How I Learned To Leave The Trail

There comes a time in everyone?s life when, tired with the normal routine of an ordinary existence, you hunt for something more satisfying.

Some will not be satisfied with anything less dangerous than extreme fighting with escaped convicts, or less financially burdensome than quitting your job and trekking across Asia with the soulmate you found last week in the rare books section of the local used bookstore.

But for those who prefer nothing more spicy than bell peppers (with the rare jalapeo) and enjoy spending time in the great outdoors, an option exists that doesn’t involve death sports like bicycling off cliffs for distance and accuracy, playing chicken with bison or combining skeet shooting and rock-climbing. The answer is off-trail hiking.

I’m sure some of you are now groaning, “Off-trail hiking? That doesn’t sound exciting and fun.? To which I must reply, “Hey, this is a special outdoors issue, limiting the acceptable topics. Besides, I don’t go for death sports, so just lay off, and read the rest of this!”

(Sorry about that, last week was a rough week.)

Most?there are some significant exceptions?national parks, monuments and wilderness areas have wonderful places hidden inside that no one sees because there is no trail.

Some of my favorite experiences in Yellowstone have been at the Pocket Basin mud pots, a series of giant mud pots that don’t appear on the map and are off the beaten path.

Stepping off the trail is more momentous in Yellowstone than in most parks because thermal areas may have fragile crusts covering scalding hot pools of water.

In fact, on the way to Pocket Basin, there is one such pool where residual bones indicate that a large mammal accidentally broke through at some point.

So, winding our way carefully, my family headed to Pocket Basin?less than half a mile from a parking lot and maintained trails.

Somehow, six-foot-deep cauldrons of boiling mud are even more enjoyable when you know no one else has seen them in days.

And since there are no rails to keep you back, only your good judgment keeps you out of trouble.

Lack of good judgment makes for good stories, however. For example, one time, my dad got so close to one of the mud pots that some mud leapt onto his pant leg after a particularly large burst. If he had been wearing shorts, he would still have a lovely scar on his leg.

Sometimes when you just wander around, you see nothing special (other than the inherent specialness in seeing something no one else is).

Other times, you hit the jackpot.

The authors of The Guide to Yellowstone Waterfalls and Their Discovery found hundreds of waterfalls in Yellowstone’s back country, and I won’t even hazard a guess on how many more waterfalls there are left to find.

Most are within the ability of the average hiker, but a significant portion of the “new” waterfalls is so dangerous to get to that they cannot in good conscience recommend the hike to anyone.

Will I visit any of these “Not Recommended” falls? Hopefully someday?when I’ve lost more of my common sense.

‘Til then, there are slot canyons to explore, hot springs to find and wild animals to startle.

So, if you’re going through your mid-life crisis a few decades early, instead of getting a tattoo or joining Greenpeace, just take a deep breath and a giant step off the beaten path.

Disclaimer: in some national parks, this is illegal due to the type of wonders being protected.

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