Environmental Science Professor Rob Thomas lives out his childhood fantasy every summer when he works with the Yellowstone Forever Organization teaching people from around the world about the geology of Yellowstone National Park. Although he grew up in San Francisco, Thomas gained an appreciation for the great outdoors at a young age.
“My mother was a big fan of the national parks. As a kid, we travelled around in a camper over the summer. The goal was always to visit national parks,” he said.
One of those trips took him to the park he now teaches in: “I was 8 or 9 years old when we went to Yellowstone. When I saw the ranger standing up there in the amphitheater, I knew that was what I wanted to do. I thought, ‘I want to live in places that are like national parks.’”
Thomas eventually left the concrete jungle for the open wilds of Montana. In his environmental science classes at Montana Western, he often takes students out of the classroom and into the wilderness he so loves to gather data. However, his roadside geology class, designed for laymen, is a little less intensive.
“It’s no grades, no pressure, all fun,” he said.
Students will spend most of their time in a van he described as “no bigger than the width of this office,” giving them plenty of opportunities to pick Thomas’ brain. The amount of time spent hiking is minimal which makes the course popular with people of all ages.
“We get almost entirely non-geologists. It’s a mix of ages. We’ve had people who were definitely in their 80s all the way to teenage grandkids who are along for the ride.”
“It’s the type of course where the work is all on me. They’re incessantly asking me questions.”
Possibly the most qualified person for the job in the world, Thomas is the co-author for the second edition of Roadside Geology of Yellowstone Country. The book is meant as a guide for people traveling through the park. Many visitors pick up the book at one of the gift shops and periodically reference it when a particular roadside landscape catches their fancy.
Once the course has concluded for the day, the students and Thomas will retire to cabins at the Lamar Buffalo Ranch.
This rustic setting makes the course even more appealing: “The Lamar Buffalo ranch is a neat facility of log cabins maintained by Yellowstone Forever. They’re all powered by solar panels with batteries donated by Toyota. They’re completely off the grid. They’re very environmentally conscious there.”
“We’re all responsible for our own dinners. Every night we sit down at picnic tables and eat our dinner, watching the sunset. And the people are asking me questions. They’d probably keep asking questions all night if I didn’t go back to the cabin to sleep.”
It’s easy to guess what the most commonly asked question is. Modern films, television shows, and video games suggest that a lot of people have apocalypse on the brain, but Professor Thomas feels the likelihood of an eruption is quite unlikely:
“Everyone is interested in, is Yellowstone going to erupt again? I usually just nip that in the bud right in the beginning. I tell them you’re much more apt to die in the park driving in the bus than from a volcanic eruption.”
An even more immediate problem park-goers face is the overcrowding that occurs at Yellowstone over the summer which Thomas touched on.
“Many of my favorite stops around Yellowstone are getting so crowded. Park visitation in July reaches a million people, that’s the population of Montana. Disneyland is the proper term. Waiting in line for the bathroom at Yellowstone in the summer, better hope you don’t have to go too bad.”
He believes that eventually the park may have to employ more shuttles to control the flow of people in the popular areas.
Lastly, I asked Thomas what his favorite part of the course is. Even though he always loses his voice by this point, he cited the final stretch of the trip as the one he looks forward to the most each year.
“It’s hard to beat stopping at Cooke City. It’s at the top of the Beartooth Highway. It’s one of the only places where you drive to above the tree level. Charles Kuralt said it was the most beautiful drive in America, and I agree. It doesn’t hurt that when we come back down to Cooke City, we end the trip with Wilcoxson’s Ice Cream.”
Breathtaking views and ice cream are well-deserved after all the hard work Thomas will put in during these three days in mid-July. People interested in this and other courses in Yellowstone National Park can contact the University of Montana Western’s School of Outreach or visit yellowstone.org.