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Meet me in Fairyland

On nature, friendship and the enduring magic of Yellowstone's backcountry

The "Totem Forest," now called Fairyland Basin, was so named for the travertine rock pillars that stand guard at the confluence of Broad and Shallow creeks in Yellowstone National Park. Photo by Todd Burritt
The "Totem Forest," now called Fairyland Basin, was so named for the travertine rock pillars that stand guard at the confluence of Broad and Shallow creeks in Yellowstone National Park. Photo by Todd Burritt
Story and photos by Todd Burritt

It was two Julys ago now that I invited my friend Joe Loviska on a trip to Yellowstone's Fairyland Basin. We'd known each another for 15 years at that point but had never backpacked together. We hadn't even seen each other in months. A lot of stars needed to align for the trip to happen, and, basically, they all did. So did the landscape, the time in life, and our shared interests over the years. We talked a blue streak. And if I was to sum up our conversation with one theme—one that all the others could tie back to—it was well-worn to the point of being obvious: Is humanity “natural”?

To briefly sketch the sides, Joe says “yes.” Everything comes from nature, everything is nature, everything includes us. And Joe's right, of course. Still, I say “no.” I'm in the habit of using the word “nature,” and all its derivations, to help distinguish the changes we cause from what came before. That's the idea as I've always understood it, and, messy as it is, I appreciate the messiness, too.
           
There's no winning such a discussion among friends. The best I can say is that we were in a good place to carry on endlessly about the subject. Among other things, Yellowstone is a place where human ideas about nature have been tested in a well-documented and even dramatic way. Its backcountry often passes for “pristine wilderness,” but that's because so many of the relevant management decisions are disguised, necessarily. The more time you spend reading about Yellowstone, and then looking around in it, the more elusive and human the concept of nature becomes.

___

Leaving Joe's condo on Bozeman's sprawling northwest side after a late lunch and an even later pack job, the two of us snagged our camping permit from West Yellowstone's backcountry office just before it closed. We then drove most of the way across the park before finally starting the eight-mile hike to our campsite. The last mile was in the dusk, off-trail, through the disorientating monotony of lodgepole forest. How I reveled in it, though: the trails emptying out for the day, the angle of the sun, even that skin-of-the-teeth feeling. Not only did it lend an air of real uncertainty (aka “adventure”) to our trip—a quality that can otherwise be lacking on out-and-backs to established campsites—it also tricked me, at times, into feeling 15 years younger.
For perhaps the first time, America could compete with Europe in terms of refinement, and used old-world names from Prometheus Spring to Pollux Peak to the Stygian Caves. Yellowstone itself was often referred to, simply, as “Wonderland.”
If Joe related to me on this, it was only to an extent. A tangle of loose ends dangled over his head after a punishing work week. While our trip surely served as some sort of escape for him, the intensity level was less novel, more exhausting. Something similar could be said of our conversation. I'm the one that wouldn't shut up. I took advantage of the graciousness in Joe's personality that makes him helpless but to reciprocate. I dragged him through talking points the same way I would drag him through the miles of notoriously difficult off-trail travel to come.

I couldn't help myself. To someone with “nature” on the mind, the Yellowstone landscape is one big game of seek and find, and I was excited to share it with someone who has lived and worked in the park as much as Joe has. His expertise is not corporate consulting—the gig he had at the time—but college-level outdoor education. I may have read more park history than he, but I wasn't about to lead him into ambushes.
The Wapiti Lake Trail, en route to Fairyland, is a long haul by foot or by metaphor for conversation.
The Wapiti Lake Trail, en route to Fairyland, is a long haul by foot or by metaphor for conversation.
On day two, Joe and I left our campsite and headed south. With the closest trail a mile away and growing, our objective wasn't a simple matter of linear progress. It was a sequence of compounding decisions: when to cross and recross the creek; how many trees we were willing to climb over versus flex our direction of travel; keeping oriented through the timber. We passed through a thermal area called Joseph's Coat (in one picture I captured Joe, Joe's coat, and Joseph's Coat) and then another called Coffee Pot (Joe wished for more coffee). The latter marked a transition from green forest to recent burn, where the downfall was piled high and choked with regenerating pine.

