Of Bison and Geysers

IMG_1511Our breath bit our lungs as J and I trudged toward Norris Geyser Basin, our boots squeaking beneath our feet. Yellowstone’s winter landscape of sculpted snow stills and silences the atmosphere around it. To step outside even the quiet of a single family cabin is to enter a world that, in my dad’s words, “almost sucks the noise out of your head.”

I could use a little more silence like that.

We were on our way to Echinus Geyser which, at that time, erupted on a regular, predictable schedule with regular, predictable indicators. It began with the gradual filling of its earthen bowl–from the bottom up–until the water spilled over the top and spread out across the slope followed by sudden bursts of steam and water forty to sixty feet skyward. Then the bowl would drain and thirty-five to seventy-five minutes later, it would begin again.


We arrived at Norris on rented snowmobiles with four-stroke engines, quieter than the traditional two-stroke now required in the park. The quiet, so much a gift to a weary human mind, is for the animals–an attempt to disturb less their efforts to survive Yellowstone’s harsh winter. We left the parking lot and walked through the deep winter cold over the boardwalk. It wasn’t shoveled and we made our way over a path of packed snow left by visitors who came before us.

Provided you have some way to keep from getting lost, it’s permissible to wander off-trail many places in Yellowstone. In the thermal areas, however, both rules and sense require that you keep to the boardwalk. The surface is thin in these volatile places. Some who have gone cross-country in thermal areas have gotten burned or even died.

The animals get to go where they will. During the winter, warm ground and steamy air draw the bison in. There they’ll be, gathered near a pool, or a spring, or a geyser and resting on a plot of thermal earth, hoar-frost built up on their fur like suit of armor.


When I see them converged around a geyser I always wonder what they do when it erupts. I wonder if instinct tells them it’s coming. Or if somehow they know how close they can get. If they get scared and run away. Or if they just get burned.

When we arrived at Echinus, we took a seat to wait for the eruption in company with a small group of bison congregated at the edge of Echinus’ bowl.

Some sat on the snowless ground, their legs tucked neatly under their bulky bodies. Others stood motionless in the rising steam. The bowl began to fill. The bison did nothing. The steamy tower thickened and grew in size. No visible response from the bison. Hot water overflowed the bowl and spilled down the slope. The bison just sat there. And then superheated water, trapped in the earth long enough that it rose above the boiling point, burst from the bowl and into the air.  Finally, after years of wondering, I learned what bison do when a geyser they are perched next to erupts.

They move. Slowly.

They hoist their immense bodies up and lumber away, just out of reach of the water.

It wasn’t what I expected. It wasn’t what I expected because it’s not what I would have done. I would have rushed.

But they just moved away, and not until they needed to.

Just like I could use some of Yellowstone’s winter silence, I could use some of that slow, timely movement. Because here’s what happens when I rush: I run right over the most important things and like the saying goes, The most important things in life aren’t things. They’re people. And while I don’t usually run directly over them, I squash their feelings. I miss the details that matter to them. I miss them.

So here’s what I’m trying to remember today: Just move. Slowly.

Sharing today at Thoughtful Thursday and Small Wonders.




12 thoughts on “Of Bison and Geysers

  1. Kathryn Shirey says:

    We could all use a little more slowness in our lives. How many times would we not even go near in fear of what may happen? And if we do cautiously step in, we usually are quick to run out. Love this image of the bison slowly lumbering just out of reach, only when they had to move.

  2. Incredible lessons here, Natalie, and so nicely told! You had me from the beginning. I was expecting the bison to trot away quickly, but to move slowly…surprised me too. Funny–as my husband and I watched a medical drama last night, I commented about the paramedics not running–shouldn’t they be hurrying? My husband said they never needed to run. Really? So you’re repeating his lesson here. Twice in 12 hours. Maybe God is telling me something? 🙂 Thanks!

    • Good to pay attention to those repeats, isn’t it? And isn’t it funny how it seems that hurry would help in emergency situations, it doesn’t. Thanks for sharing that and thanks for your kind words.

  3. Ok this is a really cool illustration and lesson. I kind of wanna be a bison too now. On a serious note it is such a valuable quality to learn to slow down. Yet such a tough one too. There are times I feel like I do pretty well with it, other times when I probably don’t. I guess the thing that makes it tricky is that there are times when we need to be urgent, but, like you say, times when we need to be relaxed and keep from reacting unnecessarily – learning to tell one from the other, well, I’m hoping it will come with time. Thanks for a really interesting and edifying read (and I love your father’s turn of phrase “almost sucks the noise out of your head.” – great line).

  4. ambercadenas says:

    I always feel in the presence of a kindred spirit when I come here and hear your stories, see life through your eyes and words, Natalie. I wish for more of that silence that “sucks the noise out of your head,” that often comes to those who wait and listen, out in the company of the natural world. And the lessons we learn here, they never cease to keep coming, do they, when we pay attention? I love those bison and what you gathered from their slow movement. Thank you for joining us this week at Small Wonder.

Thanks for your comment!