Someplace you might otherwise avoid, but have got to see — Yellowstone and its bubble and boil

What causes geysers, hot springs, fumaroles, and mudpots?  In part, a partially molten magma chamber below the earth’s surface, remnant of a cataclysmic volcanic eruption that occurred hundreds of thousands of years ago.

Sounds like someplace you might want to avoid.

Not so.

Each year two to three million people visit just such a place and walk along boardwalks across steaming pools and bubbling holes at Yellowstone National Park, where a volcano experienced huge eruptions 2 million, then 1.3 million, and most recently 640,000 years ago. “The magmatic heat powering those eruptions still powers the park’s hydrothermal features.”  (National Park Service brochure – Yellowstone).

I don’t know about you, but the idea of volcanoes frightens the bajeebies out of me. One word. Pompeii.

And had I fully realized that I would be walking around the top of a volcano, I likely wouldn’t have been nearly as enthusiastic about visiting Yellowstone where, lacking any grasp of either geology or geography (just ask my husband who will be happy to tell you), I expected to merely see Old Faithful, never really thinking about why.

So yes, I was surprised when I was walking along boardwalks and the truth set in.

Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone has the distinction of being the first national park in the world. William Henry Jackson’s photographs and Thomas Moran’s sketches influenced Congress to establish Yellowstone  in 1872. Yellowstone contains over 10,000 hydrothermal features, approximately one-half of the world’s. There are over 300 geysers in the park. ( National Park Service- Yellowstone )

Yellowstone occupies the northwest corner of the state of Wyoming where it has entrances from the north, northeast, east, south, and west. We were in southern Montana in June of 2010 for a wedding and decided to spend a day at Yellowstone. We entered through the north entrance and exited through the west entrance.  (See a map.)

Mammoth Hot Springs Terraces

Our first stop was the Mammoth Hot Spring Terraces.

Mammoth Hot Spring Terraces – Yellowstone Park – June 2010

The landscape was so foreign

that I felt like I had stepped onto a different planet,

or perhaps the moon.

Boardwalks drew lines across the surface,

zigzagging back and forth,

climbing up to an elevation change of 300 feet.

We were at Jupiter Terrace (which I thought was an appropriate name even though I’ve never been to Jupiter and can only imagine). In the 1980s Jupiter spring “flowed so heavily that it overtook boardwalks several times.  It has been dry since 1992, but when active, its color and intricate terraces make Jupiter an appealing spring.” (National Park Service – Jupiter)

Even though it was clearly dangerous,

even hostile ground,

beauty prevailed.

The park signage said to allow a minimum of 2 hours to walk the trail system. Being on a blitz trip though the park, we walked a little ways, retraced our steps and returned to our car.

Yellowstone is surrounded by rugged mountain peaks.

We saw groups of what might have been deer grazing along the roadside,

and a mama grizzly with a cub (near the top at the bottom of the tree).

We drove by fire-decimated forests, struggling for a new foothold,

and steam rising from the mountainside,  a constant reminder of the persistent furnace pumping out heat below the surface.

We saw a herd of bison, old and young,

with babies nursing,

and adults drinking from clear water.

We saw bison stopping traffic, crossing the road,

up close and personal.

The road system inside the park is a figure eight. We entered at the top left of the eight and drove around to the bottom right point of the top circle to get to the Yellowstone canyon.

I wish I could tell you more about the canyon, but we weren’t able to spend a lot of time there and it’s been two years. I believe we might have gotten out at the Artist Point overlook, but don’t hold me to it.

We did see the falls. But whether this is the upper or lower falls, I couldn’t tell you. Perhaps you know?

The stone along the canyon walls was very yellow in most places, providing the inspiration for the name of the park.

We left the canyon and traveled southeast along the lower circle of the figure eight drive,

stopping once when we couldn’t resist the steam rising up from the sulpher caldron

where the liquid was visibly boiling.

In that same area, we saw a circular hole filled with

brown, bubbling mud.

We drove on towards Old Faithful, passing Shoshone Lake. During Yellowstone volcano’s last eruption, “the park’s central portion collapsed, forming a 30- by 45-mile caldera, or basin. [. . .]” The lake occupies the southeast corner of the caldera. “Just north of the lake the land surface rises and subsides. This suggests that the Yellowstone caldera is not dormant and will likely erupt again.”  (National Park Service brochure – Yellowstone).

Old Faithful

The Yellowstone visitor’s center lists the times Old Faithful is predicted to go off. When we arrived there was just a little steam rising out of it.

But a crowd had gathered, and we saw that we had arrived just in time.

It started off small,

and then, Wow!

After hearing about Old Faithful all my life, it was an amazing thing to behold.

You can read about how geysers work at the National Parks website.

Midway Geyser Basin

We first saw the Midway Geyser Basin, our final stop on our day at Yellowstone, from a distance.

There we were back to the boardwalks again, and heading towards what could be the smoke from a raging inferno for all we knew.

Shallow pools of water cover colorful mats that contain millions of micro organisms.

The 1/2 mile boardwalk trail first took us past the bubbling blue water from the Excelsior Geyser.

Next we circled past the Grand Prismatic Spring, Yellowstone’s largest hot spring, and one that provides a photographer’s paradise.

I believe this is the  Opal Pool near the end of the circular trail. I found the pastel colors here enchanting.

We ended our trip to Midway Geyser Basin, and Yellowstone Park, at the Turquoise Pool—the colors here have to be seen to be believed.

Two years later I still don’t know what a fumarole is.

But Yellowstone is absolutely worth a visit. If I made it out alive, you probably will too.

But go soon.

