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Yellowstone National Park: Part I

Volume 23: Wed Nov 13, 2002

Yellowstone is most famous for its unusual thermal features

I left off with Amanda and myself arriving in Yellowstone, the whole reason we decided on this road trip in the first place.

We woke up bright and early—we had to in order to get through a certain road before it closed for the rest of the day due to construction. Breakfast was semi-challenging because anything we put on the table would start sliding down the ice-coated, uneven picnic table. Be we managed to down breakfast, then piled up in my car and started off to the most famous Yellowstone landmark of them all: Old Faithful Geyser.

Our intention for the day was to visit the geyser—it would be a CRIME to miss the feature Yellowstone is most famous for!—and make a loop back to our campsite stopping at any interesting places we spotted along the way. Well, it kind of worked out like that.

Our first stop was at Midway Geyser Basin, mostly because it was the first place we reached where you could see billowing clouds of steam streaking across the horizon, an obvious sign of thermal features. So I stopped at a pullout where Amanda could take a few pictures. We did the typical tourist pictures, jumped back in my car, and nothing.

We found these elk wandering through the geyser basin area

My car wouldn't start. This definitely wasn't looking like it was going to be a good day. We waited a few minutes (what else were we going to do?) and tried it again. Yep, deader than a doornail. We popped open the hood hoping we'd see something obvious that might explain the problem. Like a missing engine. Or something. Anything smaller than that and we wouldn't be able to identify the problem. For kicks Amanda tried to check if she could get reception on her cell phone in case we wanted to call for help, but alas, nothing.

So we got back in the car—where it was still a bit warmer than the freezing temperatures outside—and wondered what we should do next. We didn't have to wonder for very long, though, because a park ranger pulled up besides us asking if we were having any troubles. (No, we usually like to pop the hood up to help the engine cool.)

The two rangers were friendly enough, and they took a look at the engine and asking about any 'symptoms' the car had. Their conclusion was that the alternator was the problem, not that they were mechanics or anything, but I figure they've probably helped stranded tourists in broken down cars on more than one occasion. They called for a tow truck and how long it would take for one to arrive.

While waiting for a response, they asked if we had any questions about the park since they claimed to know quite a bit about it. =) I couldn't think of anything off the top of my head except to say that Amanda really wanted to see some bears and if there might have been any sightings nearby or suggestions about where they might be lurking. Unfortunately, he didn't know where any could be found at the moment.

I stand by as my car gets towed to a repair shop

The rangers wanted to drive a little further down the road to continue their patrol, but said they'd be back in ten or fifteen minutes to let us know when to expect the tow truck. They still hadn't gotten a response about how long it would take for one to arrive. So they left down the road and Amanda and I sat back in the car waiting for whatever cogs that needed to be cogged in the tow-truck world to start cogging.

At which point Amanda explained that she didn't like the question I asked the rangers because, "Now they think I'm just some dumb tourist looking for bears!" or something to that affect. I don't know. Maybe she thought they were cute or something. *shrug* But I still couldn't understand what was wrong with wanting to see a bear. "Heck," I told her, "You want to hear stupid, I actually CHASED AFTER a bear one time! You look under 'dumb tourist' in the dictionary and they'll probably have a picture of me!"

Amanda and I were amused by these warning to not step on the geysers, but this kid almost looks like he's having fun!

I don't know if that appeased her or not, but ten minutes later the park rangers returned to let us know that the tow truck would be about 30 minutes, and we could be towed either to Old Faithful (11 miles away) or West Yellowstone (30-40 miles away) where the car could be repaired. They weren't sure if the car could be repaired AT Old Faithful—especially with it being the off-season—but certainly it could be done at West Yellowstone. Then the rangers tipped their hats and took off again, never to be seen again. (I assume they've lived long and fruitful lives, though, rescuing many more stranded tourists and answering dumb tourist questions ever since.)

Then Amanda informed me that she had a slight bladder problem. Like, it was full. Or something like that. Looking around, I realized that she was in a desperate situation. The pullout we were stranded at had no restrooms, or even trees to hide behind. We were parked in the middle of a huge, well-exposed meadow, on a high-traffic road. Things could get ugly.

About twenty minutes later the tow truck appeared, and the driver explained our options. He concluded the alternator was in fact the problem, but he wasn't sure if there was a spare one at Old Faithful—especially since it was the off-season. He could tow us to Old Faithful where they MIGHT have an extra alternator to repair the car with, or to West Yellowstone.

