If a person knows just one thing about Yellowstone National Park, it’s probably Old Faithful. If park signage is to be believed, the geyser merits its own off-ramp.
Old Faithful, however, is only one of 300 geysers in the park, and just one of 20 in fact in its own immediate vicinity. It is not the biggest, the one that erupts the most regularly, or the most interesting to watch, even in the area that is named for it.
Yet the road signs don’t lie: Old Faithful is by far Yellowstone’s best attended geyser. On a Saturday in late August, lunchtime, about 2,000 gathered. Skies were overcast. All down the valley cut by the Firehole River, geysers smoked. In the intervals between eruptions of Old Faithful, you could visit two dozen more, but most visitors don’t. Instead they wait here, the most approved and convenient spot, on a boardwalk, complete with benches, that encircled the low, domelike mound that culminates in a steaming fissure. All were steps from the ordered comfort of the brand-new (that week!) visitors’ center and its outlying cafeteria and gift shop.
Some geysers steam constantly, and Old Faithful’s puffing rhythm is intermittently punctuated by more voluminous bursts of steam, or small spasms of hot water, which most of the crowd took as a sign an eruption was upon us.
I stood near a man who’d been here within the previous few days, and who announced with jocular certitude that it wasn’t – that the geyser “did that” several minutes before it actually blew.
Still, intuition persuades. A burst of steam, and “Ah! Ah!” exclaims a 60-ish women dyed blonde and clutching a credit-card sized camera. The jocular man makes a joke about subterranean workmen frantically repairing a pump.
Finally, it begins. It is mostly about more steam. It rises in a column, roughly an inverted cone; there’s a hissing, and the sound of water splashing on rock and compacted earth. But from our angle the liquid portion of the geyser is hard to see, veiled in momentary cloud.
As it continues, however, the scene quickly takes on the feel of anti-climax – the roadside wreck everyone brakes to see but which disappoints with its mere dents in lieu of accordioned fenders and mangled victims.
After a few minutes and several thousand shutter snaps, people begin to drift away. The geyser continues; the water streams down the yellowish gray dome, the tourists stream toward the visitor center.
For some, anticipation of the prodigy exceeds amazement. “I was expecting more power,” I heard a man tell a friend inside the nearby cafeteria complex.
Still, let’s assume most visitors are satisfied with their Old Faithful experience. It remains, as Nabokov might have said, a glance-and-gulp thing. Whether they wandered from the famed geyser’s ejaculation prematurely or not, only a fraction of the visitors make it to even the nearest and the shortest of the boardwalks and trails leading to the other nearby geysers and other “thermal features,” as the park calls them.
Is it simply that once is enough? Geysers, after all, aren’t the only attraction that results from the fact that much of Yellowstone is cradled in the mouth of an active volcano. Fissures in the earth allow molten rock that in most places remains modestly buried to instead heat groundwater that reaches the surface.
In Yellowstone there are 10,000 such sites, and the vast majority are not geysers.
Some, for instance, are fumaroles, or steam vents, rictuses that merely smoke constantly, with no water visible. Most of the others, geysers included, are some variety of hot spring.
Indeed, some of the park’s more surreal sites are pools of placid water plunging yards deep, walls textured with a lining of mineral deposits, edges stained a rainbow of bright colors – blue, orange, green – by the thermophiles, or heat-loving bacteria, that live in the water there.
And visitors are required to keep distant, or at least on the boardwalks that take us to most thermal features. The water in hot springs is hot enough to scald or kill, and the ground around them is thin. (Not so thin that it can’t support the bison whose tracks and scat are commonplace there, but the bison probably know what they’re doing.) The water can be as alkaline as baking soda – or as acidic as battery acid. Many smell strongly of sulphur.
Geysers are hot springs whose channel to the surface is constricted enough that the water bubbling up is under enough pressure to periodically erupt. Geysers are the great exception, the freak of nature, anomaly among anomalies. The route to the surface can’t be too wide, or it’s a mere hot spring. But if they close entirely, they’re “nothing.”
This happens. Over centuries, mineral deposits can cork the hole. Earthquakes – there can be 2,000 a year in Yellowstone – can shift the ground and shut the hole, and this happens with some frequency. (Old Faithful’s frequency has been altered by a pair of earthquakes this century alone, and the wrong temblor could easily shut it off entirely, which makes the expensive new visitor center seem a calculated risk at best.) The formation of a geyser requires an almost cosmic defiance of geologic odds.
So all the more wonder that a slow hour-long walk from Old Faithful let us see sights even more beguiling.
At the more regular geysers, the park posts the likely time of the next eruption. With luck, we found Riverside Geyser ready to blow – a great firehose stream jetting out at an angle over the Firehole, smaller than Old Faithful but a good deal more photogenic.
Yet to just happen across geysers whose eruption is entirely unpredictable might be more enjoyable still. As we were wandering by, a trio of smaller geysers chose to erupt: Fan, Mortar and Spiteful. Fan’s beautiful array of three sprays, Mortar’s concentrated power, and Spiteful’s vertical spray, followed by an angled jet directly toward the boardwalk, were so delightfully haphazard that one middle-aged woman leaped up and down like a cheerleader, arms raised, shouting, “Go! Go!”
So why does Old Faithful get all the press? Because it is, they say, the most predictable large geyser. (It reaches heights of 184 feet, claims the park, though some observers say it’s not been that impressive for years.) The geyser blows every 90 minutes, give or take 10, the predicted next one posted on a video screen in the visitor center, in a lobby as big and busy as a big city hotel’s.
Indeed, the two-story window looking out over the concrete plaze that leads to the geyser makes it feel more like a monument than a bit of natural wonder.
And that’s part of the point – not of geysers, which have no point, but of what draws people to the most predictable of them.
Most of nature changes either unpredictably or very slowly. By contrast, Old Faithful mimics the industrial virtue of routinization. Unlike geysers that seem to erupt when they please, it flatters us with its domesticity. It is easily packaged into spectacle. (And also into “Old Faithful Root Beer” and an eponymous brand of straight bourbon whiskey, both sold at park gift shops.)
So perhaps that guy joking about the dudes working on underground pumps wasn’t far off. It is hard for us – a species that has created its own artificial waterfalls, spliced genes, flown to the moon — to imagine something so impressive that we haven’t made. And so Old Faithful, whether it thrills or disappoints, isn’t popular only because it is natural, but because it seems so much like a machine.