Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The night was as cold as we'd ever experienced in a tent, with temperatures dipping to the low to mid-thirties. Jenny and I seemed to wake every thirty minutes to shift positions, one of us holding the other to offer warmth. Vienna preferred the better insulation of the car, cocooning herself in a Wal-Mart blanket we bought a few days back. Somewhat worse, our air mattress gradually lost firmness as the night wore on, meaning that we could feel the stony ground every time we turned. By early morning, virtually everything in the tent seemed misty with frosty dew. I don't think that we actually slept much; we simply waited. By daybreak, we arose groggy and unhappy, breaking down our tent and looking to our next campsite, nearer to Old Faithful with foreboding.

Vienna and Jenny were sure that we could not handle another campground in these temperatures, but I couldn't bare the thought of tossing twenty dollars worth of reservations that could not be cancelled. Nonetheless, I knew that I could not subject my family to another lousy night, so I asked the person at the campsite check-in whether she could give us a break. Noting how unseasonably cold it was, she was kind enough to cancel our next day without penalty. We then figured that we'd simply leave the park early in the evening and find a motel somewhere further west in Idaho. But before breakfast at a nearby inn, I asked if there was more comfortable lodging somewhere in Yellowstone, and we were lucky to find that cabins could still be rented near Old Faithful. Electric heat, sinks, bedspreads … Heaven.

Almost immediately, our cheerful spirits returned, and we looked forward to a day touring the park. Our first stop was a bison-inspired traffic jam. Normally I hate to get stuck behind miles of slowly (occasionally un-) moving vehicles. But I didn't mind a bit this time. We all got a kick out of the chance to get a close-up look at these lumbering animals that drifted onto and across the road with little seeming purpose. Eventually the herd moved on, some of the males bucking heads due to rutting season, others kicking up dust and rolling on the ground for the shear pleasure of it.

Our next stop were the upper and lower falls, even scrambling to the "brink" of the falls, so-named because of the opportunity to stand just as the white water dashed upon the rocks below. Jenny and Vienna were less thrilled by this stop, but I've always been a sucker for water falls.

The rest of the afternoon, we drove slowly alongside boiling caldrons of pluming sulfur, occasionally taking brief walks alongside, wondering how awful it would be to fall inside one of the deceptively named "pools." The weather had begun to turn drizzly, and we began to figure that the best parts of our Yellowstone adventures were behind us. Even so, I was determined to see Firehole Canyon, where I'd heard we could swim.

It was already cold and a slight sprinkle of rain suggested the futility of my plan, but I couldn’t resist one look. Passing some falls, Jenny and I couldn't imagine a place where anyone by the most foolhardy would attempt to dive. But further on, Jenny spotted them: bunches of people resting on rocks, lounging on the sand, and braving rapids in the creek. Despite the dark skies and concerned looks from my family, I could not resist.

I changed into my swimming trunks and gingerly dabbled my toes in the water. It was -- surprisingly pleasant. Not warm, of course, but nicer than I would have expected. Figuring this place benefited from some of the hot eruptions nearby, I carefully drifted into the water. The current was rapid, especially below the surface. It took substantial effort to avoid getting swept downriver toward the falls. Jenny and Vienna followed me, steadily resisting my entreaties that they join me.

Hearing laughter and splashes in the distance, I emerged from the water and hiked over a hill to see a dozen kids jumping into some impressive rapids. Just getting into the water required a leap past a plunging current and a hard swim across to a set of rocks. From there, I had to shimmy from surface to surface, trying hard not to slip onto nasty protrusions that looked like they could cut me to ribbons. Reaching the end of the water trail, I then had to leap again from a rapid away from the rocks.

Following the examples of those before me, I jumped feet-first. Immediately, I knew why everyone entered the water that way. The current raced me toward dangerous outcroppings, and like a pinball I needed to pivot from point to point. I felt safer using my flip-flops than my bare hands for that purpose. Faster and faster I shot downriver, remembering how near the falls seemed. Soon I was quite satisfied with my ride, and ready to grab onto the nearest surface to stop. With some effort I held onto to a craggy edge of the creek and hefted myself ashore. That was fun, but I was done.

We all were feeling a bit tired at this point, so we headed for our cabin. Given its "budget" description, I was thrilled to open the door to a genuinely comfortable and pleasant room. While the restroom was a few doors down, we enjoyed plush blankets, ample space, and even some artwork from old Yellowstone advertisements. Considering the speed at which the temperature was dropping, we agreed: The "budget" cabins, just steps away from Old Faithful, are definitely worth the money.

Evening was dedicated to a sumptuous dinner at the Old Faithful Dining Room and an essential stop to see the famed geyser eject torrents of hot water up to 185 feet. The clouds had broken, revealing a colorful sunset. As dusk fell, Jenny and I took a lovely walk around the hot pools and mini-geysers nearby, ostensibly looking for bears but generally enjoying the peace and tranquility of twilight. Geese flew overhead as we took pictures of spewing, bubbling, smoking proof that Earth is far more fascinating than can be easily imagined by us city-dwellers. Another chilly night approaching, we turned back toward our cabin and slipped into warm blankets and solid walls. A day that seemed lousy at its beginning turned into something else entirely by its end.

All text copyright Andrew Wood.
Photos copyright Andrew and Jenny Wood.