Once Upon a Time in the West

A little over a month ago, I had the opportunity to take a three-credit field course at a camp surrounded by mountains in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. It was honestly one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. The duration of the course was three weeks, but since we drove to and from Wyoming, we spent about six days just in transportation.

The topic of the class was energy – primarily production, consumption, and policy. In addition to receiving lectures and completing assignments, we had the chance to learn from the field. We visited a uranium mine, nuclear testing reactor, wind farm, fracking operation, and two hydroelectric plants. I found it incredible and fascinating to be able to see exactly where our energy comes from and how it gets to our homes, but I was also just awed at how much we’re able to do. I still can’t get over the fact that we are literally able to pump uranium atoms out of the ground with water and fission them for energy. And although I was shocked by the inefficiencies and environmental impacts of coal and the outdatedness of our current power grid, with all of the options and technological breakthroughs out there, I’d like to remain optimistic about the future of energy – both in the U.S. and in the world.

Aside from being thoroughly enlightened by the actual content of the course (believe me, I could talk about it forever), I was also able to spend some time in the Tetons and in Yellowstone National Park. It was my first time out west and my first time hiking through the mountains. And it was breathtaking.

The Tetons
The Tetons

I’m not sure I can begin to describe what it felt like up there in the grandeur and solitude of nature. It reminded me of all those wilderness and survival books I used to read – like Hatchett, My Side of the Mountain, and The Cay. I felt like one of those characters, off on a great adventure.

On a 14-mile hike through the Tetons and looking down into Yellowstone Grand Canyon
On a 14-mile hike through the Tetons                               Looking down into Yellowstone Grand Canyon

Oh, and to gaze upon the stars at night! There’s something magnificent yet somewhat unsettling about looking up at the stars. It just puts things in perspective in a way we don’t get to experience during a typical day. The universe is so vast, and there’s so much more out there than the little bubble of our lives in which we’re so wrapped up. Isn’t it incredible that life on our planet depends on a burning ball of gas more than ninety million miles away? It blows my mind just thinking about it.

Grand Prismatic at sunset
Grand Prismatic at sunset

Yellowstone was also pretty amazing, although not quite what I expected. It’s amazing because although rife with wildlife (namely bison), it’s also home to incredibly acidic environments that look like an alien landscape. It was like being in some kind of science fiction movie! The vast thermal landscape, barren except for a few hardy shrubs and hot, bubbling pools of acidic water. Not to mention the geysers constantly emitting steam. I don’t think any other place like Yellowstone exists on Earth.

West Thumb Geyser Basin and Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone
West Thumb Geyser Basin and Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone National Park

Looking up at stars and mountains, down into a canyon, and upon all the natural wonders of Yellowstone was quite an eye-opening experience. If I didn’t find our planet incredible before, I definitely do now. I think Einstein was right when he said there are only two ways to live life: one as though nothing is a miracle, and one as though everything is a miracle. And I know which one I’m living.

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