About a hundred yards away, across an undulating field of yellowed scrub brush, a gray mound of rock belched forth steam in fits and bursts. The mound made no sound. Other than the steam, there was no indication that it was special. Except that in a 180-degree arc around it, people from across the world gathered on benches to watch this pile of rock.
One of those people was nearly doubled over in pain. That ice cream at Fishing Bridge hours ago had been delicious, but apparently had been too much dairy for me to handle all at once. I really, really needed to use the bathroom. But Old Faithful was set to go off any minute now. If I could literally manage to last 10 more minutes, I would get to see one of the great natural wonders of the United States. Old Faithful’s eruptions can be pinpointed within a few minutes – if the previous eruption lasts more than 2.5 minutes, the next one comes in 91 minutes. If it lasts less than that, the next one comes in 65 minutes. The geyser erupts to a height of 145 feet on average. Everyone you know has seen Old Faithful at some point in their life, it seems like.
Look at me, quite literally holding my shit in. Look at Garrett, laughing at me. The minutes dragged on and Old Faithful started mocking me. The volume of steam erupting from the vent would increase for a few seconds, and the tourists would collectively hold their breath in anticipation of the incoming eruption. Then the steam would drop back down to normal levels, leaving me in more agony than before. Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore. I was literally seconds away from having a downward eruption right before Old Faithful had an upward eruption. I told my companions sorry and waddled away. Pam and Terri gave me concerned looks as I left, and Elizabeth gave me a bemused look. With as much dignity as I could muster, I beat a retreat toward the Old Faithful Visitor’s Center. It’s a big, modern-looking building offset to the south of the geyser, surrounded by fields of volcanic-looking sand that have the standard warning not to walk on them. I just had enough time to vaguely note that some kids were playing on that “do-not-walk” sand when the sound of hundreds of gasps came from behind me. Humiliated, I looked over my shoulder as I entered the building and got my first-ever vague glimpse of Old Faithful in all its glory. I had a lot of time to reflect on that look over the next ten or so minutes in the bathroom.
By the time I emerged from the visitor’s center, the crowds around Old Faithful were dispersing. Once more, it was just a semicircular walkway around a barren piece of ground with steam rising from the middle. Elizabeth greeted me gingerly, no doubt wondering how much I rued the decision to turn my back on an Old Faithful eruption. In truth, I was ready to laugh at myself over the absurdity of the situation. It’s not like Old Faithful wouldn’t be ready to go again in another couple of hours. In the meantime, sometimes you can just enjoy the absurdities of life.
The Old Faithful Inn is a famous building in the massive complex flanking the entrance road leading from the highway intersection to the geyser itself. It was built in 1904 to accommodate those early national park enthusiasts. It’s entirely built in the log structure of the great Western buildings of yore, rendering the Inn the status of the largest log hotel in the world. Outside of the Inn is a famous porch where you can go and order a drink and watch Old Faithful erupt, away from the hoi polloi out in the viewing area. My parents raved about the view from the deck, which they enjoyed on one of those sunny, clear days that Elizabeth and I seemed destined to not be able to enjoy on our trip. Given the less-than-ideal weather on our own afternoon at Old Faithful, sitting out on a porch didn’t sound all that good. But dinner at the Inn, one of the few places in the park not to shutter their doors to visitors? Yes, I was willing to go for that. It was a little past 5:00 anyway, and in a twist of fate it was time to celebrate Terri’s birthday anyways. The dining room had changed their service in one of those moves that places were pretending was about covid but really just belied their staffing shortages. Somehow their “safe” dining option was to take no reservations and let people in on a first-come, first-served basis for a buffet dinner. Yeah. I didn’t mind too much. The line snaked out into the lobby, which was one of the most beautiful pieces of architecture I’ve seen.