That was the aftermath of the 20-year-old Broad Fire. Started by lightning, the wildfire was in that sense “natural.” Add to this its remote location in national park backcountry managed as wilderness, and the Broad Fire would appear a prime candidate for "let burn," the federal wildfire policy adopted in the 1970s based in hands-off management. Yellowstone's fire manager even said at the time of the fire: "This area does need to burn." Then 363 firefighters and 12 helicopters descended on the scene and snuffed it out. Bozeman journalist Ray Ring would later point to the Broad Fire as a “case in point” that, even as fire managers have come to acknowledge the important role wildfires play on the landscape, oftentimes, they can't stop themselves. The social and political climate are too incendiary. So is the climate climate. That same season, Arizona, Colorado and Oregon all hosted fires of record-setting size.
It's never just the nature in national parks and it's never just the culture. It's what we want from “nature,” what we make of the nature we find, and how we fill in the gaps.
These days, such weather is normal. In a double bind that might just summarize our historical position in general, no sooner have relatively enlightened concepts like “let burn” become acceptable in policy, they have become impossible in practice. We are locked into an age-old role—fighting “nature,” fighting the inevitable—while the costs of the fight exacerbate the chaos into which we're descending.

Eventually, the lobe of plateau that we were following rolled over into a steep canyon of Shallow Creek. Tired of stepping over trees, I dropped in at the first opportunity which, it turns out, is the one thing that any authority on the subject will warn you against. (Rocco Paperiello, 1993: “The importance of not falling into the
Joe Loviska approaches Coffee Pot Hot Springs.
Joe Loviska approaches Coffee Pot Hot Springs.
drainage of Shallow Creek cannot be overemphasized.”) But the freedom to make mistakes based on my reading of the conditions at hand is precious to me. Not only are the rewards sweeter, but I learn not to take things for granted. In this case, the advantages of my choice came first: we traded a big mess of trees for an enchanting canyon. The sides were steep and deep; the floor, at best, was smoothly polished bedrock. There were regular waterfalls and cascades, and otherwise, a procession of thermal features, be they active, dormant or extinct. It was everything that Joe and I had hoped to find. He took an opportunity to soak his feet while I kept poking downstream.

Then came a sign of trouble. I rounded a blind corner to the deep, concussive pounding of what sounded like a much larger waterfall. Sure enough, deep in its cliffy defile, Shallow Creek tumbled in what I have since seen described as a 100-foot waterfall. I felt certain I'd led us into a consequential dead end. Then I found that the bedrock along one side offered a scramble of sorts (those 100 feet, or whatever they are, don't come in one fell swoop), and after making it down and back up again, I hustled upstream to prepare Joe for the heart-fluttering sight that awaited him. He seemed open. And so the two of us ended up circumventing “impenetrable” Golden Fleece Falls, river runner's left. This put us only 100 yards or so upstream from Fairyland.

___

Golden Fleece Falls was named in 1976 by park geologist Rick Hutchinson. A few months before that, the striking features near the confluence of Broad and Shallow creeks were unknown to Yellowstone staff and undocumented within their archives. Then a U.S. Fish and Wildlife survey noted them during a flyover, the information made it to Hutchinson, and he visited the place alone at his first opportunity that November. The man was professionally and personally awestruck by what he found there and the names he dreamed up suggest as much.

