Over the Volcano

Woody Harrelson was right. Yellowstone Park is a huge volcano and it's about to blow up. Well, it didn't blow up in 2010, as in the eponymous movie, and it didn't blow up this summer when I was there. But there are signs.

Yellowstone is heartbreakingly beautiful in the most American way. Pristine. Green. Pine covered. Crystalline waters where fishermen in waders cast their lines. Then there's the wildlife, protected for so long they don't fear humans: one night a huge bison walked casually through the campsite. The big creatures often stop traffic as they slowly cross a road. Moose and elk abound, but I failed to see a fully antlered male of either. Nor a bear, neither a moderately harmless black one or the king of kings: ursus arctos horribilis. No wolves either, though one day a coyote tied up traffic as it meandered down a road, looking apologetic for being so small and skinny, unlike its wolf cousins that would give us tourists a bigger thrill.

But Woody was right. Underneath the green landscape a volcano of terrifying proportions seethes. That's why we go. To watch Old Faithful geyser up faithfully, though when I was there it was running at a languid pace. It is the wilding going on beneath the surface that gives this lovely piece of America its particular attraction. Paradiso/Inferno: too obvious, but what else is a Catholic boy to think? The geysers are sweet; however, the mud holes bubbling sulfur look as if from some evil planet. Like plague sores. We live on a thin layer of sweetness; underneath burn the sulfuric fires the Christian Brothers warned me about. The animals in the park have their own agenda

I didn't see the big bison herd that is one of the Park's sources of pride. But I saw plenty of lone creatures, though sometimes in a pair or even a small entourage. Brother-in-law Rodger told me these were young males that had been kicked out of the herd by a bull who did not care to share his cows. Their goal is to go back to challenge the old bull, beat him and become the stud bull himself.

I gave thanks that though its primal drama rang bells, in my species I was not obliged to act out a ritual I was doomed to lose. Still, I didn't have to approach a bubbling mud hole to sense the fiery turmoil underneath the soil. Here it was. In the blood of these big beasts that have played a role, real and symbolic, in the American scene.

Most of the lonely bulls did not look quite ready to take on their designated champ. They were too young and skinny and unimpressive. Some were big but seemed rather indolent and chill. But as we drove around the park I saw one that was primed. He was not posing for tourists while blocking the road or lying peacefully in a meadow chewing on grass. He was sharpening his horns on a tree trunk with all the intensity of a heavyweight contender.

For he was a heavyweight. Unlike the younger bison this bull was fully fitted with big muscles. I gave thanks again that my species doesn't do that. Not literally anyway, though Alpha games get played all the time in human male society. The bull didn't care what I thought. He was, quite literally, full of himself. All sexual urge and aggression. He swung his big neck this way and that sliding the horns along the tree trunk at just the right angles. Soon he'd be ready. And he meant business.