Where is Hell, Exactly?

An exasperating thing happened on the way to this article; I tripped over my own research.

Last week I visited Yellowstone National Park for the first time. A trip to such a spectacular place certainly ought to provide plenty of material to write about, so I dutifully set out to do so.

In the park I had seen references to John Colter, who was an early mountain man but first a member of the Lewis and Clark expedition. At the end of that trip, he promptly headed back into the mountains to trap for furs, and he was one of the first non-Indians to see the Yellowstone area. It’s a common story that his descriptions of the geysers and hot springs led to the place being called "Colter’s Hell."

Well, that gave me a clever little opening paragraph about having made a trip to hell and back, which could lead nicely into my own descriptions of the geysers, and I was off and running. Then I made the mistake of doing an Internet search for "Colter’s Hell."

It seems that there is some controversy over whether "Colter’s Hell" was ever actually used to refer to Yellowstone. It probably was a name instead for a smaller area of thermal activity near present-day Cody, Wyoming. That may be a minor distinction in the overall scheme of things, but for a nitpicking looker-up of stuff like myself it’s too big an issue to ignore. God forbid that I should perpetuate a falsehood, no matter how common. Neither did I have the time or energy to turn a brief article into a full-fledged research project on early Yellowstone.

So there went my clever opening and half my article, and I was left with nothing much to say.

Except that Yellowstone is an area almost impossible to describe without superlatives. Talking about the mountains, lakes, geysers, and hot springs requires a whole thesaurus of adjectives like spectacular, awesome, and incredible.

I was prepared for that kind of beauty and grandeur. I was not prepared for harshness, as well. The mineral-crusted ground, the dead trees mummified in white sediment, the smell of sulphur, and the acerbic oranges and greens of the hot pools made the areas surrounding the geysers into forbidding tracts of wasteland. They were impressive, certainly, even beautiful in their own stark way, but hardly welcoming or appealing.

"Colter’s Hell" suited them so well. I’m still wistful about not being able to use it.

Categories: Travel | 1 Comment

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One thought on “Where is Hell, Exactly?

  1. Jerry

    I remember Colter’s Hell and it was on the western edge of Cody. It is a small thermal area with a few steaming vents, but they could change as the amount of water and temperatures change.
    But the grandest plaace of all is Yellowstone (named for the color of the rock that makes up the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, I think.). From the travertine pools in the north, the Yellowstone Lake in the south, the thermal areas in the Norris Geyser Basin and around Old Faithful in the west to the Grand Canyon in the east. All are wonderous.
    But the most interesting, IMHO, is ISA LAKE. It is a lake with two (2) outlets. This is strange since one outlet would generally erode at a greater rate and thus become the only outlet as all the water drains through it. But ISA LAKE has two outlets, and it sits in the mountains right on the CONTINENTAL DIVIDE. Yes, it strattles the Continental Divide with one outlet draining into the Pacific Ocean and the other outlet draining into the Caribean. The western outlet flows into the Caribean while the eastern outlet of ISA LAKE flows eventually into the Pacific Ocean. What a LAKE!

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