Old Faithful faithfully erupts

Old Faithful. The name itself is comforting, a big old lap you can snuggle in. We’ve all seen countless pictures of it, all of it with the geyser at full steaming height. But in person, it both satisfies and disappoints.

There were maybe a dozen cars in the parking lot that morning. A crowd! The park has kindly provided a sturdy boardwalk (made of that composite decking material) around the geyser, and there was plenty of space for the 40 or so people scattered around the center attraction.

Little signs attached to logs were placed in front of the boardwalk between us and the geyser, warning us not to step off the boardwalk towards the center, because it was a “fragile thermal area.” The fragile thermal area appeared brown and crusty from where we stood; evidently one step onto it and I chanced sinking up to my knees in hot water.

We didn’t have to wait long before Old Faithful started to percolate.<<CAUTION: USELESS ETYMOLOGY LESSON AHEAD!>> “Percolate” is the word that fits here, but maybe only to those who remember the Maxwell House commercials with its percolating coffee pot. We associate that pop of coffee in the tiny glass top of a coffee pot with percolation, which really means to filter or trickle through. But “percolate” has come to mean to gain or regain energy. Ergo, it fits Old Faithful.<<END USELESS ETYMOLOGY LESSON>>

As Old Faithful gathered itself, the onlookers gathered their cameras and cell phones to record the event. This is what we came for! But evidently, few of us would actually watch Old F without a camera lens intervening.

How can you say you’ve “seen” something if all you do is take pictures of it and then look at them afterwards? Have you seen anything? Or just watched? I tried hard to see what I was watching, but I think to really see and appreciate Old F I would have had to stay there for hours. After all, it’s called Old F because it erupts regularly, and seeing it once isn’t observing regularity.

The eruption itself was almost eerily quiet. The giant spout of water shot into the air, surrounded by a vast cloud of steam. It sounded like a sputtering garden hose. I don’t think it was a very tall spout (it can vary in height from 100–180 feet; ours was on the lower end, I’d say) and it didn’t last very long (eruptions normally last between 1.5 to 5 minutes; ours was about two minutes).

Had it been a summer day, I would have insisted on a lunch on the benches so we could see several eruptions. As it was a chilly autumn day, all of the people on the boardwalk turned for their cars after the geyser faded. Soon my son and I were the only ones left. He was impatient, but I wanted to hear what there was to hear when Old F was quiet.

No sputtering garden hose. Just the fussy burbling of fumaroles and geysers going about their daily business.

It was thrilling to witness this one eruption of Old Faithful, this geothermic wonder in the midst of so many (Old F is neither the largest or most regular geyser in Yellowstone). Yet it was also a letdown.

Precisely because I’ve seen so many “perfect” pictures of Old F erupting, with the stalk of water at its highest and the steam cloud at its lowest, seeing it up close, lower and very steamy, seemed a letdown. I had to remove myself from that idea of perfection to appreciate the true wonder that is this fascinating geyser. I wonder how the others with me that day, the ones who watched it through their camera’s viewfinder, who didn’t look directly at the view, will remember the eruption.

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