American Notes, by Rudyard Kipling

IV.

The Yellowstone

ONCE upon a time there was a carter who brought his team and a friend into the Yellowstone Park without due thought. Presently they came upon a few of the natural beauties of the place, and that carter turned his team into his friend’s team, howling:—“Get out o’ this, Jim. All hell’s alight under our noses!”

And they called the place Hell’s Half–Acre to this day to witness if the carter lied.

We, too, the old lady from Chicago, her husband, Tom, and the good little mares, came to Hell’s Half–Acre, which is about sixty acres in extent, and when Tom said:—“Would you like to drive over it?”

We said:—“Certainly not, and if you do we shall report you to the park authorities.”

There was a plain, blistered, peeled, and abominable, and it was given over to the sportings and spoutings of devils who threw mud, and steam, and dirt at each other with whoops, and halloos, and bellowing curses.

The places smelled of the refuse of the pit, and that odor mixed with the clean, wholesome aroma of the pines in our nostrils throughout the day.

This Yellowstone Park is laid out like Ollendorf, in exercises of progressive difficulty. Hell’s Half–Acre was a prelude to ten or twelve miles of geyser formation.

We passed hot streams boiling in the forest; saw whiffs of steam beyond these, and yet other whiffs breaking through the misty green hills in the far distance; we trampled on sulphur in crystals, and sniffed things much worse than any sulphur which is known to the upper world; and so journeying, bewildered with the novelty, came upon a really park-like place where Tom suggested we should get out and play with the geysers on foot.

Imagine mighty green fields splattered with lime-beds, all the flowers of the summer growing up to the very edge of the lime. That was our first glimpse of the geyser basins.

The buggy had pulled up close to a rough, broken, blistered cone of spelter stuff between ten and twenty feet high. There was trouble in that place — moaning, splashing, gurgling, and the clank of machinery. A spurt of boiling water jumped into the air, and a wash of water followed.

I removed swiftly. The old lady from Chicago shrieked. “What a wicked waste!” said her husband.

I think they call it the Riverside Geyser. Its spout was torn and ragged like the mouth of a gun when a shell has burst there. It grumbled madly for a moment or two, and then was still. I crept over the steaming lime — it was the burning marl on which Satan lay — and looked fearfully down its mouth. You should never look a gift geyser in the mouth.

I beheld a horrible, slippery, slimy funnel with water rising and falling ten feet at a time. Then the water rose to lip level with a rush, and an infernal bubbling troubled this Devil’s Bethesda before the sullen heave of the crest of a wave lapped over the edge and made me run.

Mark the nature of the human soul! I had begun with awe, not to say terror, for this was my first experience of such things. I stepped back from the banks of the Riverside Geyser, saying:—“Pooh! Is that all it can do?”

Yet for aught I knew, the whole thing might have blown up at a minute’s notice, she, he, or it being an arrangement of uncertain temper.

We drifted on, up that miraculous valley. On either side of us were hills from a thousand or fifteen hundred feet high, wooded from crest to heel. As far as the eye could range forward were columns of steam in the air, misshapen lumps of lime, mist-like preadamite monsters, still pools of turquoise-blue stretches of blue corn-flowers, a river that coiled on itself twenty times, pointed bowlders of strange colors, and ridges of glaring, staring white.

A moon-faced trooper of German extraction — never was park so carefully patrolled — came up to inform us that as yet we had not seen any of the real geysers; that they were all a mile or so up the valley, and tastefully scattered round the hotel in which we would rest for the night.

America is a free country, but the citizens look down on the soldier. I had to entertain that trooper. The old lady from Chicago would have none of him; so we loafed alone together, now across half-rotten pine logs sunk in swampy ground, anon over the ringing geyser formation, then pounding through river-sand or brushing knee-deep through long grass.

“And why did you enlist?” said I.

