Just inside the south entrance to the nation's oldest and best-known national park, a visitor stands at the side of the road gazing toward a stand blackened lodgepole pines.
He glances down at his clean, white shoes, then steps gingerly across the ash. The dramatic surroundings appear to absorb him, and he pays little attention to his shoes.Several hours later, a crowd of several hundred people, undaunted by a mixture of rain and blowing snow, huddles along the boardwalk to watch for Old Faithful to erupt.
The Memorial Day weekend is typically when motor traffic in the park starts to pick up, but the visitors started coming early this year, said Park Ranger Kristin Legg. Many want information about the fires as they come through the gates, she said.
As long as a week before Memorial Day, visitors who wanted a room at the famous Old Faithful Inn were turned away if they didn't have a reservation - all 320 rooms were booked. Cabins and other accommodations were snatched up quickly as they opened for the season.
Everyone visiting Yellowstone seems to know something of the firestorm that swept through half of the park, leaving about one fourth of the forest and meadow acreage lifeless. The other half of the fire-scorched areas show signs of damage, but the ground is covered with a hint of green in places where the snow has receded.
The effects of the fire can be seen from all but about 30 miles of roadway inside the park, and visitors this summer will likely see crews working on rehabilitation projects along the trails and highways.
The Greater Yellowstone Recovery Corps, a volunteer program run by the Student Conservation Association, has been established to re-open more than 600 miles of foot trails and rebuild burned bridges.
The park service has hired a Montana timber company to remove burned and beetle-killed trees that could fall in campgrounds or on highways in developed areas.
The park service has also announced that an immediate offensive will be launched against any new fires in the park this summer. The controversial "let-burn" policy has been suspended through fall while it is re-evaluated by officials in Washington, D.C.
By midsummer, about 20,000 people will be in the park each day, according to the Park Service. During the blustery pre-season, many of the visitors in the park are foreigners, traveling in the United States from Europe and the Orient. They, too, knew of the fires before they came. They struggle to describe, in English, what they see.
"Sad . . . unfortunate . . . an accident," said Felix Chen from Taipei, Taiwan.
"We had heard about the fires but didn't know they burned this much," said Karen Kraus, who lives near Stuttgart, West Germany.
The parking lot is filled with tour buses and cars that boast license plates from Florida to California, Alaska to Texas.
"Some people cry" as they leave the park, said Legg, who staffs the gate at the south entrance. "A few people think it's so terrible that the fires happened."
But she said more often the visitors ask where they can see the worst of the fires - or where they can see the largest burned area.
She distributes maps and a message from Park Service officials about the fires, their role in nature, and the effects of the aftermath.
"Nature is not always a gentle hostess, but she never fails to be an inspiring teacher," says a statement in the handout by Robert Barbee, Yellowstone superintendent.
It's still too early in the season to see the much of the new, green vegetation that is expected to spring from the roots that are still alive beneath the blackened ash. But for the tourists, black is also a color they came to see.
Officials from TW Recreational Services, which runs the concessions inside the park, have worked all winter to ensure visitation wouldn't fall off this summer because of the fires.
"We were concerned about Europe - Great Britain and Germany are the big (overseas) test market for us," said Rick Hoeinghausen, assistant general manager for TW. "Visitation is up right now in the park over last year."
He said media reports during the early spring have helped promote visitation as much as anything. "There is a lot of press about in the park bringing back the accurate message - the park is green now, and a lot of things are left."
There's still a lot of brown and black, too. But the added contrast the fires have painted on the landscape is being promoted as a reason to see the park.