It all leads up to this: our opportunity to witness the world’s most famous geyser do its thing. Old Faithful is the main event for any newcomer to Yellowstone National Park, the one feature everyone’s heard of since youth. It’s the center of the public’s average mental image of Yellowstone as just a giant, grassy plain with the one big natural water fountain in the middle. Its popularity and its predictably sporadic yet potentially time-killing nature (depending on how soon we’d arrive before the next show) made it the highest priority to check off our to-do list above all else.
Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:
Every year since 1999 Anne and I have taken a road trip to a different part of the United States and seen attractions, wonders, and events we didn’t have back home in Indianapolis. From 1999 to 2003 we did so as best friends; from 2004 to the present, as husband and wife. We were each raised in a household that couldn’t afford annual out-of-state family vacations. We’re geeks more accustomed to vicarious life through the windows of pop culture than through in-person adventures. Eventually we tired of some of our self-imposed limitations and figured out how to leave the comforts of home for the chance to see creative, exciting, breathtaking, outlandish, and/or bewildering new sights in states beyond our own, from the horizons of nature to the limits of imagination, from history’s greatest hits to humanity’s deepest regrets and the sometimes quotidian, sometimes quirky stopovers in between.
We’re the Goldens. This is who we are and what we do.
Technically not even 2020 stopped us. We played by the new rules of the interim normal and wandered Indiana in multiple directions as safely as we could. This year the long-awaited vaccines arrived. For 2021 we agreed we had to go big. Our new primary objective was Yellowstone National Park, 1500 miles from Indy…
Old Faithful sits in the southwest quadrant of the park, nearly two hours from the east entrance where we came in. Thanks to its reputation and the unrivaled power of tourism, civilization has built up all around it. Lodging, restaurants, gift shops, gas stations, even a post office and an auto repair shop are among the man-made amenities clustered around Old Faithful’s vicinity. The parking lot is huge but can fill up nonetheless if you arrive too late in the day. Visitors can either spend hours trolling up and down the aisles for the best possible space or follow our lead, take the first space you see and make peace with a healthy jaunt on foot the rest of the way. Old Faithful itself offers neither a drive-thru nor curbside service.
Once out of the car, follow the herds until you spot the rising steam. Even when it’s not actively spewing, puffy clouds can float outward and upward from its spout.
And there it was, soon to entertain all. Old Faithful fires twenty times a day, with an average of 74 minutes between each eruption, relatively reliable but not with clockwork precision to the very minute. Each display fires 3700 to 8400 gallons of scalding hot water as high as 180 feet, for somewhere between 1½ to 5 minutes until it’s exhausted and has to rest up for the next performance. We worked our way through the middle of the walkway encircling its plateau, with more elbow room at first than we’d expected, and waited not long.
As luck would have it, less than ten minutes after we walked up, Old Faithful reached max pressure and cut loose. We watched, we snapped photos, we took turns between eyes and cameras, taking it in and capturing its soul for digital posterity. We took some eleventy thousand non-different shots of it, just in case something memorable might distinguish one image from the next. Would the steam turn pretty colors? Could the ground explode? What if an idiot runs up, tosses in a penny and makes a wish? Might a bear wander onto the field looking for honey and get its butt stuck in the hole?
That leaves me with the quandary of deciding which pictures to post. The minuscule differences among them are chiefly in composition. Which steam puffs have the neatest shape? How much of the trees on the horizon should we preserve? Keep in or cut out the audience? Why does it feel wrong to share only a fraction of the total pics after the way I went hog-wild with Badlands photos?
Hopefully these will do.
After I sorted our Old Faithful pics for this chapter, I went back and just realized the shot I Instagrammed that day didn’t make the cut here. Again, the shot is different, but not really.
Other natural wonders around Yellowstone were prettier and more colorful, but watching THE Old Faithful was conceptually cool in the moment, live and in person, sharing that experience of natural splendor with a bunch of strangers who set aside their differences for a few minutes of vacation solidarity in which, consciously or otherwise, we all agreed this was ten thousand times cooler than staying locked up at home and shrieking at each other online over real or imaginary sins.
Once it was apparent to all that the performance had dwindled back to mere steaming and Old Faithful would offer no real encore, everyone deserted the walkway, rushed to the nearest restrooms and restaurants, lined up en masse and probably spent the rest of the day complaining about how there were just way too many people here.
To be continued!
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[Link enclosed here to handy checklist for other chapters and for our complete road trip history to date. Follow us on Facebook or via email sign-up for new-entry alerts, or over on Twitter if you want to track my faint signs of life between entries. Thanks for reading!]