By Mandy Cloninger

Yellowstone deserves more than, “Wow!” Yet it’s such a simple, small word to convey that I don’t have words: the awe. It conveys through its simplicity, the vastness, the creation, the majesty and the divinity all wrapped in a pretty profound, three-letter word.

There were moments each and every day that the awe and wonder, the WOW! of discovering the beauty around every turn, just washed over me. It was like bathing in the beauty of creation. 

Yellowstone’s caldera and beauty were created by at least three cataclysmic volcanic eruptions 600,000-800,000 years ago! It’s termed a super-volcano, now considered dormant, but you can both see and feel the heat, the geothermal bubbling, gushing and hissing from the magma chamber underneath your feet that is about 37 miles (60 km) long, 18 miles (29 km) wide, and 3 to 7 miles (5 to 12 km) deep. More than half of the world’s geysers, geothermal and hydrothermal features are in Yellowstone, fueled by this ongoing volcanism. (All of this acquired knowledge from the Yellowstone app as well as Alex – our amazing REI guide!!!)

You can see the generations of time exposed in the caldera, the rocks, the valleys, the layers. Something beautiful was born in those first few eruptions, and nature has evolved and recreated itself over and over. It has burned, risen and recreated itself again and again just like a Phoenix rising from the ashes. It was created long before I was and will be here long after I’m gone. Yellowstone has a way of helping you to examine your own smallness in the greater landscape of nature. 

There is something to be learned in its vastness, the diversity of terrain, its consistency and yet its ever-evolving nature. Because it is still an active volcanic area, it is always evolving. Don’t we have that opportunity though too? To recreate ourselves, to rewrite our story, to try anew each and every single day? It also framed in my mind how subtle changes every single day, each year, help mold the old into the new. How when you look at the same landscape years or decades later, the cumulative changes can be breathtaking. Our lives are like that too. Each year may only have slight nuanced differences, yet when you look at the whole, or each decade, the changes seem immense. I seem different, yet I am still me. Wherever I go, whenever I go, there I am.

I was wowed by the hydrothermal features: the hot springs, the geysers, the mudpots and fumaroles. There are more than 10,000 hydrothermal features and 500 geysers in Yellowstone. Some of my favorites included Dragon’s Cauldron, where I could imagine the dragon sleeping in the dark, moist cave, and the steam, bubbling and gurgling sounded like his snore. The Lonestar Geyser, the largest backcountry geyser in the park with a 40′ eruption every three hours, marked the start of our group hike, and there’s nothing that a Texas-girl likes more than a nod to her home state. It was more subtle than Old Faithful, with fewer spectators, and yet, still shooting water straight from the ground to the sky, a feat to behold. I mean the day that the Lonestar Geyser & Old Faithful do not spurt on cue, we might as well just all sit down and watch the Big Show!

Mr. Bubbles was easily one of my favorite spots and moments of the whole trip! A water girl by nature, I was as I self-proclaimed: the first in and the last one out. I’m certain that my smile was Texas-sized as I waded into the water and navigated the pulsing heat and cool stream. I endeavored to find the right pocket with just enough heat to soothe my aching muscles, and be able to quickly swim over to the cooler stream when the heat got to be too much. It was a delightful challenge. I could have stayed here all day. I wish I had stayed there all day. But like so many moments that WOW! you in Yellowstone, there is literally always more right around the corner. 

The challenge with so much that we love in travel, adventure and the outdoors is balancing the beauty and moment that is right in front of you, relishing and basking in it, with the next place to see, next spot to hike and next meal to enjoy. It’s a tenuous balance enjoying and being fully present in these remarkable moments of wonder and yet, feeling a constant pull to continue moving forward.

Yellowstone is one of these immense wonders that has millions of sparks of beauty in her! You could spend a lifetime discovering all of her exquisite features. The backcountry alone has at least 300 waterfalls! The water features including Yellowstone Lake and the number of falls we encountered left me feeling wet all over!

Yellowstone Lake isn’t just big – it’s freaking gi-normous! I tried but there was no capturing the lake in a single photo. Had we had more time I would have loved to kayak across or fish for the day. 

At Fairy Falls, I recorded a little video for my daughter Luna, and sent a blessing and a prayer to the fairies. It was a dainty waterfall and you could imagine, even hear the tinkling of fairy laughter in the falls.

Grand Prismatic was a rainbow of colors — on the ground! It was something spectacular. Circular, evolving, full of color, heat and beauty.

I honestly lost count of tracking all the waterfalls we encountered, Collonnade, Gibbons, Fairy, Iris Falls, and more. Each one was stunning, unique and worthy of sitting down and pausing to bask in all the glory.