"Golden Fleece" is otherwise known at the object of THE archetypal hero's quest in western literary history. It's the holy grail of a story otherwise known as Jason and the Argonauts. As in Homer's Odyssey, which came after, a series of exciting challenges stand in the hero's way. Jason must build the ship Argo, face down a dragon
Fumaroles, where volcanic gases or vapors are emitted, catch the morning sun.
Fumaroles, where volcanic gases or vapors are emitted, catch the morning sun.
with soldiers for teeth, and outwit fire-breathing bulls before he gets the Golden Fleece. But strip away the action and scholars have a hard time saying what this ancient story is really about. Is it a statement on royal power? A description of a placer mining technique, or method for producing gilt text? Does it describe a long-lost voyage to the Americas? To me there's an element of the goose that lays golden eggs. Afterall, the fleece is only lost because the boy Phrixus sacrifices the only ram in the world that can not only fly but grow gold wool. Couldn't he have just sheared the wool, offered that to the gods, and then watched more gold grow back?

In the years that followed, Hutchinson would return to the area time and again; at least six trips in all, according to his friend Paul Rubinstein. The primary appeal was an unusual collection of finger-shaped cones formed out of travertine rock at the confluence of Broad and Shallow creeks. Hutchinson named it the “Totem Forest.”

In 1992, a party of five visited the Totem Forest. The group included Lee Whittlesey—a park historian who had already written the definitive guide to Yellowstone placenames—and Rocco Paperiello, a geologist. Together the two would write up their experience for the Geyser Observation and Study Association. Their article featured a route description, an inventory of features, and new names like the Gnome Group and Magic Mushroom. The Golden Fleece moniker was extended from the falls to a couple nearby thermal features as the “Golden Fleece Group.”

Otherwise, the Totem Forest was rechristened Fairyland Basin. And that, of course, is the name that stuck. (A pity, in my opinion. Totem Forest is both more descriptive and unique.) Members of Whittlesey's group made repeat visits in 1993 and 1994, as word spread through park circles, then beyond. Hutchinson died in a Yellowstone avalanche in 1997. This tragic end brought attention to his accomplished career and at the same time pulled Fairyland further into the light.
Fairyland became to Yellowstone what Yellowstone once was to the world. Both suggested a geographic variant to America's meritocratic dream: you can visit places that guarantee distinction in proportion to the effort it takes to reach them.
Yellowstone National Park—as a concept, as a brand—is often described as a golden goose, too. If you just let it do its thing, it will keep bringing in tourist dollars. True to the analogy, many feel that we are killing this goose, although there is little consensus regarding the mechanism. Is it government oversight or private development? The absence of wolves or their reintroduction? Obscurity or over-popularity? In 2004, Backpacker magazine made its position clear when it dramatized its debut of “GPS-enabled maps” with a revelation: “The SECRET HIKES of YELLOWSTONE!” Fairyland was presented as the star attraction.

“Be one of the first... explore the mysteries... boldly go where practically no one has gone before! … Discover the unknown!” In addition to reading like a parody of the witless means by which places get loved to death, such ad copy played deliciously off the vagueness of words. In what sense are secrets “undiscovered” if you read about them in a magazine? In what sense are they “secrets” anyway? Was the route to Fairyland really “blazed” by Backpacker field editors? The company was
A sulphur butterfly on mountain arnica.
A sulphur butterfly on mountain arnica.
mining a lucrative vein. It wasn't even a year-and-a-half earlier that they ran a different cover story called “Unknown Yellowstone: A guide to the undiscovered secrets of America's greatest park.” And, arguably, such rhetoric features in the marketing of every issue. This was a little different in that the exact nature of the revelation was a recipe that hadn't quite been tested yet: international readership, obscure and fragile resources, and satellites for a guide.

It wasn't inevitable that Fairyland would subsequently lodge in the public imagination to the degree that it did. The reasons, I believe, are related to Yellowstone's unique history and its ongoing role in the popular imagination. The first national park debuted to the world at a time when the Romantic literary tradition was at a peak. For perhaps the first time, America could compete with Europe in terms of refinement, and some self-consciousness of this fact was reflected in the old-world names given to many of its features, from Prometheus Spring to Pollux Peak to the Stygian Caves. Yellowstone itself was often referred to, simply, as “Wonderland.”