He called up whatever buddies he had at Old Faithful asking them to search for an alternator that would fit my car, then proceeded to back up in front of my car and hitch it up. By the time he finished, he still hadn't heard back about if there was an available alternator or not at Old Faithful, so we drove a couple more miles down the road in search of a restroom, which by this time I was feeling could be useful for myself as well. =)

At long last, with relieved bladders, we got the good news—there was an alternator available at Old Faithful! So off we went. While getting to Old Faithful in the cab of a tow truck wasn't in our plans, at least we reached our destination! =) The driver told us it would take about an hour to put the new one in, which worked out well for us since we wanted to spend a few hours in the area anyhow.

First thing we did was walk to some phone booths and make a few phone calls. "Mom, guess where I am! Old Faithful! Now, guess how I got here!!!" =) After that, Amanda saw those two words which I think are probably the two most magical words in the English language—at least for her—which is 'Gift Shop'. So we stopped by there looking through all the tourist souvenirs. "Do people really BUY this stuff?" I'd keep asking Amanda while pointing to some silly dodad. We loaded up on postcards. Picked up some ice for the ice chest since it was there too.

A geyser with the Old Faithful Inn showing in the background

Then we wondered into the Old Faithful Inn to find out the next time Old Faithful was expected to erupt. During this time we also discovered that they give free tours of the inn, which sounded like it could be interesting so we mentally noted those times too.

Amanda waits for a geyser to errupt

There seem to be a lot of myths about Old Faithful regarding how often it erupts or how predictable it is. According to the statistics we found, the shortest time recorded between eruptions was about 30 minutes, while the longest was about 2 hours. The longer the wait between eruptions, the bigger they tend to be. And the bigger they tend to be, the longer the time period between eruptions. And after any earthquake—even small ones—the averages tend to change. Currently, it averages an eruption every 94 minutes. I think. In any case, it's not so precise you can set your watch to it, but it's predictable enough that you'll be virtually guaranteed to see it if you're willing to wait for a couple of hours. Old Faithful is famous because it's a large geyser (not the largest, though!) that's semi-predictable and relatively common for eruptions to occur.

Anyhow, we learned that the next eruption was predicted to occur in a half-hour or so, so we decided to head out and nab the "front row" seats. There were benches half-surrounding the geyser—almost in a bleacher fashion—so the hundreds (perhaps thousands?) of summer visitors can jostle for position. I told Amanda there would likely still be a very large crowd, even in the off-season.

And we weren't disappointed. Amanda was absolutely astonished at the hundreds of people soon huddling around the geyser as the predicted eruption time neared. Gaggles of cameras and videocameras were set up on tripods. And Amanda just stared amazed, saying over and over again, "And this is the OFF season?!!!" She took a picture of the enormous crowd, just so she could show off how many people were out there. And for the rest of the trip, the "And this is the OFF season!" became a running inside joke between us.

And at long last, the geyser shot off a bit of water. And again. Working itself up to full strength with boiling water shooting a hundred feet into the sky while simultaneously hundreds of people ooohed and awwwwed. And a few minutes later the geyser started losing its steam until it died off. At least until the next eruption in 94 minutes—more-or-less.

A series of pictures showing the eruption of Old Faithful

By this time, over an hour had elapsed and Amanda and I headed back to the garage and my car. The work was done, I paid the bill, then we drove across the parking lot where we parked. We still weren't done looking around the area, darn it!

We wandered around to the post office to drop off some postcards Amanda had already written. From there we could see a herd of buffalo wandering through the meadow behind it, so we sat in the parking lot taking pictures of them along with a few other people that had torn themselves away from Old Faithful to notice the wildlife nearby.

A herd of buffalo behind the post office at Old Faithful

Then we visited another gift shop where I bought a newspaper. ("Look, Amanda! Stuff happens around the world even when we aren't paying attention to it!") It was here we first found the book called Death in Yellowstone: Accidents and Foolhardiness in the First National Park. Titles like that really grab my attention. We didn't buy it at the time, but later Amanda bought a used copy from a bookstore and told me about all the horrible deaths people had suffered in Yellowstone from doing dumb stunts like jumping into the boiling hot springs where their skin seemed to melt off, getting gored by buffalo while trying to sneak up and get a picture, or mauled by grizzlies from hanging bacon out their car window while driving by. Okay, I made that last one up, but for all I know it could be in there too. I haven't read the book myself. But from the descriptions Amanda told me about the book, it sounds like something that shouldn't be read on a full stomach and could potentially give you nightmares that require psychiatric help.

