Faith in Old Faithful ~ Two stories about one place

It wasn’t until adulthood that I found my way into a national park.  I have still never been to Yosemite, despite living close to it most of my life.  I don’t think either of my parents owned tents, or hiking shoes.  When I was young, we summered in cabins around Tahoe and Lake County.  But more than any wilderness trails, I remember hiking up and down the hills of San Francisco, and stealing away to the paved footpaths along the American River by my Gold River home.  Destination activities for us involved swimming, biking, or skiing.  But more so, we’d visit historic sites and museums, find places to shop, or hit an occasional state fair.  We weren’t what you’d call an outdoorsy family.  

So the year our family reunion wound up at Flagg Ranch Wyoming, smack dab between Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks, it’s no wonder that there were some hiccups. 

I should clarify too that this was the year my father was diagnosed with Cancer.  It was the summer I quit my job in New York to move to San Jose and work at my first Catholic school.  I knew no one in San Jose, but it was the only job I found within a two hour drive of my father.  Every night I spent in Wyoming, I called his house to check on him.  Sometimes he was too tired to talk, so I spoke with his wife Linda.  My body was in Wyoming, but my heart was in Sonoma.  Behind every choice I made, every activity I joined, against the backdrop of supreme beauty, the terror of his frailty hummed like the waiting song on Jeopardy.  But I was on vacation, a family reunion in Yellowstone with the other side of my family.

Family reunion is one of those nebulous words that could mean joining your ten brothers and sisters, twelve cousins and oddly named Uncle or Aunt who’s lived in general hermitude until old age.  Ours are not like that.  I have one brother, and three first cousins.  Perhaps that’s why these events matter so much. Our immediate family has dwindled more than it grows.  For my mother, and my Nana before she passed, genealogy is not just a hobby, but a near profession.  My mom is a member of the mayflower society, a number of genealogical societies, and of course, the DAR.  She has traced our ancestors back to princess Eleanor of Aquitaine, and King Edward III Plantagenet.  I can claim witches as ancestors, and the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.  But far more important to this family research is the way we have come together over the past thirty years.  These reunions have happened every four, and then every three years, for the past thirty years.  A family reunion for us includes second, third, and even fifth cousins.  We have family tree diagrams that spread over thirty feet, color coded.  For my little branch of the family, it’s a chance to be included in the swell of more people, more crazy, more fun.  It feels like the right thing to do.  

The planning for these has rotated over the years between different subclans of the Swedish patriarch Louis Linder.  This year, the Flagg Ranch year, the planning was up to the Frost clan, far more outdoorsy than us.  Some cousins camped in tents, found their way to long hikes in the park, and swam in the lakes nearby.  Some people spent time down in Jackson Hole.  My mother helped organize a shuttle tour of the Great Loop of Yellowstone.  Originally near twenty people signed up for the tour.  On the day of, the number had dwindled to seven.  Hiker or not, I felt happy to have a guided tour of the geothermal areas of the park.  True to form, I had done no research on the park, and the steaming multicolored goop we walked over felt otherworldly.  I never imagined dangers in a park beyond Grizzlies and steep cliffs.  Our bus stopped at six or seven viewpoints, and each one was more exciting than the next. 

The last stop on the trip was the one I remembered from Yogi Bear cartoons: Old Faithful.  When we pulled up to the Lodge, we saw the next time for eruption was in fifteen minutes.  I was torn between staying outside and watching, or going inside with my mom to shop.  The drive to stay with my close people won, and I went inside to explore the Lodge.  I picked out a few trinkets including pencils for student prizes, and a handcrafted mug for myself. 

When we went outside, throngs of people walked towards us, and I discovered I had missed the Geyser.  Because we were on a shuttle tour, there was no way I could wait to see the next eruption.  I was so disappointed.  Here I was in arguably the most famous national park, on a tour to see this one mighty thing, and I missed it.  I had seen amazing Bison and coyote, walked over footpaths of quicksand and green gooey mud.  But the fact that I was shopping when the geyser went off felt like a smack in the face.  Where were my priorities?  How could I miss the thing I wanted most to see?  What happened to the Faithful nature of Old Faithful? 

It wasn’t just that I missed the geyser, but that I missed what mattered the most, following the conveyer belt of activity.  I wanted to be near my ailing father.  I didn’t want him to be ailing.  I was too busy buying memories to make them.  My mom laughed, because, as she told me, it actually wasn’t that big of a deal.  When she saw how disappointed I truly was, she said I should come back.  Right, when?  It wasn’t about that anyhow, and I knew it.  Everything inside was mixed up.  Great natural beauty and family belonging, and the weight of my father’s imminent death.  I ached to unravel.  To parce out emotions so I could handle them, one at a time.  I wanted to wash my psyche in the rapture of something bigger than myself, something constant.  I felt selfish to be enjoying myself in this wonderous place, when the man who made me was in horrible pain.  

After we got back to the lodge I saw my second cousin Paul, a nomadic man who’s never in the same place longer than a few months.  The geyser felt like a talisman towards clarity, release.  I vowed that I would come back to see the geyser erupt. But I never thought I would. 

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In planning my northern route across the US, I penciled Yellowstone in with a question mark.  I didn’t even recognize the weight of it as I did. 

My friend Christina was so generous in offering me a place to stay with her parents, who live in Bozeman.  The home was gorgeous, Jim and Lynda were incredible.  The day I left I got a personalized tour of the city, including a giant dog park, a few yoga studios, the library, and of course, the co-op. 

But my original intention, as noted, had been a trip down to Yellowstone.  An easy trip down to Yellowstone— hop skip and jump.