The name Fairyland carries on this tradition, as, of course, does Golden Fleece Falls. As cultural constructs they evoke an era when all of Yellowstone was “undiscovered” and “secret” to about the same degree that Backpacker could write of Fairyland in 2004. In short, Fairyland became to Yellowstone what Yellowstone once was to the world. Both suggested a geographic variant to America's meritocratic dream: you can visit places that guarantee distinction in proportion to the effort it takes to reach them.

In the months following the Backpacker article, a former Yellowstone ranger named Sean Neilson explored the fallout from a land manager's perspective, and even drew up some conclusions in a short essay for High Country News. He described speaking to one ranger who, when not actively doing “damage control” for the “horrific increase” in visitation, had hammered out a three-page complaint to the magazine. The picture is otherwise captured in the words of another ranger from that time who happened upon a group of eight novices from Cleveland trying to find their way through the off-trail portion. “Only 500 people have ever been there,” they told him, referencing something read online, “and we want to make it 508!” They'd soon be turning around. Even Rick Hutchinson, in his day, got the chance to rescue a lost party in there.

Scores of misadventures later, some of the rather obvious reasons that Fairyland should not be considered Yellowstone's one, be-all end-all backpacking destination rose to the surface. Before our excursion, I skimmed two trip reports, both of which exemplify this swing of the pendulum. In one, half the members of a party turn around in disgust before reaching Fairyland. A minor tributary along the way is deemed “Puke Creek,” commemorating a case of advanced dehydration, and if I had
Hotsprings panic grass has a mutualistic relationship with fungus that allows it to grow on hot ground.
Hotsprings panic grass has a mutualistic relationship with fungus that allows it to grow on hot ground.
to choose one pull-out quote it would be, “This isn't very fun.” In the other account, one hiker steps on fragile hydrothermal crust and receives a foot injury that takes “almost a full year” to heal. The hike is otherwise deemed “treacherous” and “horrendous,” Fairyland is “overrated,” and the concluding line is sharp enough to pierce the consciousness of even the slowest of readers to extract a message: “Stay away from this dangerous and difficult to reach place!”

Such warnings, overdone, can have a reverse-psychological effect, and some version of the Fairyland mystique lives on. During my brief Google research for this article, I read a 2016 trip report from a Texan urbanite (the preceding post on her blog, categorized “Luxury,” was “Porsche Macan: My Buying Experience”) that had this opening:

“I had been wanting to do a backpacking trip for a while, and after talking to one of my co-workers, [Fairyland] seemed like a great choice … With the combination of mileage and difficulty, most people probably wouldn’t consider this a good first-time backpacking plan, but I couldn’t resist the challenge!”

After making it as far as the basecamp for Fairyland, this blogger and her party wisely decided to spend their down day exploring the immediate surroundings rather than test their luck any further off trail.

I didn't go to Fairyland because I wanted to settle whether it was the mythmakers or the mythbusters who were right about the place. It was the way those contradictory portraits played off each other—and related, somehow, to a physical reality—that made me hungry for more. Because it's never just the nature in national parks and it's never just the culture. It's what we want from “nature,” what we make of the nature we find, and how we fill in the gaps. Or in the framing of the park's 2022 sesquicentennial-slash-cultural-reckoning: Does it change anything to know that the story of Yellowstone as a nature preserve can be told in a thoroughly anthropocentric, self-interested, and even unjust way?
Just as humans are all natural, nature is a construct that is all human ... What is or isn't natural varies from person to person. And it varies within the same person over time.
As Joe and I turned the final bend of Shallow Creek, a question burned in my mind. We might have missed the discovery of Fairyland by almost half a century, but might an equally dramatic discovery be awaiting us there? Would we be the ones to discover it gone?

