounded mountains, attest to the justice of his evaluation.
At the bottom of a harrowing descent, the road dead-ends at a lackluster reservoir picnic area. We grab some snacks from the car and take the short paved lakeside path circling the parking lot. The daylight fading, we climb back up the grade, and are soon heading away from the canyon, back north along the Bighorn. After a twilight walk through bare cottonwoods at one of the many fishing access sites-only locals or die-hards working the river this late in the day and season-we turn west, following the Yellowstone toward Billings, racing to beat a storm front looming in from the Pacific. The temperature is already falling, and there will be snow on the ground when the sun rises tomorrow morning.
The river, so they say, was named roche jaune -yellow stone-not for its cream and butterscotch canyon in the park but rather for the Rimrocks, a hulking layer of Eagle Sandstone stacked on crumbling slopes intermittently on either side-mostly the north- of the Yellowstone around Billings. The cliffs are fissured by runoff and ice, and the centuries have strewn a frozen landslide of boulders across the prestigious neighborhoods at their base; some room-size rocks have been incorporated into the designs of opulent homes and decks.
Just across the river from the city, Coburn Road follows an old stage line down Bitter Creek to a hollow in the South Rims secluding three "Indian caves." The identity of the Indians who painted the eponymous pictographs of Pictograph Cave State Park is something of a mystery. They weren't the Crows, who arrived from points east some two thousand years after the earliest pictographs were rendered.
Like the others, the biggest cave-Pictograph Cave itself-is actually more like an alcove or rock shelter than a true cavern. The panel of drawings has been damaged, in part by WPA-funded excavators who showed more enthusiasm than skill, at one point sandblasting the drawings in an attempt to clean them. Still, a few ancient lines and forms can be made out, enhanced when viewed through binoculars and compared to the park's interpretative display. In better shape are images of horses and rifles, added-sometimes superimposed on the originals-by later people, perhaps Crow or Cheyenne artists or historians.
Beset as it is by all those ghosts, the dry landscape seems meditative and quiet, but there is plenty of life here. Swifts flick across the Rims, disappear into creases of stone. A redtail lands in a ponderosa pine. A harrier skitters over the Rimrock edge to hang buteo-like above the caves. Higher, a golden eagle floats, a solid black speck against the glare of sun and cloud. A passing pair of ravens breaks the quiet. Down in the ravine where springs ran as recently as twenty years ago, cottonwoods and box elders still find enough moisture to make a home for chats and brown thrashers. Desert cottontails graze near cover, occasionally dashing through open stretches between patches of brush. The ubiquitous rock wrens pick dragonflies off the grilles of cars in the parking lot.
On our way home, we stop at Four Dances Natural Area, a windswept grass and prickly pear plateau where the Rims break abruptly down to the river. All summer Montana has been feting William Clark, the intrepid captain who, temporarily separated from Meriwether Lewis, eased with the current two hundred years ago on his way from the wonders of the West back to what was then the border of the United States. Maybe he banked in close to this cliff, stalling against the flow, examining the flats where downtown Billings now stands. Some hold that he carved his name in the Billings Rimrocks as well as downstream at Pompey's Pillar National Monument. Here also, the obligatory legend has it, some Crows, stricken by smallpox, leaped to their deaths in the river below (this tale may have migrated to Four Dances from another "Sacrifice Cliff" which itself was sacrificed for the city's MetraPark arena). The Yellowstone, for its part, is settling into the willow and cottonwood life of a prairie stream, carrying the last undammed river's worth of water from its mountained youth to the mid-continental floodplains of the Missouri and the Mississippi.
Seen from Four Dances, the riverfront is far from pristine. In fact, it is the city that is framed by the view, the foreground dominated by the tanks, the filtration ponds, the hollow hum of a substantial water treatment plant. Its hotels and offices nudged by refinery works, downtown peers from behind parked boxcars and oil tankers. I-90 hauls lone business travelers toward Seattle and families of tourists toward Mammoth Hot Springs. On the North Rim across town, the airport tower blinks in an occasional plane. The Billings area may not be scenically spectacular by Wonderland standards, but its ponderosa-topped ridges and riparian bluffs are marked by thousands of years of human passage-pictographs, explorers' graffiti, stagecoach trails, battlefields, railroads, highways, fire scars. The Yellowstone Valley remains a traveler's country, as it's been for millennia.
The river at Billings carries the flash of water that drifted through the meadows of Hayden Valley and dove over the falls into the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone before skirting-or circulating through-the city's water treatment system. Downstream from town, the same water will pass Clark's signature at Pompey's Pillar, mix with the tributary flow of the Bighorn and Little Bighorn, and drop ultimately into the Missouri and Mississippi, where it will have to run a gauntlet of dams and diversions before what's left of it, burdened by agricultural chemicals and fertilizers, will add to the Dead Zone plume in the Gulf of Mexico. On reaching the sea it will lose itself to the rhythms of ocean currents, circling the Gulf or brushing north across the coast of Florida. When I stood on the beach at Long Key State Park last January, the Gulf Stream was close enough that I make out its uneven border, browned by sargassum, mixed, no doubt, with debris from northbound ships. It didn't occur to me at the time that I might be seeing traces of the Yellowstone River. I didn't know, either, that that trip would be my farewell visit to the Keys, that like water my travels would follow their own circuit, spinning me back, despite drought, fire, and time, to the tattered rimrock edge of America's Wonderland.