The Old Faithful area of Yellowstone is like a little town. It has souvenir shops, general stores, a hotel, a visitor center, a gas station, and about a thousand acres of parking lot.
You’d think parking would be easy, but the first day we tried to go there, the park rangers had half the parking lots closed. I don’t know why. But maybe that’s why they’re called “park” rangers.
The next try, we were successful. We found parking, but it was a long way from that famous teapot known as Old Faithful. My wife, Kay, and my sister-in-law, Connie, put on backpacks filled with snacks and water, for the long hike. My brother, Rowan, just carried his ever-present coffee mug. Which could also have been named Old Faithful.
I carried my camera and camera bag. And I also wore four layers of clothes, because it was in the frickin’ 40’s that early in the morning. My camera bag is very roomy, and I can use it for other things, besides cameras. Such as for storing my layers after I shed them, as the day warmed. My bag is sort of like a man purse. Or murse.
Wiley Jr is a real shutterbug. He carried not one, but two cameras. But no camera bag. And no backpack, either. One of his cameras is modern and lightweight, except for the one-ton bazooka zoom lens attached to it. The other is an old film camera, that would weigh a ton even without a big zoom lens. Yet it, too, was equipped with a giant heavy zoom. Like I say, he’s a real shutterbug, and is very much into photography.
But no worries. He’s young and strong, and if he’s willing to drape two cinder blocks around his neck, I figured more power to him.
So off we trudged toward Old Faithful, each with our own burdens dangling under our chins and off our backs.
The big teapot was a few minutes late. But when it went off, Wiley and I snapped a ton of photos as it sputtered, shot upward, and hosed the sky with its boiling hot gusher of water.
We watched this world famous geyser erupt three times. A large crowd begins to gather about a half-hour before the expected eruption. Rowan, ever the comedian, worked the crowd. He explained how geysers work. He said that park rangers operate large pumps below the surface. And when Old Faithful didn’t erupt at the exact, predicted time, Rowan sighed and opined, “Yep, that’s government for ya.”
After the excitement of the geyser died down, Rowan suggested we walk some of the trails in the area.
The Old Faithful area is also known as the Upper Geyser Basin. It’s loaded with hundreds of geysers and hot springs. And the roiling, Firehole River winds through it, gathering the boiling waters that spill from the earth.
The Firehole River. Or perhaps it’s one of the Five Rivers of Hades.
A reticulated network of trails and bridges covers the Upper Geyser Basin, with miles upon miles of hiking opportunities. Most of these trails are paved or boardwalk. They’re easy to walk, but seem labyrinthine and endless. I got the impression that you can hike all day and might not explore all the available footpaths.
But I was up to hiking some of it, and so was everyone else. So we shouldered our various burdens and followed Rowan through this wonderland of steam and boiling liquid.
Heart Spring and Lion Geyser. Unlike Rowan’s explanation, geysers actually come from hot water, heated by the underground magma of volcanoes (remember, Yellowstone is a volcano).
We did a lot of walking, and it was getting tiring. But an hour into it I was still having a great old time with my family, snapping hundreds of photos of all the natural marvels bubbling up from the ground. But if I had realized that Wiley Jr was as cunning as a coyote, perhaps I would have been more circumspect.
He walks up with his film camera in hand. “Hey Uncle Tippy! I’m out of film and don’t need this camera anymore. Can I put it in your camera bag? It’s getting kind of heavy.”
I imagined so. That fucking barbell must have been breaking his neck. But he’s the young asshole who brought it. And he’s the stupid son-of-a-bitch who didn’t bother to bring along a camera bag or backpack. Why the hell would he expect me to carry his lead weight?
Lion Geyser, erupting. The magma-heated water of a geyser passes through a narrow channel on its way to the earth’s surface. But heavier, cooler water at the top of the channel caps the heated water. This pressurizes it, allowing it to heat up to the boiling point. And when it boils, it flashes into steam, violently forcing the water up the channel, and erupting into a geyser.