A month earlier the Yellowstone River had what was described as a thousand-year flood. In headwater areas near the northwest corner of the park, up to five inches of rain fell on a plump spring snowpack, and as the ensuing melt hurried downstream, trees, bridges, houses, and sections of highway were all swept into its flow. Just as the world's first national park was gearing up for its landmark 150th anniversary, the Northern Entrance Road, the one connecting park headquarters in Mammoth to the bustling gateway community of Gardiner, washed out beyond repair. It was an astonishing demonstration of the grave uncertainties that face even those natural areas we give the highest standards of protection.
Joe stands at the water's edge in Shallow Creek canyon
Joe stands at the water's edge in Shallow Creek canyon
My fears for Fairyland were settled with a glance. The iconic rock pillars were still standing. Some had fallen, in comparison with 20-year-old photos I'd seen, but they fall regardless, travertine rock being dynamic in a way that is totally out of keeping with what we otherwise consider to be "geologic time." I could see where Shallow Creek had overflowed its banks. But I didn't dwell on the many human-caused changes that may have precipitated the Yellowstone River's freakish flood, or any other questions of what should or shouldn't be there. I didn't have time: those are the questions that permeate every level of my existence. At least it looked within the range of natural variation. There was one path made by flood water that had the incongruous appearance of someone pushing a vacuum cleaner through the columns … Still natural, as Joe would say. And I would agree. With some qualifications.

Even a thousand-year flood happens every thousand years, right? It feels different in the light of the Greater Yellowstone Climate Assessment, a 260-page document that came out exactly one year before the Yellowstone flood. In it, a half-dozen researchers from Montana State University compress reams of data and paint a striking portrait. Temperatures are higher here than they have been in the last 20,000 years—if not the last 800,000 years, as the document reads—and the changes are only accelerating. Mud flats and ash beds are our welcome mat to an unimaginable future. Or as Cam Sholly, the Yellowstone superintendent, remarked so succinctly: “a thousand-year event, whatever that means these days.”

___

Joe and I have a lot in common. We are both tall and skinny. We both love nature. We both have a weakness for using bigger words than necessary. A decade after college graduation, when we lived hours apart, Joe was offered a guide job immediately after I turned it down. His accepting that position brought our paths together again, and since neither of us was aware of this until after the fact, it felt like we'd unconsciously conspired to renew our friendship. Finally, Joe and I both bristle at any implication that humans are somehow above nature; that we can afford to cheat natural law; that our species is more special than anything else.

We have our differences, of course. In Joe’s view, to place humans outside of nature is to exalt them. It is to fall into a whole suite of anthropocentric assumptions, at the heart of it that we were put on this world to conquer it and bend it to our will.

But for my part, I want to "feel natural." I want to be a part of nature. I have tried—hard, and for a long time—to figure out what it would take to get there. I’ve spent a lot of that time outside, engaging with what I've found there to the best of my ability, and I have decided that the limiting factor is never the purity of the nature around me but my own mind. This realization has the opposite effect on me from what Joe describes.
Misunderstandings are the rule of communication, not the exception. The real work, as always, is creating context for them, plugging words into systems that ultimately can be as unique as you are.
Unnaturalness feels like estrangement, not empowerment. If I could feel like a part of nature—like I belonged, like there was a definite place for me in the scheme of things, like there was an ecological function I served just by being myself—that would be exalting. Unnaturalness, by contrast, feels like exile.

That's true for when I'm sitting in front of a computer, and it was no less true in Fairyland. I will say I was impressed with the condition of the place: no footprints in the mud, no microtrash, not even any user trails to speak of. Natural? Unnatural? We didn't bother to ask. Just like that, the day was getting on. It was time to return from Fairyland.

The relationship between humans and nature, according to Joe, is a question for science. At the same time, it seems we both can agree that there's no question there at all. Gary Snyder, the Pulitzer Prize-winning “poet laureate of deep ecology” who might be considered our sage guide on such matters, has an instructive take. In the beginning of his essay, “The Etiquette of Freedom,” he acknowledges two meanings to nature. The first he summarizes as “other-than-human,” the second as “everything.” Then he states his position: “I would prefer to use the word nature in [the second, broader] sense. But it will come up meaning ‘the outdoors’ or ‘other-than-human’ sometimes even here.”
A community of cottongrass off-trail.
A community of cottongrass off-trail.
Now why would this be, one wonders. Even as he advocates for using it one way, he won't stop using it the other. The reason, I posit, is that the second use of nature is aspirational or idealistic, but not insightful or even useful. Reading on, one discovers he uses the word nature almost exclusively in the first, not-preferred sense.

