Yellowstone, Part 1

Monday morning we checked out of our cute little cabin in Jackson, loaded the car and pointed it north. About an hour late we entered Yellowstone via the South entrance and the site of the Huck Fire, one of the many fires that plagued Yellowstone in the summer of 1988. There were many, many downed grey trunks and upstanding charred black skeletons of trees, but we could see how the fire has opened up the area to new growth. There are thousands of small evergreens, all about four to eight feet high, so the area is far from a wasteland.

We stopped first in West Thumb, which is one of the many geothermal sites in Yellowstone and a good introduction to the phenomenon without the distraction of geysers. Bubbling and steaming pools surrounded us, and we needed no urging to obey the Park signage about staying on the paths – although I was horrified at our very first steam pot to see an older couple do just that. Nothing happened, to my great relief. Later on we witnessed a Dangerous Hat Rescue when a gentleman’s sun hat blew off and into one of the danger areas – it was rescued by a Park Ranger with a long picky-uppy apparatus, so this must happen a lot.

Then we headed to Old Faithful, and saw our first buffalo of the day. He was sitting stolidly near the geyser, to the delight of all the tourists sitting and waiting in the stands. He had the air of an old performer wearily awaiting his cue. In fact, a few minutes before Old Faithful actually blew, the buffalo got up and walked ten yards away, as if heading to places. There was a bubbling prelude, then steam shot up, the audience cheered, and the buffalo began to pee. In fact, the buffalo urinated throughout the star’s performance – a textbook example of pulling focus.

John and I then wandered down into the geyser field, looking at a bubbling this and a steaming that and getting a snoutful of sulphur fumes, which seemed to stay with us through the day. We stopped by Grand Geyser, which erupts when it feels like it but usually within a four-hour cycle. According to the sign, the window for the next anticipated eruption was 2:45 to 6:45. Since it was about 6 PM and some people there told us they’d been waiting since 3 PM with no action, we decided to sit down and wait, too. There was a strong wind but the afternoon sun was warm on our backs. We learned that the Grand Geyser “stage” is actually occupied by three performers: Grand Geyer, Turban Geyer (which burps and farts about every fifteen or twenty minutes), and Vent Geyser, which only puts on a show when Grand Geyer does. The area around the three geysers is covered by a shallow pond, and it’s a good sign for potential eruption when the pond is full. Every time Turban does its little display, the level in the pond drops a bit, and the crowd tenses, because if Grand is going to erupt, it happens either at the beginning or the end of Turban’s act.

So we waited. There was a couple with three small boys sitting near us and they started to get twitchy. The end of the “window” time came and went and Turban did its act, but Grand did not erupt. The crowd was noticeably restless. The three little boys sitting nearby became fretful. Seven o’clock came, and Turban began its routine again. Again, nothing from Grand. The family with the little boys gave up and went away. John stretched out on the bench in the sun and closed his eyes. As 7:15 approached, I watched the water around Grand’s mouth with binoculars and could see it starting to bubble. The crowd stirred. I told John I thought something was about to happen. He sat up, and as he did, a nearby gentleman cried, “Here we go!”

And Grand Geyer erupted. Now you know and I know that Old Faithful is the “star” of Yellowstone, but Grand gave an extraordinary performance. Not just the straight-up fountain, like an overgrown garden hose, that you get from Faithful – Grand erupted in a series of explosive blasts that towered overhead, accompanied by chuffs and whumps of sound. Turban boiled merrily alongside, and then Vent erupted, sending up a vigorous fountain of its own. The trio performed for a good five minutes, sending steam and spray over the enthusiastic crowd. Finally Grand subsided, and just as the watching crowd began to applaud (I’m not kidding), it blasted up again, with another, even more energetic display, with Turban and Vent still giving it their all.

After about ten minutes, all three geysers subsided for good, the pond around them almost completely empty. John and I had originally intended to walk much further into the geyser field, but we agreed that Grand’s display would be hard to top, plus we had a long drive ahead of us to our hotel in Cody. We wandered past Castle Geyser and a few others, stopped in the Old Faithful Inn to admire the lodge architecture and use the facilities, then got in the car and headed for Yellowstone’s East Entrance. Dark was coming on hard, and we hadn’t eaten dinner.

What we didn’t know was that the final seven miles of road heading eastward out of Yellowstone was under construction. This meant that in pretty much full darkness, we had to make our way down a narrow, winding mountain pass with a steep dropoff on one side and no guardrails in place. There was a maroon van in front of us most of the way and its driver elected to go down on the wrong side of the road, clinging to the side of the mountain like a limpet. John was less concerned, but then again, he wasn’t sitting in the passenger side, where I was wringing my hands with dismay every time we took a curve and an empty void loomed out my window.

Finally we made it out of the park and at 11 PM, pulled into the Cody Cowboy Village in Cody, Wyoming. We’d munched on sandwiches during our drive so our hunger had been sated, and the Cowboy Village’s famously luxurious king bed awaited. We got the car unpacked and John went right off to sleep, but I was so wired up from our drive that in spite of the down pillows, 300-thread count sheets and cozy bed, I had a rotten night’s sleep.

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