Gusts of moist, sulphur-scented air hit our faces as we sit on scored metal benches in front of Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park. It feels good to sit down – we’ve strolled the boardwalks a while, checking out various hydrothermal marvels: mudpots, hot springs, and steam vents. The mineral smell makes the boys wrinkle their noses and hold their breath, especially when we pass an active geyser, but I find the musty odor comforting somehow, a reminder that we’re smelling the inside of the earth.
The park service has placed the benches in a semi-circle, four rows deep around this crown jewel of Yellowstone. We’ve chosen a spot toward the southern end of the area and have watched as more and more tourists like us gather for the next show, expected at 6:07 pm, give or take 10 minutes. Sweat trickles down my temples and the backs of my legs — it’s late August, after all — and I fan myself with a park brochure. We tell knock-knock jokes as we wait, surrounded by people from all over the world. I hear German, Japanese, Spanish; the family next to us are chatting animatedly in Hindi. My heart swells with the beauty and greatness of this country, America the beautiful.
That’s when the couple to our left starts doin’ the wave.
Fifty-something, with cheerful, sunburnedfaces, they stand and fling up their arms, shouting “ ” then flopping down again. Those of us in the vicinity glance over but don’t respond until they’ve done it three or four more times. Pretty soon there are pockets of people carrying it on, the shrieks growing more faint as the undulation moves down the line.
I’m too shy (or, hmmm, snobby?) to join in, but as I watch this couple hurl themselves out of their seats again and again, cheering as others follow suit, I start to get into it. The wave at Old Faithful? Why not? Suddenly it seems less an example of cringeworthy American behavior and more a witty commentary on nature-as-television – all of us sitting there, waiting expectantly for the geyser’s display, as if we’re watching a high school basketball game. I mean really, the only difference, besides the fact that the crowd is fairly multinational, is the lack of concessions.
The geyser blows and the joking stops. Everyone hushes, jolted out of the carnival atmosphere into awe. The white spray shoots up at least 30 feet, splashing and retreating and then climbing again until the underground tension has been released and the geyser settles down for another 90 minute nap.
You gotta love it. Here we are, an intimate group of oh, maybe 200 people, sitting on benches between the Visitors’ Center and the most famous geyser in the world, making the wilderness manageable by turning it into a spectator sport. But Yellowstone is a caldera, that is, the crater of a volcano, and all its bubbling mud and hissing steam reveal a part of the planet that’s writhing with raw creativity – and not necessarily of the calm and gentle sort. In fact, as soon as we’d driven into the park the main message in brochures and exhibits and videos had been something like,
“LISTEN, JACK: THIS IS A DANGEROUS PLACE, AND YOU COULD DIE IF YOU DON’T WATCH IT. DON’T TOUCH THE SCALDING WATER, DON’T FEED THE, AND DON’T TRY TO PET THE BISON. ENJOY YOUR VISIT.”
Like so many of us, my daily life is urban, bounded by freeways and concrete. Most of the time I’m separated from direct experience of the natural world. That’s why, in Yellowstone, I was both grateful for and irritated by the distance the park service puts between visitors and all the crazy natural phenomena with fences, boardwalks, benches arranged just so. It occurs to me that doin’ the wave at Old Faithful might be a good response as any to the park’s uneasy wildness. What else can we do, since most of us no longer know how to bow down to the spirit that animates the water, bursting into frothy plumage every hour and a half? What else can we do, since we no longer carry the earth’s grit in our fingernails? Maybe flinging ourselves into the air in a bizarre dance is actually some kind of worship. Or maybe it’s another distancing move, offering just enough distraction from the untamed grandeur of the geyser to make it, well, less wild.