Eventually, we headed back outside again, and while wandering around the back side of Old Faithful, we got another view as it erupted once again, but this time without the mass of hundreds of people crowded around to get their photo op. There weren't any benches to sit on where we were, so we just sat on the boardwalks.

At which point we realized that a FREE tour of Old Faithful Inn would be occurring in just a few more minutes. So we dashed off for the tour. Unfortunately, a large number of the hundreds of people now leaving Old Faithful had the same idea, and the tour turned into a mass of 20 to 30 or so people wandering around the inn. Travel tip: The tour is VERY interesting, but don't do it if the geyser JUST finished erupting! The next tour group we saw had maybe five people in it!

During the half-hour or so tour we learned all sorts of interesting stuff about the majestic inn and its history. The inn was made out of "natural" stuff like logs and rocks which was a novelty of the time and later constructions such as Timberline Lodge would copy. Amanda kept pointing out that Disney copied it too at someplace in Florida. Yeah, whatever. *shrug* =)

A buffalo on the trail—I used my zoom lens to get this picture!

On the way up to a viewpoint of Old Faithful, we passed a guy saying that we couldn't go much further because there was a buffalo blocking the trail. Having run around machete wielding strikers through the jungles of Guatemala, Amanda and I were not afraid of a lone buffalo blocking the trail. We continued on.

This view overlooks the Old Faithful geyser basin

(Later, Amanda would explain to me after reading Death In Yellowstone that most buffalo that attack are usually lone males sitting on a trail as hikers try to squeeze by. While we didn't know this at the time, I somehow doubt it would have changed our decision!)

And sure enough, there it was. Technically they're called bison, but only geeks used that term. It was a buffalo. A big one. Sitting about three feet from the trail. Now he looked peaceful enough sitting there, but I'm not THAT stupid. I told Amanda we'd go off-trail to make our way around while giving a LARGE clearance to the beast. Usually you aren't supposed to go off the trail, but sometimes it's a good idea to break the rules. Anyhow, there was another rule about not approaching within 25 yards of any animal (except bears, which you aren't supposed to approach within 50 yards of), so we figured we HAD to go off trail to satisfy this other rule about staying at least 25 yards away from the buffalo. In fact, it was our patriotic DUTY to go off trail and keep our distance from the buffalo! (Turning back just wasn't an option.)

This pool is probably a bit too hot to jump into!

Which is exactly what we did. Everything went just fine, except for a deep puddle of mud I stepped in that slightly filled up one of my shoes. (Don't you HATE when that happens?!) Amanda took a few pictures with her camera, but then I whipped out my zoom lens to get some even better pictures with my camera. And we continued on our hike.

We came down a different way and wandered some more through the geyser basin checking out other geysers. Some erupted every five minutes or so perhaps four feet into the air. Others were giants that made Old Faithful look small. They were far more impressive (and fewer people to boot!), but most of them only erupted once a day with predictions such as "it'll probably erupt between 2:00pm and 8:00pm". With uncertainty such as that, those geysers, while spectacular, will never be famous. Fortunately, they decided to erupt just as we were hiking through the area while Amanda and I furiously worked our cameras.

By the time we made it back to my car, the sun had just set. We spent the whole day at Old Faithful, had a great time, and I single-handedly used up something like half a dozen rolls of film.

A few people walk along the boardwalk through the geyser basic near sunset

We got back in the car, started it up (no problems there!), and headed back to camp. We meant to make a loop out of our drive, but we spent so much more time in the Old Faithful area than we had expected, we just drove the shortest path back to the campground which was the same way we came out. We noted the place where my car pooped out earlier that day and I told Amanda we would not dare fate by stopping there ever again. The road, closed for 12 hours, had reopened by the time we arrived, and we made it back to camp after dark.

After burning virtually the entire USA Today, I finally got a campfire going with my still newly-purchased Montana lighter. =) And we proceeded to learn some more verses of Sam McGee by firelight.

While reciting the part we had learned, a man dropped by our campsite saying he heard Robert Service coming from our direction, and how much he loved Robert Service and his poems. Amanda finished reading the rest of the poem for his benefit, and he thanked us for the diversion, and wandered back off into the darkness from wherever it was he came from.

After the fire died down, it got real cold, real fast, so we called it a night, crawled into the tent, and went to sleep.

It's strange, but when I sat down to write this latest adventure, I expected to FINISH writing about our road trip. I never imagined I could babble on like I have about ONE DAY, and still have so much more to write that I'll have to save the rest for my next installment of Ryan’s Great Adventure.

— Ryan

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