The moon-faced one’s face began to work. I thought he would have a fit, but he told me a story instead — such a nice tale of a naughty little girl who wrote pretty love letters to two men at once. She was a simple village wife, but a wicked “family novelette” countess couldn’t have accomplished her ends better. She drove one man nearly wild with the pretty little treachery, and the other man abandoned her and came West to forget the trickery.

Moon-face was that man.

We rounded and limped over a low spur of hill, and came out upon a field of aching, snowy lime rolled in sheets, twisted into knots, riven with rents, and diamonds, and stars, stretching for more than half a mile in every direction.

On this place of despair lay most of the big, bad geysers who know when there is trouble in Krakatoa, who tell the pines when there is a cyclone on the Atlantic seaboard, and who are exhibited to visitors under pretty and fanciful names.

The first mound that I encountered belonged to a goblin who was splashing in his tub.

I heard him kick, pull a shower-bath on his shoulders, gasp, crack his joints, and rub himself down with a towel; then he let the water out of the bath, as a thoughtful man should, and it all sunk down out of sight till another goblin arrived.

So we looked and we wondered at the Beehive, whose mouth is built up exactly like a hive, at the Turban (which is not in the least like a turban), and at many, many other geysers, hot holes, and springs. Some of them rumbled, some hissed, some went off spasmodically, and others lay dead still in sheets of sapphire and beryl.

Would you believe that even these terrible creatures have to be guarded by the troopers to prevent the irreverent Americans from chipping the cones to pieces, or, worse still, making the geyser sick? If you take a small barrel full of soft-soap and drop it down a geyser’s mouth, that geyser will presently be forced to lay all before you, and for days afterward will be of an irritated and inconstant stomach.

When they told me the tale I was filled with sympathy. Now I wish that I had soft-soap and tried the experiment on some lonely little beast far away in the woods. It sounds so probable and so human.

Yet he would be a bold man who would administer emetics to the Giantess. She is flat-lipped, having no mouth; she looks like a pool, fifty feet long and thirty wide, and there is no ornamentation about her. At irregular intervals she speaks and sends up a volume of water over two hundred feet high to begin with, then she is angry for a day and a half — sometimes for two days.

Owing to her peculiarity of going mad in the night, not many people have seen the Giantess at her finest; but the clamor of her unrest, men say, shakes the wooden hotel, and echoes like thunder among the hills.

The congregation returned to the hotel to put down their impressions in diaries and note-books, which they wrote up ostentatiously in the verandas. It was a sweltering hot day, albeit we stood some-what higher than the level of Simla, and I left that raw pine creaking caravansary for the cool shade of a clump of pines between whose trunks glimmered tents.

A batch of United States troopers came down the road and flung themselves across the country into their rough lines. The Mexican cavalryman can ride, though he keeps his accoutrements pig-fashion and his horse cow-fashion.

I was free of that camp in five minutes — free to play with the heavy, lumpy carbines, have the saddles stripped, and punch the horses knowingly in the ribs. One of the men had been in the fight with “Wrap-up-his-Tail,” and he told me how that great chief, his horse’s tail tied up in red calico, swaggered in front of the United States cavalry, challenging all to single combat. But he was slain, and a few of his tribe with him.

“There’s no use in an Indian, anyway,” concluded my friend.

A couple of cow-boys — real cow-boys — jingled through the camp amid a shower of mild chaff. They were on their way to Cook City, I fancy, and I know that they never washed. But they were picturesque ruffians exceedingly, with long spurs, hooded stirrups, slouch hats, fur weather-cloth over their knees, and pistol-butts just easy to hand.

“The cow-boy’s goin’ under before long,” said my friend. “Soon as the country’s settled up he’ll have to go. But he’s mighty useful now. What would we do without the cow-boy?”

“As how?” said I, and the camp laughed.

“He has the money. We have the skill. He comes in winter to play poker at the military posts. We play poker — a few. When he’s lost his money we make him drunk and let him go. Sometimes we get the wrong man.”

