In Part 3, HWS describes the wonders of geyserland and the joys of evenings around the campfire.
On the 3d of August we entered the Park. The first point we reached is what is called the Firehole, or the Lower Geyser Basin. It is a flat meadow, 7,000 feet above the sea, through which runs the Firehole river, and part of it is covered with beautiful grass, while part of it is the white sinter formation of the hot springs and geysers.
Setting Tin Lee to work at his stove preparing supper, we rode about a mile on the edge of the pine forest that skirted the weird, desolate plain of the geyser basin. It was one glare of white geyserite, with sulphur and iron and alum springs bubbling up all over it, and little steaming funnels everywhere, giving evidence of the internal fires beneath.
Standing or lying about this plain are trees killed by the hot, siliceous waters. Nothing in nature could be more spectral than these naked trunks of trees, stripped of bark and bare of branches, and bleached white as snow, looking like the ghosts of the groves and forests, which are undoubtedly buried beneath the constantly accumulating mass of deposit.
It was a scene of absolutely uncanny desolation, and as we looked at it we ceased to wonder at the names bestowed upon it by its first discoverers, such as “Devil’s Paint Pots,” “Hell’s Half-acre,” etc. One of our guides told us in graphic language of his first sight of this region.
“You see,” he said, “a party of us were out prospecting for mines, and we had traveled all day through pretty thick forests, and were pushing towards an opening we could dimly see through the trees, where, we hoped to make a comfortable camp for the night. We were very tired, and were hurrying to get into camp, when suddenly, just as we reached the edge of the forest without a moment’s warning, we heard a most awful rumbling, the ground shook under our feet, and there burst into the air a column of water and steam that looked as if it reached the skies.
“We just fairly lost our senses, and never stopped to take a second look, but wheeled about in an instant, put spurs to our horses, and crushed away through the underbrush and tree-trunks as if the Evil One himself were after us.
“And the fact is,” he added, “we did not know but that he was. For what else, we asked ourselves, could such goings-on mean, but that we were on the very edge of the lower regions? We never rested till we had put miles between us and that awful place, and for years we never spoke of it for fear the fellows should think we had really been to hell, and were sold to the old fellow who lives there.”
We could not wonder at the fright of men who had probably never heard of geysers or volcanoes, and who had no more expectation of coming across such phenomena in that quiet and lonely region than we in Philadelphia have of seeing them in our sober Fairmount Park.
This is considered to be the most wonderful geyser region in the whole world. The far-famed geysers of Iceland are tame fountains compared to some here. It is estimated by Professor Hayden that within an area of thirty-five or forty square miles there are at least 2,000 hot springs, steam-jets, geysers, and mud fountains; and in the whole Park there are supposed to be not less than 10,000.
Many of the geysers spout to the height of fifty or a hundred feet, some two or three hundred, and our guides even told us of one which has only been known to spout twice, but which, when it does perform, reaches, they declared, the stupendous height of seven hundred feet. But as we did not see this one we felt a little dubious.
The geysers seem to have all sorts of openings. Some of them have formed craters around their mouths twenty or thirty feet high, that have assumed curious fantastic shapes and are constantly sending out between their eruptions great puffs of steam, and little jets of scalding spray, while there is all the time a sound of fierce boiling water below. In others the hot water stands, a marvelously transparent pool, in saucer-shaped basins, from ten to one hundred feet across, at the bottom of which is the well or tube from which the eruption issues.
No language can adequately describe the gracefully curved and scalloped forms of the deposits which line the apparently bottomless sides of these openings, nor the countless vivid and delicate colors with which they are dyed, shading from a deep crimson, on the edge of the pool, to a glorious emerald green or sapphire blue in the centre. To look down into the pure depths of these wonderful basins, with their fantastic forms and exquisite colors, is like looking into fairyland. Then suddenly, without a moment’s warning, or any apparent cause, the quiet water will begin to heave, and boil, and spurt, and will dash into a marvelous cataract, apparently instinct with life; leaping towards the skies, just as a cataract leaps downward; breaking into rockets of milk-white spray, each of which sends out a burst of steam, and then falls to the white rocks below in showers of shining jewels, tinted with all the colors of the rainbow. A geyser eruption is not in the least like an artificial fountain, but more like an inverted cataract, filled with a mighty life, every instant changing its shape and its height, and is always enveloped and surmounted by vast clouds and pillars of steam that sway with the wind, the whole being crowned and tinged with rainbows.
These marvelous displays take place with one or two geysers at regular intervals, but most of them are very irregular in their times of action, varying from three or four hours to several days, or even two or three weeks. They seem sometimes to die out altogether, and new ones to break out in fresh places.
It would seem, therefore, that while the amount of geyser action continues about the same, its centers of activity are constantly changing . . .. We were now a party of eleven, three sober middle-aged grown-ups, and eight young people, full of life and energy, and ready for any fun or adventure that came in their way. Our campfires at night were scenes of great merriment. As soon as we would get into camp all but the lazy ones would go to work gathering sagebrush or wood for the fire. We would choose a spot with dry sand or grass, and piling up our fuel and lighting it, would all gather round it on our rugs and buffalo robes, and tell stories and sing songs until bedtime.
Tin Lee, our Chinese cook, was a great feature in these entertainments. He seemed such an innocent, guileless sort of creature, that one’s heart was quite attracted to him, although all of us believed it was only the innocence and guilelessness of deepest cunning. He would come up to the fire with a smile that was almost as childlike and bland as that of the immortal “Ah Sin,” and take his place among us as innocently as though he belonged to us, and had a right to share all our pleasures. Sometimes we would get him to sing us a Chinese song—he called it “songing a sing “—and a sadder, more pathetic tune I never heard anywhere. It was always the same, and had no variations, and it seemed to embody in its sad refrain all the grief of a hopeless helpless race. It almost brought tears to my eyes every time I heard it. But I fear that our young people felt none of this, for they had persuaded the unsuspecting Tin Lee that he had a very fine tenor voice, and they would go into uncontrollable fits of laughter over the high falsetto quavers produced.
These nightly campfires are the chief delight of the trip. The air is always cool enough to make the warmth agree able, and the deliciousness of lying stretched out on one’s buffalo robes under the open sky, around a high roaring fire, can only be understood by experience. It seems, too, as if every one’s wits were sharper than usual under such circumstances, and our young party had many a grand night of it, that gave the three quiet elders almost as much delight as themselves.
The only drawback would be the inevitable coming of ten o’clock, when the sound of my “Now, daughters, it is bedtime,” was almost as dreaded as the cry of the panther would have been. There was only one other sound that spread greater consternation, and that was the call of Tin Lee in the morning when breakfast was ready, and he would wake us up from our delicious naps by playing a tattoo on a tin pan, and calling out to us at the top of his funny squeaky voice, ” Hi there! Bleakfast! Flappee Jack! Flappee Jack! Him all done!”
— In Part 4, HWS describes the wonder of a glass mountain, the “grapples” of traveling in a wagon over crude roads and managing rambunctious young travelers.
— From H. W. S., “A Lady’s Visit To The Geysers Of The Yellowstone Park.” Friends Intelligencer May 19, 1883. Pages 218-221, and May 27, Pages 234-237.
— Photo from Coppermine Gallery
— For more on women’s adventures in Yellowstone Park click on “Women’s Stories” under the Categories button to the left.