The one exception—where Snyder uses nature to mean "everything"—is basically hypothetical: “We can say that New York City and Tokyo are ‘natural,’” he suggests. But why would we? Would you bother to tell anyone that New York City and Tokyo are?

Several pages later we can get a sense of how the concept of nature actually operates in Snyder's mind when he mentions “peoples for whom there is no great dichotomy between their culture and nature, those who live in societies whose economies draw on uncultivated systems.” Needless to say, he is not describing the American culture or economy. It would be nice if all societies were natural ones. In that case we would have rendered “nature” obsolete.

Joe likes to imagine that nature could do more: stand as a reminder that, from snowshoe hares and snowmobiles, we are all made out of the same stuff; that we're all in it together. But words are simple tools. It's very easy to ask too much of them. They will only do so much work for you. As a writer, I feel qualified to say that misunderstandings are the rule of communication, not the exception. The real work, as always, is creating context for them, plugging words into systems that ultimately can be as unique as you are. That's the only way we can give them meaning.
While our trip surely served as some sort of escape for Joe, the intensity level was less novel, more exhausting. Something similar could be said of our conversation.
As far as I can tell, my attitude toward “nature” is exactly that which Thomas Mann had toward the word “love”: “Is it not well done that our language has but one word for all kinds of love? … All ambiguity is therein resolved. The meaning of the word varies? In God's name, then, let it vary. That it does so makes it living, makes it human; it would be a regrettable lack of depth to trouble over the fact.”

“Makes it human”: emphasis mine. Naturalness is always relative, and describing reality is like describing light. Sometimes photons and sometimes waves—even as the properties of one excludes the other—light is both and neither because that's the best we can do. Something similar might be said of my argument with Joe. I won't relinquish my point, and I won't say Joe was wrong. Just as humans are all natural, nature is a construct that is all human. It's good to be fun, spontaneous, and "act naturally," and it's also good to know when to check yourself. What is or isn't natural varies from person to person. And it varies within the same person over time.

As a relative value, nature works across a broad range of scales. One of them, perhaps the most difficult to isolate, is the role of conscious intervention. Human intentionality. Call it free will, even. The unnaturalness endemic to our predicament is the fact that we don't know what we're doing and we're always trying to figure it out. We may feel drawn to do things a certain way. Then we may choose otherwise, pull a 180.

___

As Snyder seems to acquiesce, there is still important work for the word nature to do. It can help us navigate many of the outstanding questions that relate to the modern human condition. Namely: Where do we stand with respect to everything else? What kind of world are we trying to create? What does it feel like to be human?

Summers are busy as everyone knows and no sooner did I get back from the Fairyland trip than the concerns that dominated it began to get buried by family life, work and whatever else. So it took a while for it to settle in that, within just a week or two, Joe had quit his job, sold his condo in Bozeman, and moved away. Our time in Fairyland had taken on new significance, almost a parting of ways.

Joe and I don't see each other anymore, and if the intervening months are any indication, I can now say that we don't talk anymore, either. But we talked in Fairyland. We talked like we were making closing arguments in a case that was as old as our 15-year friendship. We talked like we were transforming ourselves into words and concepts by which we could be remembered across the distance to come. Knowing Joe and Joe knowing me, I'd only be surprised if, one way or another, it doesn't all come back around.

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Todd Burritt
About Todd Burritt

Todd Burritt is the author of Outside Ourselves: Landscape and Meaning in the Greater Yellowstone. He lives in Livingston, Montana, where he's a full-time dad, and part-time everything else.
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