Hat pulled low, hands cozy in ski mitts, I wiggled my toes to keep them warm in wooly socks. I walked from the lodge to Old Faithful Geyser in the dim light of the winter evening. The snow compressed beneath my boots, squeaking with each step. The sounds of snow – one of the many things I love about winter.
I left the others seated by a crackling fire after one of the finest days of cross-country skiing I’d ever had – the weather, cold enough not to get overheated skiing, but warm enough to stop and enjoy the landscape and wildlife; the snow perfect; and the company, the best of friends. After skiing together to Lone Star Geyser in the morning, we’d all chosen different routes back. That evening, my friend, Nancy, and I still glowed from our afternoon’s accomplishment. We’d taken a beautiful, but tough trail back. We’d fallen plenty and stopped to catch our breath more, but we’d done it! We definitely earned the thousand-calorie Belgian hot chocolate we indulged in upon returning.
I made my way to the boardwalk and benches surrounding Old Faithful that overflows with people from around the globe on summer days. In the crisp cold a crescent moon shone through wispy clouds whisking on the wind, the stars blinked, and I was the only one there. Well, the only human. If others were nearby, bison or coyote, perhaps, they didn’t make their presence known to me. I hoped I wasn’t disturbing their peace, they get gawked at enough (by me too, whenever I have the opportunity).
Old Faithful is faithful, but not exact. Eruptions occur roughly 60 to 100 minutes apart, plus or minus 10 or more minutes. Never silent, the geyser spurt and sputtered, and each time I wondered if the eruption was starting. Natural hot springs that don’t always flow, geysers erupt steam and water, sometimes high into the air, at varying or somewhat regular intervals depending on the configuration of their underground ‘plumbing.’ That isn’t piping, of course, but the natural conduits in the bedrock through which water and steam rise from the subsurface.
I strolled along the boardwalk, built to protect the fragile crust of travertine from the hordes who come to see and hear and feel this wonder of nature. I waited patiently, at first. I turned my back to the wind for a while, then jogged in place, kept moving to stay warm. Three, four, five times, steam and water shot a few feet in the air. I could hear the droplets raining down on the surrounding stone. Then it would settle. I began to think I’d missed the eruption by a few short minutes.
Even if I did, I couldn’t complain. On our first day here, it seemed that every geyser we skied up to, erupted just as we pulled our cameras from our pockets. Bison had posed, the sun glowing on their thick coats. A coyote had lingered along the fence overlooking Punch Bowl Spring, despite five of us skiing to within fifty feet or so. Pawing at the frozen ground, he feasted on some morsel while we watched, his golden eyes peering at us now and then to make sure we kept our distance. He’d run away when the spring began to thump. We could feel the vibration from the ground up through our skis into our legs, the hum of Earth’s geothermal ‘engine’ so near the surface in Yellowstone.
When the hiss of steam grew louder, then rose to a rumble, there was no mistaking it, I had not missed the eruption. Hot water gushed forth, a cloud of steam billowed high. I’m sure there are many people who have been a lone witness to this, but I felt (and still feel) immense gratitude for those moments, standing beside Old Faithful, alone.
Our oldest National Park, established on March 1, 1872, Yellowstone is a magical place in every season. But the beauty of this natural gem truly shines in winter – I wish I could capture the way the sun sparkles on fresh snow, the shush of Spring Creek, the hot springs’ sulfurous scent, the way snow cakes in the fur of a bison’s massive head as it grazes, or the glub of boiling mud in the Fountain Paint Pots. But I can’t. You’ll just have to go.
Many thanks to Eric Hubbard for his wildlife pictures from the trip.