It was also nice to catch back up with Terri and Garrett. Outside of our whitewater rafting expedition two days ago, Elizabeth, Pam and myself had largely been operating independently of them in Yellowstone. This was kind of a big deal. Terri was the same person who didn’t even know how to book her own flights. Early on in the trip, the two of them couldn’t figure out how to go anywhere on their own. They were almost a second shadow in Grand Teton. It had been pretty cool to see them figure it out independently in Yellowstone. AND we were celebrating Terri’s birthday with our dinner.
To add to the overall sense of celebration, somebody walked out of the Old Faithful dining room with a waiter trailing them, unsuccessfully trying to remind them that they had half of a bottle of wine left. Jokingly, I claimed I would take it: “We just got engaged!” This is a fantastic card that Elizabeth and I would play for months, starting here to secure half of a bottle of a nice red. When the wait staff seated us at our table, they brought wine glasses for us to share our free bottle.
The dining room was more of the same architecturally – big A-frame ceilings, giant logs, wood finish everywhere. It oozed historical significance. The setting was kind of weird for a buffet setup, but I wouldn’t complain about a real, hot meal as long as it was edible. And I quickly learned that the food would indeed pass muster. Reviews on TripAdvisor say that not many people are loving the buffet food at the Old Faithful Inn, but remember what my last few meals were. Chicken, mac and cheese, and mashed potatoes, and salad, and best of all – bison chili. I chowed like there was no tomorrow, helped by a liberal pouring of the red wine. At least 60% of the reason you go camping and hiking is for the gratification of the food afterwards, I’ve decided.
The extended meal at Old Faithful Inn also allowed the chamber underneath the geyser to refill with superheated water, readying us for the next show. Elizabeth agreed to head out to the big benches outside of Old Faithful with me, braving the cool and misty evening so that I could witness the splendor of the geyser for myself. Everyone else chose to stay warm and where the food was, for which I don’t blame them one bit. Elizabeth and I had to push our way to the front row between one of the benches so I could pull out my dead camera and try to coax one or two more images from it before it went rip again. The geyser to our east once again began to churn and froth, sometimes putting out more steam or shooting water a couple of feet, then settling back down. The crowd oohed and ahhed with bated breath each time. Then, finally, a jet of water that grew upon itself and began to climb beyond any mere churning. Old Faithful was erupting.
Look at the majesty of that eruption. It’s one of those things where the picture, in my opinion, actually can capture how the scene feels. The sound is actually one of my vividest memories of this one. After the water silently completed its trajectory out of the subterranean chamber, it soared high in the air, then made a splashing roar as it hit the ground. The splash, instead of being constant like I guess, was more of a crescendoing wave as each jet pushed Old Faithful higher and higher into the sky. This continued for several minutes before the water began to recede. Elizabeth told me that this eruption was much better than the last one, but she may have been trying to make me feel better, so I wouldn’t necessarily trust her.
Finally, the last splash occurred, and there was nothing left but steam. And hundreds of people watching the steam, slowly dispersing.
The two of us could have stayed out in the gathering twilight, but instead we headed back into the Inn to rejoin dinner. The rest of the dinner assumed a farewell nature to me at least. Our weeklong sojourn within two of America’s most beautiful national parks had essentially drawn to its close, as I had no more “first sights” to see. Instead, the five of us enjoyed each other’s company. Terri got her birthday presents from Elizabeth and Pam, and someone convinced the Old Faithful Inn staff to sing her happy birthday. She gave an incredibly wholesome speech thanking all of us for taking this trip with her. Yellowstone had been Terri’s dream place to visit, and she was just so happy to have finally gotten to see it. Her happiness will stick with me for a long time.
It was getting dark out by the time the five of us paid our bills and got back out to our cars. The drive from Old Faithful to Canyon took about an hour. Days upon days of getting after it had left me bone-tired by the time we got back to our campsite one last time. I couldn’t wait to get to our hotel the next night just so I could take a shower. There was a lot of packing and a lot of driving to do the next day, but for now I just needed sleep.