After taking in the vast scenery of West Yellowstone, I notice next that all the buildings feel like they’re out of a western movie set. They look like they could be just set pieces with nothing behind them. They remind me of an art history lesson of “ducks and decorated sheds”. Ducks, named after duck and egg store on Long Island that was literally built in the shape of a duck, formatively suggest their purpose; they are symbols, can be almost sculptural, and are especially intriguing from a design point of view. “Decorated sheds” on the other hand, instruct the viewer to their purpose by decoration, information, signs. Most of our storefronts today fall into this category. West Yellowstone has a plethora of decorated sheds. These decorated sheds fit right into the purpose of West Yellowstone, though, catering to the tourist.
West Yellowstone is an original tourist town. People visit for the natural beauty of the park. Whether enjoyed on foot, ski, park tour bus, or snow mobile, people come to be outside, to see the outside. Everything built there is to either support the tourist industry, or the people who in turn make their livelihood on it. It makes perfect sense, that the dominant design is the billboard, informing the eager tourist where to find their next eating locale or souvenir stop.
We, as skiers, get to experience West Yellowstone in its dead period, between the peak summer and winter seasons. While a lot of the town lays dormant, we fill up every hotel and rental house within a 10 mile radius, as hundreds of skiers descend on the trails in town. Many shops have “will open Christmas week” written on their doors, while a select few know their skier clientele, opening just for the Thanksgiving week, knowing many trail tired souls will make daily pilgrimages to their coffee establishments.
This year we had perfect, endless snow and skiing, right from the trails in town. Other years are not so lucky; my second year of college we ventured to west Yellowstone, and spent the whole week driving 30 minutes each way up to higher elevation on the “plateau”. The micro-climate nearly guarantees snow at the plateau during this time of year, and both us skiers counting on the early snow, and tourists counting on the views and the hot springs, owe all of our enjoyment to geologic processes millions (and thousands) of years ago.
Nearly 16.5 million years ago, the southwest movement of the North American crust was such that it passed over a hot spot close to the surface, a 500 mile trail with over 100 volcanoes, creating a trail of volcanic events that now encompass the Snake River Plain, Yellowstone is the end of that line. The most recent of these caldera-forming (large crater-creating) eruptions spread 1000km (cubed) of ash flow, emptying and collapsing its magma chamber, thus creating the 45kmx75km Yellowstone Caldera, and covering nearly all of the American west in ash. This caldera is not particularly noticeable in the topography, rather more recent, non-caldera-forming eruptions produced the forested, rolling topography we know. Magmatic resurgence since that eruption has caused two domes to uplift, (among these is the height of land we refer to as the plateau, an elevation gain that is a snow magnet) and a consistently high thermal gradient (30x the average of the US) causes the consistently hot, hot springs.
The uplift of the Yellowstone Plateau is visible on a world scale, too, in its effect on Earth’s geoid, a measure of the gravitational pull of Earth's surface. The 10-12 m drop in the geoid, centered at the location of the Yellowstone Caldera compensates for the 600 m uplift of the plateau.
It seems like there’s “nothing going on” in West Yellowstone when we visit, because with the lack of visitors to appreciate the geologic phenomena of the park, it's true, there isn’t much going on there. But this is really cool; it speaks to the strength of the place that they haven’t tried to grow corn or put in an amusement park. The fact the only entertainment to be found, besides the natural offerings of the park, is the iMax theater, which doubles as a museum, suggests that it has stayed true to its purpose. Its natural attractions do all the talking, and it hasn’t changed much since people started coming in horse drawn buggy to see the scenery.
We as a human race are drawn to places because of what they have to offer. At the most basic, it is physical. Whether it is gold to mine for, fertile land to cultivate, or mountains to explore, we're drawn to what a place can offer us. More recently, human-made wonders begin to eclipse those that the Earth created on its own- architectural feats, cities, culture. In West Yellowstone,it’s just the earth, putting on a show. Hot springs, the plateau, the wildlife that live there. There’s not much else, and that’s what makes West Yellowstone what it is, and keeps us going back year after year.