Only when Christina’s parents offered a day-long tour did I realize how attached I was to getting back to Old Faithful.  When I missed the eruption the first time, I honestly never thought I’d be back.  But here was my chance.  It’s been six years since my father passed, and the grief of that is something I have learned how to navigate, how to acknowledge, feel and release.  But in this journey I feel his drive for wild and reckless things, and in my uncertainty, I sometimes feel his presence.  I wanted to get back to Old Faithful because even though I’m living nomadic, I’m in my body fully, something I couldn’t declare to be true when I was there the first time. 

True to form, if I was going to be in my body, the universe was going to test me.  I spent some time writing in Bozeman that morning, and hit the road to Yellowstone around 11am.  The journey to the Western Entrance is about two hours.  The 191 winds through Big Sky down to the border through plains and mountains.  I knew it would be a rushed trip, but I felt it would be worth it.  Over oatmeal and french pressed coffee, I told Jim & Lynda that I would show up, and see the signpost declaring I had only five minutes to wait before it went off.  It would be easier this time.  I believed it. 

What actually happened was a bit different.  As I drove south, patches of blue sky dwindled.  The cloud cover thickened and sauntered from white to grey to indigo.  You’d think having family in Seattle would give me a sense of badass courage on wet roads.  You’d think.  I have a tempered respect for rain on asphalt.  On the weekend I graduated college, I totaled my car while hydroplaning on 580.  I was young & distracted.  But I have been careful ever since.  So when I pulled into the parking lot for Old Faithful, I was stoked about the fact that I’d made it past the ominous clouds, more or less dry.  Finding parking still took near twenty minutes.  It was surprising that on a Wednesday, under a grey like TV fuzz, it was still packed. 

When I parked I couldn’t decide if I should take Hoopla down to the geyser or not.  As a certified service animal, she’s allowed to come along, even though pets aren’t typically allowed in parks.  It’s such a mess how this is all determined.  But in parks especially, workers often interrogate me as to the training she has to “serve me.”  The irony is that they exacerbate the anxiety she’s meant to alleviate.  But what if she lept in the geothermal mess of wet goo?   Finally, I rolled down the windows and decided to leave her in the car.  I walked twenty paces out, and turned around to get her.  I will always take the maximum amount of time possible to make a decision. 

Decision made, Hoopla and I walked haphazard, and I began to notice all the visitors walked towards instead of away from the myriad parking lots.  When we reached the visitor center opposite the geyser, I found the signpost declaring the next spout-off time: 4:05.  It was then 2:40.  So much for my positive thinking.  We set about exploring the village that has grown around the underground steam machine.  I sought some coffee, maybe a trinket.  It seems so many of the spots for rest in the parks have turned into shopping spots.  I didn’t want to shop, I wanted to see the earth do things I’d never seen it do.  I wanted to watch hot water pour upwards instead of down. 

Nature is funny like that.  As I held Hoopla in the visitor’s center, faux-shopping, I looked out the window to see, not just rain, but torrential rain.  I stepped out under the awning to see rivers channeled through the gutters.  It had held out for our drive down, but not for no reason.  At closer inspection, I noticed white spots of hail bouncing off the sidewalks.  This was no set of karaoke sing-along balls, but a full blown summer storm.  Californians don’t get visited with summer storms.  Rain comes on slow, and leaves slow.  It’s cold when it rains.  It will be cold after it rains.  This wasn’t a warm rain, but I knew I could navigate it in my Birkenstocks if I had to.  It would be better to go back to my car and grab my Chaco’s.  But I had time.  So, along with families and packs of adult pairs, I hid under the eves until the storm lightened.  At a good hiatus, I ran back to my car to get my waterproof sandals, and, you guessed it.  Water everywhere. 

The car was soaked.  Every window had been open at least four inches; I had planned to leave Hoops in the car.  I looked around as if anyone would be interested, and just started to laugh.  I popped the trunk and grabbed my towel to dry the seats.  I did my best, threw Hoops in her backseat dogbed, and rolled the windows up to a centimeter or less.  I wanted an eruption, and I got it.  

By this time, it was near 3:30, and I knew from experience that the announced spout-off time was less than faithful.  It had stopped raining, so I headed back to the plastic benches set up along the boardwalk near the geyser.  I found a spot to stand, behind a family from Arizona, next to a group of French people.  And waited.  The earth steamed from all over, as if the whole surface were pourous.  The mouth of Old Faithful exhaled a long white cloud.  I looked around the boardwalk circle, and I’d say we were near a thousand people.  We held up our cameras til our hands grew tired.  A cone geyser in the distance went off far before Old Faithful.  Old Faithful sputtered prematurely a few times before it went off, and I giggled with the crowd.  We waited more. 

And then, after standing there for near half an hour, the geyser erupted.  It was as if a firefighter had unscrewed a cosmic velocity hydrant.  The white water rose upwards of 100 feet, and under the grey-white of the sky, it popped forward with urgency.  I found out afterwards that the average water temperature of that water is near 204 degrees Fahrenheit.  It is not the most regular of all geysers, but it is the most regular large eruption.  And even though I thought I’d never be able to see it again, I did.  I felt so immensely gratified. 

As I travel, it’s easy to say I want to go back to places.  But there are so many new places I’ve never been, and it takes something important, or someone important to pull me back.  I didn’t plan this journey to get back to Yellowstone, but by going, I realized how much I’ve healed and grown since I visited the first time.  Not only did I have to wait ninety minutes to watch the eruption, I had to wipe down a deluge from the fabric of my Mazda’s seats, and drive home with a wet ass.  But I did, because I could.  And I still loved every minute of it. 

 

 

Alexandra RobertiComment