There’s a land of fire. It’s a place of cutting rock, boiling mud, sulfuric stench, and otherworldly beauty. You may know it as part of America’s backyard. This astonishing location is called Yellowstone National Park.
This year, Yellowstone is celebrating its 150th anniversary as the first national park in the United States. And while it’s one of the most popular parks in the world, it remains a place of wild majesty. After the park was covered in deep snow for most of the year, this summer’s tourist season was nearly thwarted by massive flooding that took down trees, washed out bridges, and crumbled roads.
After an efficient rebuild, the park is up and running again in most areas. Due to the upheaval and uncertainty, however, many people canceled their travel plans to Yellowstone. The smaller crowd of visitors actually makes this a fantastic time to see a place like no other on earth.
Yellowstone is as enthralling today as it was historically. In the early years of our budding nation, strange tales came back from grizzly trappers and Native American traders about a steaming, roiling land.
A few years after parting from the Lewis and Clark Expedition in 1806, mountain man John Colter came upon a region of fumaroles and hot springs not too far from what later became the national park. The implausible tales he told left such an impression that there’s now a part of Wyoming known as Colter’s Hell.
Though there was interest in further exploration of this truly wild part of the West, some described the effort as so difficult that it was akin to suicide. Dangerous mountains, untamed forest and beasts, heavy snowfall, Native American skirmishes, and, finally, the Civil War separated Americans from further exploration of the extraordinary lands in the vicinity of today’s Yellowstone.
It wasn’t until August 1871 that Ferdinand V. Hayden, head of the U.S. Geological and Geographical Survey of the Territories, led the first official scientific expedition to survey and explore the land that would later become America’s first national park.
The Hayden Expedition assembled a team that, in addition to support staff, included: a meteorologist, a zoologist, an ornithologist, a mineralogist, a topographer, an agricultural statistician and entomologist, two botanists, a photographer, and artist Thomas Moran.
Of these, Moran made arguably some of the most lasting contributions to the exploration effort. In large part through Moran’s images, Congress and the American public were persuaded of the unique value of the extraordinary landscape. Americans came to realize that it must be preserved.
At the time that the Hayden Expedition set out, America was a young nation still reeling from the effects of the Civil War. Photography was relatively new. The public relied on newspapers and printed images to keep abreast of developments in the world. Moran’s work was reproduced in print and inspired readers and leaders to better appreciate the spectacular nature of the United States.
Perhaps you can imagine waiting with bated breath, hardly believing tales of mud volcanoes such as Dragon’s Mouth, which to this day can be seen seething and spewing, gulping and belching a near-constant flow of bubbling earth through a cavernously roaring throat. Modern explorers can feel grateful for the boardwalks now set to navigate such captivatingly treacherous scenes.
Castle Geyser, built like an oversized child’s drip castle on a beach, stands out amidst a minefield of sputtering geysers stretching as far as the eye can see. Its fury is mesmerizing. What must early viewers of Moran’s sketch “The Castle Geyser” have thought as they gazed into the pictorial column of water amidst colors scarcely witnessed in nature? Even the geysers of Iceland pale in comparison with the magnitude of thermal activity visible throughout the wonderfully eerie area of Yellowstone.
Through Moran’s effort and skill, the world received a humanized view of spectacularly unknown lands.
Each lifetime is filled with opportunity. So it was, and especially so, for the early American explorers.
Moran was born in Bolton, England, in 1837, but he died an American immigrant in Santa Barbara, California. The Moran family emigrated to Philadelphia when Thomas was 7 years old. The young Moran worked first as an apprentice to a wood engraver, then as an illustrator, where he was greatly influenced by the works of his older brother, Edward, and the British painter J.M.W. Turner.
Moran worked hard, creating images for magazines and carving out some success as a fine artist. Not necessarily the most naturally talented of 19th- and 20th-century artists, Moran nonetheless made a name for himself through effort and courage. Venturing into the unknown, he faced enormous challenges in applying his artistic skill to uncharted scenes. It’s a classic story of American opportunity and grit.
Although Moran lived for most of his career in New York City—a great center for the American art community at the time—he traveled West frequently, often as a guest of the railways. He saw and painted Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, the Colorado River, and what later became Zion National Park. He gained notoriety depicting pristine scenes of the West in paint.
Most of his paintings also admit a fascinating historical nature. For example, the piece titled “The Great Hot Springs” presents a view of several little figures before an array of splendid pools. The figures probably include Hayden, photographer William Jackson, Moran himself, and a Native American guide.
Moran included the presence of Native Americans as adventurers accompanying the Hayden Expedition not only in his paintings, but also in his journals. Once, he mentions a tribal member of the party who shot three of the five deer slain that day for food. The figure from “The Great Hot Springs” may have also been the mysterious person in headdress depicted in “The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone,” a monumental painting which he sold to Congress for $10,000—an unheard of sum at the time. That fee secured Moran’s position as a painter of acclaim, and he repeated the prestigious feat with the sale of “Chasm of the Colorado.”
What Moran was selling was a tremendous view of American adventure, spirit, and accomplishment. Today, Moran is not only famous for his interpretive views of the American West, but for all the attributes that his work embodied.
Having recently returned myself from an all-too-brief but deeply impressive excursion through Yellowstone National Park, I can only imagine the fortitude that it took to hack a path through the formidable landscape with its shocking pitfalls.
Though my husband and I found ourselves charmingly sheltered by the Old Faithful Inn at night, by day we still encountered six grizzly bears, including a mother with two cubs! We accidentally slid down scree hills just to be startled by boiling sludge at the bottom, and found ourselves closer to bison than we would have hoped. We watched in awe as geysers blew and prismatic pools of bacteria oozed.
I made sketches on paper and in my head, and wondered at the feat of backpacking and hacking trails through such unexpected and untamed wilderness while toting an easel or cleaning one’s brushes with turpentine, then needing to wash your hands. It seems, to me, that determination and awe form the ground of Moran’s paintings.
Moran produced more than 1,500 oil paintings and 800 watercolors in his lifetime. Many were field sketches later finished in the studio. Once, when he couldn’t accompany an expedition through the uncharted Grand Tetons, his fellow explorers thought so much of him that they named Mount Moran after him.
I was able to see the Tetons this summer, too. Between mountain lakes, bear claw marks scarred high into the trees, and wolves in pursuit of moose, the Tetons make a breathtaking backdrop for an excursion into the unique beauty of a great nation, just as Yellowstone does.
In case you can’t make it out West this year, you can still get transported. Great paintings offer eye- and soul-opening views. America has been truly blessed. The American spirit and our unfettered West may yet inspire art and awe.