I've spent tens of hours staring at century-old (and older) maps of Yellowstone National Park, tracing with my eyes the roadless contours of the landscape, trying to imagine what it must have been like to tour the park from atop a horse when it still was a wilderness.
What must it have been like to explore "Wonderland" without the benefit of roads, lodges, and restaurants, without tens of thousands of other visitors roaming the park, without boardwalks to guide us through geyser basins or signs to warn us to stay out of hot springs?
If you, too, have paused before a faded and worn map of Yellowstone and wondered the same, then Yellowstone, Land Of Wonders: Promenade in North America's National Park is for you. Not only does this travelogue carry you back to the Yellowstone of 1883, but it's cast through the eyes of a Belgian writer who spent 10 days in the park that summer.
That the book was written by Jules Leclercq, a judge by schooling but a world traveler who crafted 23 travelogues, can be seen as valuable as the year of his visit, for he lends a European perspective and reaction to America's fledgling national parks movement.
Nature has kept the Land of Wonders hidden in the heart of the Rocky Mountains, in the highest part of of that gigantic chain. A formidable rampart of peaks and glaciers defends it. Within this enclosure slumbers large Yellowstone Lake, one of the highest expanses of water in the world. Here, too, fall the snows that feed the brooks that will become giant rivers. Here are born the Missouri and its tributaries, which flow to the Gulf of Mexico; the Snake River, which joins the Columbia and the Pacific Ocean; and the Green River, which rushes to the Colorado and the Gulf of California. It is one of the most remarkable divides on the American continent, a divortium aquarum of the first order.
The official designation as "National Park" is not quite precise; it is not so much a park as a group of valleys arranged as so many distinct little parks, each isolated from the next and situated on both sides of the Rocky Mountain chain. These valleys are located at altitudes that are nowhere less than eighteen hundred meters; several of them reach two thousand to twenty-five hundred meters above sea level. The height of the mountain peaks overhanging the valleys varies between three thousand and thirty-seven hundred meters.
Though just now arriving in bookstores, the book is not new, not in the strictess sense. It actually was published more than a century ago by the world-tramping Mr. Leclercq. It is new in that it has been fully translated into English by Suzanne Cane, a librarian and independent French translator, with help from Janet Chapple, author of Yellowstone Treasure's: The Traveler's Companion to the National Park, who provided both historic and present-day references and insights to Mr. Leclercq's travels in the park.
Together the women bring to the already brimming and rich collection of Yellowstone narratives, guides, non-fiction, and fiction titles a work unique for Mr. Leclercq's perspective. He was not a novice when it came to traveling or writing. A founding member of the Royal Beligan Geolographical Society, Mr. Leclercq's travels including visits to Iceland and Africa, and he was heading to Mexico after his Yellowstone trip.
Now, whether it was from a sense of haughty entitlement to do what he wished, or simply common practice at the time, but the good judge not only went into detail about exploring the travertine terraces above Mammoth Hot Springs, but discussed his joy at bathing in the springs.
I experienced supreme satisfaction plunging into a basin whose waters were an exquisite 30 degrees C. My bath was a meter deep. The siliceous efflorescence that lined the interior walls seemed like velvet cushions.
I remained perfectly still for a long time in this delightful bath, allowing my body to be pervaded by the invigorating influence of those waters, gentler to the skin than the softest comforter and as agreeable to the taste as to the touch.
His exploration of Yellowstone, just 11 years after it was designated the world's first national park, also revealed that vandals were already at work in the park.
The crater of Old Faithful, just like that of the Great Geyser of Iceland, is already covered with hundreds of names carved by visitors on the smooth surface of the rock. In a few hours the inscriptions are covered with siliceous coating, which preserves the most insignificant names.
The crude hand of vandals does not stop there; it is truly revolting to see them taking the brutal ax to the fragile and delicate concretions under the pretext of searching for specimens of geyserite. In building these admirable monuments, in artistically fashioning them, in sculpting and ornamenting them, nature has employed a slowness, a meticulousness, a patience of which men would not be capable, and it takes but one minute for irreverent hands to disfigure the work of thousands of years. There are few craters that have not been damaged by ax and spade, and, if care is not taken, they will gradually crumble to pieces under the attacks of these rutheless destroyers.
The good Judge Leclercq was a studious writer, obviously spending considerable time in research before completing his book. His chapter on The Indians in the National Park tracks the race of the Nez Perce tribe across the park with hopes of reaching sanctuary in Canada, going into some detail of park visitors who were attacked, killed, and injured by warriors. In discussing Yellowstone's wildlife he addresses the cutthroat trout in Yellowstone Lake ("Surely there is no place in the world where trout proliferate as in Yellowstone Lake; their number is prodigious, and since they greedily snap up the grasshoppers offered as bait, in one hour a fisherman can catch enough to exhaust a dozen cooks."), grizzlies, wolves, mountain lions, even kit fox, as well as moose, elk, mule deer and pronghorn antelope. And he laments the "legions of hunters and trappers, who every year commit an enormous slaughter of wild animals."
As colorful and informing as Mr. Leclercq's writing is, he inserted at least one error into his narrative, that being identifying the location of the Lone Star Geyser. While the geyser can be found a few miles southwest of Old Faithful, he placed it much closer to Mammoth, near Swan Lake.
Ms. Cane and Ms. Chapple attribute this error to the chance that Mr. Leclercq was "following guidebook writer Herman Haupt's confusion here. In a section titled 'Lone Star Geyser -- the Orange,' which begins his section describing the trip from Mammoth Hot Springs to Swan Lake, Haupt writes, 'To the left of the road stands the crater of the Lone Star Geyser, a huge mass of geyserite with a globular shape, having on its sides ridges and markings of yellow and buff, resembling an orange; hence the name. It is called the 'Lone Star' from its solitary situation. The times of eruption are uncertain; now it is little more than a spring with an elevated crater."
The book is rich in its own right for Mr. Leclercq's observations and impressions, but they are supplemented by the prolific footnotes the authors inserted to clarify, expand, and add context to his writings. The authors also added to his own bibliography by citing references that he mentions in his text but does not list, references cited in the translators' notes, and selected relevant works that appeared after 1886, the year La Terre des Merveilles was published."
If you're a Yellowstone fan, this book should be in your library.