Experience a day in Pompeii

When the great Mount Vesuvius rumbled in A.D. 62, shaking down rooftops and cracking walls in the city of Pompeii that lay in its shadow, the people of Pompeii rebuilt their walls and covered their structures with new roofs. Seventeen years later, when the great volcano spewed its fury down, the city of Pompeii crumbled and burned. So did the citizens who were unable to flee. Within a day from the first rumblings, the once-great Pompeii was buried under 12 feet of ash.  Eventually, it was forgotten.

The events of Pompeii are facts, but in many ways they feel more like myth or legend. Over the years, Archaeologists have brought the A.D. 79  thriving city back to life. And now, and with the help of The Cincinnati Museum Center, we are all able to experience “A Day in Pompeii.”

Bacchus, Roman god of wine

The volcano eruption that destroyed Pompeii also preserved it where it lay sleeping until a farmer digging a well struck the ancient theater of Herculaneum and found ancient marble sculptures in the early 1700s.

Bust of Cornelius Rufus

This statue was likely commissioned as a memorial to the individual depicted. Unlike the Romans’ tendency to idealize the human body, this sculpture shows the lines and wrinkles of an aging man.

Alabaster cremation urn

This might be my favorite piece in the exhibit, although the radiance of alabaster is difficult to capture in a photo. It was carved from a single block of alabaster.

Replica of marble relief — Mercury, messenger of the Gods and patron of travelers

In many ways, this exhibit reminded me of our trip to Italy,

Replica of marble relief — Minerva, virgin goddess of warriors, poetry, medicine, wisdom, commerce, and crafts

for good reason I suppose, with all the sculptures of the Roman gods.

Fresco of Bacchus and his love Ariadne

Frescos made by painting on top of fresh plaster decorated the walls of Pompeii, similar to those seen in historic sites all over Italy.

Maybe I’ve watched one too many episodes of “Bones,” because I completely understood when the sign explained that these are facial reconstructions made from the skulls found at the house of Marcus Julius Polybius. It’s a little disconcerting to look at someone’s face who you know was a victim of great tragedy. They can’t tell us their story. We can only guess from the items they left behind.

Portable oven

Whenever possible, cooking and baking was done outside of the dwelling places. Possibly also used to bake bread, this portable stove would have been carried outside. When a fire was built in the bottom, a meal could be cooked on top.

Portable stove

A charcoal fire would have been built on the flat base of this portable stove allowing pots and pans to be placed above the curved sections. A griddle could be added on top of the coals to cook fish and meat.

Water container

This container may have held drinking water for a family. Some containers and water pipes were made from lead because it is a soft metal and easily shaped. Now we know that lead can be deadly.

Gladiator helmet

This helmet would have been worn by a gladiator at Pompeii’s amphitheater. It would have held a plume of feathers or horsehair on the crest on top. A set of bronze gladiator shin guards were also on display in this exhibit.

Wine containers

No ancient Roman household would be complete without wine amphoras. The standard amphora was designed to hold one cubic foot of wine. The little one must have been a trial size.

Burial objects

Here are some of the objects found beside burial urns to accompany the person to the Underworld.

Memento Mori Mosaic (Remember your mortality)

Pompeii was a city with many affluent people who owned statues and homes decorated with mosaics and frescoes. As you might expect, many of them had jewelry.


This rope chain necklace could be worn crisscrossed over the chest and back, or looped several times around the neck.

Gold arm bands

These gold arm bands were found in a building believed to be a brothel. They were still around the skeletal arms of two young women.

Reconstructed loaf of bread

This loaf of bread is a plaster copy from a carbonized original. The wealthy ate leavened bread with every meal. The poor could not afford bread made with yeast and ate hard unleavened bread similar to pita.

Herma and garden wall fresco

These herma are made from marble. Herma typically depicted the Greek god Hermes, patron of travelers. Herma stood as pillars at street corners. In the background you can see the large fresco that covered a garden wall.

As part of the “A Day in Pompeii” exhibit, a time-lapsed mult-media room recreates the sights, sounds and then silence of the city’s final hours from the time the walls first shook in the morning of the fateful day, through the barrage of hot ash and the ensuing fires, to the blast of ash that covered the city in the final hours.

Cast of skeletal remains at Herculaneum

Pompeii was not the only city in the path of Vesuvius’ destruction. Herculaneum, four miles to the north, was also destroyed.  Many people who fled the burning city took refuge in boat houses near the sea waiting for rescue. They were killed by a pyroclastic surge of ash and hot gases. These 32 people were found together. The group included nine children.

Close up of skeletal cast

A closer look at the back of the cast reveals an individual sitting with bent legs. He or she is apparently trying to protect the skull of the individual lying beneath.

The most moving part of the exhibit were the body casts of the victims of Vesuvius who refused, or were unable, to leave. These ill-fated individuals likely took shelter in buildings during the early part of the disaster. When the volcanic materials made it to the upper floors of the buildings they were in, they tried to escape across the layers of ash and stone accumulating on the ground.

During the next phase of the eruption with pyroclastic surges of scalding moist ash, these people were likely asphyxiated. The wet material encased their bodies where they fell, preserving detailed facial expressions and, at times, folds of clothing. When the bodies eventually decomposed, they left behind a cavity not unlike a mold. From this scientists were able to recreate the last moments of victims’ lives.

The body casts are at the end of the exhibit. I found them difficult to look at. There is a man reaching out to a woman when they died. There is a child. A young woman. A soldier sitting up, trying to protect his face with his cape (not pictured below). Real live human beings caught in the moment when time ended.

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A Day in Pompeii is an educational, fascinating, and moving exhibit. I hope you have the opportunity to experience it someday.

Active volcanoes in the United States of America

There are three active volcanoes in the continental United States: Mount St. Helens, Mount Ranier, and Yellowstone.

All information is from the brochures and signs of “A Day in Pompeii.”