But I’m a fucking idiot, too. I have a hard time telling people no sometimes. And I really liked Wiley. Up until this point. He was always so nice and well-mannered.
I peered inside my camera bag, looking for an excuse. I prevaricated.“Uh, let’s see . . . um, um, nope, I don’t think I have enough room here.” And that made me look stupider than hell, because there was all kinds of room in the bag, which Wiley could clearly see. But I was saving that room to store my layers.
The cunning Wiley seized upon my stupidity before I could come up with a better excuse. “Yeah, sure Uncle Tippy,” he helpfully offered, “You’ve got all kinds of room in there. How about here?” And in he thrust the camera. I immediately felt a tugging strain upon my neck.
A colorful hot spring near the edge of the forest.
Well fuck. Just fuck. Goddamn that asshole!
I silently bore my new burden like I was Christ at the 12 stations. I staggered from hot spring to hot spring, geyser to geyser, with my own geysers of hot sweat pumping off my neck.
Meanwhile, Wiley was delightfully skipping way ahead so he could take the time to compose his photos with his digital camera, using all kinds of complicated special settings. Little fucker.
Grand Geyser. The column of steam and water at the left is in constant eruption. But the main geyser erupts every 7 to 15 hours. It’s the tallest predictable geyser known, achieving heights up to 200 feet (Old Faithful averages 145 feet).
I was getting worn out. But the coffee drinkers learned that the nearest pit toilet was more than a mile further down the trail. So we doggedly headed for it, me bringing up the rear with my extra burden, dragging feet, and lack of urgency.
There are two kinds of geysers: Pool geysers, which erupt through pools of water, in violent bursts; and cone geysers, which erupt in steady, tall streams. Old Faithful is a cone geyser. And these are a few other examples of the cone variety.
By the time I arrived at the toilet, the late-morning sun had raised the mercury to the 80s. Everyone had already relieved themselves, and was sitting on a log, waiting for me while eating lunch.
This is a pool geyser. Notice the narrow channel in the middle, just waiting to spew forth superheated water?
I was on the verge of a heat stroke with my four layers of jacket, vest, shirt, and teeshirt. I decided to put on a demonstration for Wiley. I removed the camera bag from my neck, with a stagger of exaggerated weariness (but I didn’t have to exaggerate much). I exclaimed to no one in particular, “I’m about to die here, with all these layers. I need a place to store them.”
Wiley said nothing. Acted as if he didn’t even notice. The unconscious prick.
The erupting waters of a small, pool geyser.
So I did a striptease for him. I removed my jacket, then my vest, then both shirts. And, while barechested, I mused aloud about how little room there was in my camera bag, for these articles of clothing.
The young asshole stared off into space, as if he was in another world.
Giant Geyser has an unusual shape. It formed in a group of trees, resulting in a cone shaped like a hollowed out tree trunk.
Making a big show of it, I rolled my jacket up super tight, and searched for any available space in my camera bag. And I surprised myself. I found room. I repeated this process with my vest, straining dramaturgically. And again I found room. And I found room for the teeshirt too, goddamnit.
Granted, it took great effort to stuff the clothes in, and they stuck about halfway out of the bag. But there was room.
Now Wiley had no reason to act on my hints and volunteer to take his one-ton camera back. I was stuck.
Another example of the many colorful hot springs at Yellowstone.
We slogged back to the car, over long miles of trail, sidewalk, and parking lot, before I could finally remove the yoke from my neck. I mentioned to Rowan what a lazy bastard his grandson was. With burden lightened, my mood lightened. We both laughed about it.
But I made a mental note. Watch out for Wiley Cody, Jr. That nice, well-mannered little fucker is one cunning coyote.
Geysers are very rare geological phenomena. They only occur in volcanic areas, and only with a small percentage of volcanoes. Most geysers require the presence of rhyolite rock. This rock dissolves in hot water, forming a mineral called geyserite. The geyserite cements and seals the channel walls of the geyser, preventing them from breaking down during eruptions.