GEYSER GEEKS

Jun 8, 2009 | U.S. Travel

When I first saw Old Faithful, I was five. Mostly I remember waiting. I knew it was really something because, when the geyser finally erupted, Grandpa said something like, “Hoa! That’s really something!”

Some 30-yada-yada years later I’m driving through Yellowstone National Park to check in on Old Faithful. My journey takes me to the Yellowstone Caldera, the bubbling cauldron at the heart of the park, where I discover waters that hold the secret to eternal youth.

The magic begins on Fairy Falls Trail. Not far from the trailhead, three hikers peer into a small funnel of translucent turquoise water. The rotten-egg smell of sulfur rises from the steaming hot spring. The steam tempts one man to stick his fingers in the water. He pulls them back with a hiss of pain. This is his friend’s cue to stick his hand in — “Ow! It’s hot alright!” Their female companion smirks, “I’ll take your word for it.”

We’re standing atop a volcanic system. Two to three miles below us lies the magma, or molten rock, that keeps the plumbing above it supplied with hot water. A cataclysmic volcanic eruption tore through Yellowstone 640,000 years ago, causing a 30 by 45 mile section above it to collapse. The resulting caldera is a hodgepodge of hot springs, mudpots and geysers. This trail overlooks Midway Geyser Basin, where a steamy curtain rises from the giant pools of Excelsior Geyser and Grand Prismatic Spring.

The path veers into a forest of blackened poles, scars from a massive fire in 1988. After two and a half miles, I reach Fairy Falls. The pretty, 197-foot waterfall plummets from a cliff in one slender strand, then fans over rocks into a pool.

Fairy Falls plummets 197 feet.

A young man appears and tells me, “If you just walk another 15 minutes you’ll reach a small geyser. It goes off about once every three to five minutes.”

I explain that I’m planning to see “Old Faithful.”

“Yeah, I saw Old Faithful. I mean, you have to see it, because you’re here,” he says. “But this geyser is almost cooler in its own way, because you can walk right up to it, and there’s no one else there!”

So I follow the white plume to Imperial Geyser, an intimate show for one. I keep a respectful distance from the boiling, frothing water — lest it burn me. Every few minutes a small mound erupts in a shower four to six feet high, and I giggle like a child.

Imperial Geyser is an intimate show for one.

On the way back, another young man suggests I leave the path: “I found a little trail up one of these hills, and you can see a totally different view of the ‘Prismatic’ from up there.” I scramble up a steep slope to see what he means. From above, the Grand Prismatic Spring looks like a giant jewel, a leaf-shaped aquamarine 250 feet by 300 feet across, ringed by bands of green, yellow, rust and white. The pool is not just a living thing — it’s millions of living things. Most of its colors come from thermophiles, heat-loving bacteria. Nothing lives in the hottest part of the spring at its center, where the brilliant green-blue is simply refracted light from the sky.

Grand Prismatic Spring: a jewel of bacteria & light.

I then drive to “Old Faithful,” where hundreds of people repeatedly check their watches and wait. This geyser is not as faithful as reputation suggests. The time between eruptions varies. The intervals have increased in recent years because of earthquakes and because of vandals throwing things into the vent. The average interval is 91 minutes, and each blast lasts one and a half to five minutes.

A geyser is a hot spring with narrow passages. As the water below the surface heats up, steam is trapped by the water and earth above it. The steam expands until it lifts the water above it in an eruption. At sunset, someone shouts, “There it goes!” A chorus of cameras whirs into action, giving everyone a tiny view of the 106 to 180-foot fountain before us. A rainbow rises in the midst of the churning gusher, lifting my soul with it.

After three fleeting minutes the water sinks, and one boy asks, “Is that it?” Maybe he’s been stuck too long in the family SUV. Personally, I had to grow up to see the magic—this surge of nature’s power has reminded me of the wonder I so quickly forgot at age five. For me Old Faithful is the Fountain of Youth.

For me Old Faithful is the Fountain of Youth.

At sunset, the white plumes of the Upper Geyser Basin take on a new mystery. They’re eerie reminders that the earth hides a fire in her belly. And sooner or later, everyone with a fire in her belly must go to the john — which brings me to the Anemone Geyser. I’m about to walk past, when two giggling women convince me to wait for the next eruption. “It’s not big, but it’s very entertaining,” one woman says. “It’s really funny, because… well, it sounds exactly like a toilet flushing. It’s kind of embarrassing to admit, but this is our third time today.”

Anemone Geyser sounds like a toilet flushing.

A moment later, two boys of about ten eagerly rush up. They, too, have been here before. “Dad” videotapes them as they announce to the small crowd, in manly newscaster voices, “This geyser goes off every seven to 15 minutes, and the eruption lasts just 30 seconds!” When it starts, they shout a play-by-play: “First the water will rise… then it will bubble and boil… then the geyser will erupt 10 feet into the air, creating a cloud of steam, ladies and gentlemen!” Actually, it isn’t quite ten feet, but they’re on a roll… “Okay, listen: here comes the TOILET!!!” The water swirls down the drain, making the exact same sucking sound as water flushed down a loo. The boys shriek with laughter, and the grownups join them.

It’s the perfect finale: if I wanted to recapture my childhood, there could be no better choice than a geyser that sounds like a potty.

About Cara

Cara Lopez LeeCara Lopez Lee is the author of They Only Eat Their Husbands. She’s a winner of The Moth StorySLAM and performs in many storytelling shows, including Unheard L.A., and Strong Words. Her writing appears in such publications as Los Angeles Times, Manifest-Station, and Writing for Peace. She’s a traveler, swing dancer, and baker of pies. Cara and her husband live in the beach-town of Ventura, California, where they enjoy tending their Certified Wildlife Habitat full of birds.
Cara Lopez Lee

Sign up for blog posts and to get my newsletter!