One of my favorite moments that really showcased Alex’s mastery of Yellowstone and its rhythms was when we came up on Iris Falls. As we navigated the last few steps up and around a corner, Alex, like a giddy parent on Christmas morning said, “Wait here just a minute.” We could hear the sound of a huge waterfall; we could already feel the mist. But Alex knew just what he was doing, as he watched the sky. 

A few clouds rolled past the sun, and he said, “Come on.” He waited patiently, for just a minute or so, to ensure that the sunshine broke through and as we came around the corner, we were blessed with the beauty of the reflection of a rainbow in the mist of the falls. That scene alone encompasses so much about clarity that can come from nature: patience to wait for the right moment, how the same steps you take might be different if one pays attention to the surroundings, and the holiness that comes from just sitting and holding a moment. There was nothing more to do for one beautiful moment than to just sit and watch the beauty of that amazing waterfall.

Iris Falls, the magic of a moment and a rainbow

Yet, we did more, and hiked to the top of the fall – standing on the precipice took my breath away and given the fact that “Grace” is so not my middle name, I worried that my overall clumsiness would tumble me right over! 

Don’t call me, Grace, I might fall over! Photo Credit: Gretchen Hull.

The water elements, the crossings on logs, rocks, nature-made bridges and navigating cold, brisk water in mid-thigh to knee deep water, made me say, “Wow!” more times than I can count or recall!

Wow! also captures the number of wildlife we saw on this grand adventure. We encountered: elk (both a loner and a pack), bison, a wolf or a coyote, geese, chipmunks, squirrels, big horn sheep, a fox, a moose, and even a black bear and her baby!

On the last day of our hike, we spotted berry droppings all along our early morning path. As I hiked in the middle of our group, I came up on the front five hikers who had all stopped and were quietly waiting. They had heard what they thought was a bear. Alex expertly cautioned us, and asked us to turn back, we were too close. Now, I was leading our pack away from any danger. I hustled and hunted around to see what I could. As we stopped again, I turned and saw the bear expertly climbing the rock wall. She headed into some trees, and just a few moments later, we saw her cub peek out on a ledge and simply watched us. Like, oh, that’s what my mom saw, that group of hikers, I’m just going to sit here and let them capture my stillness, and I’m going to watch them too. 

Even the baby bear stopped to say wow, what are you doing here in the backcountry?

Nature has an infectious quality. It gets under your skin. It invades your thoughts. Nature doesn’t ask you what you do, what value you bring.

Everything in nature invites us constantly to be what we are.

Gretchen Ehrlich

WOW! Be what we are. Be who God designed us to be. 

Yellowstone surprised me. It WOWed me. It helped me remember who I am. The me I am that continues to evolve, micro-changes that combine and enable me to shed the old and create something new. Yet, I still remain me. I am chosen. I am worthy. I am loved. I can’t earn it. It just is.

No matter where I am. That is true. I can choose to acknowledge God at work in my life by simply saying: Help, Thanks and Wow! Thank you, Anne Lamott, for helping me to simplify my own prayers and use them as a tool for reflection.

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.

Romans 8:28

At the airport returning home, I was pulled aside by the TSA attendant. When I walked through the scanner, my legs lit up. They asked if I had anything under my jeans. Why were my legs glowing so brightly on the scanner? 

I laughed and said, “It might have something to do with the fact that I spent the last week hiking more than 90 miles, and my legs are on fire!”

She pulled me aside and used her wand up and down each leg and all over my body. She patted my calves and my thighs.

She paused, and said, “I feel something here,” on my left calf.

And like a perfect bookend to my Yellowstone journey, I reached in, and pulled out… my panties.

Not once, but twice, I hiked right out of my panties.

To view the best photos from my trip to Yellowstone:

Part One: Help!

Part Two: Thanks!

Published by mcloninger

Mandy Cloninger, CFRE, is a nonprofit thought leader, charismatic spokesperson, and a results-driven executive. With 20 years of experience raising hundreds of millions of dollars, cultivating transformational relationships with diverse constituencies, she has built capacity, scale, and scope in higher education, health care, and community-based nonprofits. She is passionate about social justice and humanitarian work internationally and at home. Mandy Cloninger is also a writer, public speaker, leader and faith seeker. Her journey and travels often bring inspiration to write, think and dream new dreams. Mercy & Meadows is a writing project inspired by a camping and hiking trip to Yellowstone National Park in 2021.

3 thoughts on “Wow!

  1. Although we’ve visited many of the national parks, Yellowstone continues to be on my wish list. You’ve intensified my desire to go! To experience God’s creativity is an amazing treasure and to experience it through your eyes is a gift. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

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