And he told me a tale of an innocent cow-boy who turned up, cleaned out, at an army post, and played poker for thirty-six hours. But it was the post that was cleaned out when that long-haired Caucasian removed himself, heavy with everybody’s pay and declining the proffered liquor.

“Noaw,” said the historian, “I don’t play with no cow-boy unless he’s a little bit drunk first.”

Ere I departed I gathered from more than one man the significant fact that up to one hundred yards he felt absolutely secure behind his revolver.

“In England, I understand,” quoth the limber youth from the South — “in England a man isn’t allowed to play with no fire-arms. He’s got to be taught all that when he enlists. I didn’t want much teaching how to shoot straight ‘fore I served Uncle Sam. And that’s just where it is. But you was talking about your Horse Guards now?”

I explained briefly some peculiarities of equipment connected with our crackest crack cavalry. I grieve to say the camp roared.

“Take ’em over swampy ground. Let ’em run around a bit an’ work the starch out of ’em, an’ then, Almighty, if we wouldn’t plug ’em at ease I’d eat their horses.”

There was a maiden — a very little maiden — who had just stepped out of one of James’s novels. She owned a delightful mother and an equally delightful father — a heavy-eyed, slow-voiced man of finance. The parents thought that their daughter wanted change.

She lived in New Hampshire. Accordingly, she had dragged them up to Alaska and to the Yosemite Valley, and was now returning leisurely, via the Yellowstone, just in time for the tail-end of the summer season at Saratoga.

We had met once or twice before in the park, and I had been amazed and amused at her critical commendation of the wonders that she saw. From that very resolute little mouth I received a lecture on American literature, the nature and inwardness of Washington society, the precise value of Cable’s works as compared with Uncle Remus Harris, and a few other things that had nothing whatever to do with geysers, but were altogether pleasant.

Now, an English maiden who had stumbled on a dust-grimed, lime-washed, sun-peeled, collarless wanderer come from and going to goodness knows where, would, her mother inciting her and her father brandishing an umbrella, have regarded him as a dissolute adventurer — a person to be disregarded.

Not so those delightful people from New Hampshire. They were good enough to treat him — it sounds almost incredible — as a human being, possibly respectable, probably not in immediate need of financial assistance.

Papa talked pleasantly and to the point.

The little maiden strove valiantly with the accent of her birth and that of her rearing, and mamma smiled benignly in the background.

Balance this with a story of a young English idiot I met mooning about inside his high collar, attended by a valet. He condescended to tell me that “you can’t be too careful who you talk to in these parts.” And stalked on, fearing, I suppose, every minute for his social chastity.

That man was a barbarian (I took occasion to tell him so), for he comported himself after the manner of the head-hunters and hunted of Assam who are at perpetual feud one with another.

You will understand that these foolish stories are introduced in order to cover the fact that this pen cannot describe the glories of the Upper Geyser Basin. The evening I spent under the lee of the Castle Geyser, sitting on a log with some troopers and watching a baronial keep forty feet high spouting hot water. If the Castle went off first, they said the Giantess would be quiet, and vice versa, and then they told tales till the moon got up and a party of campers in the woods gave us all something to eat.

Then came soft, turfy forest that deadened the wheels, and two troopers on detachment duty stole noiselessly behind us. One was the Wrap-up-his-Tail man, and they talked merrily while the half-broken horses bucked about among the trees. And so a cavalry escort was with us for a mile, till we got to a mighty hill strewn with moss agates, and everybody had to jump out and pant in that thin air. But how intoxicating it was! The old lady from Chicago ducked like an emancipated hen as she scuttled about the road, cramming pieces of rock into her reticule. She sent me fifty yards down to the hill-side to pick up a piece of broken bottle which she insisted was moss agate.

“I’ve some o’ that at home, an’ they shine. Yes, you go get it, young man.”

As we climbed the long path the road grew viler and viler till it became, without disguise, the bed of a torrent; and just when things were at their rockiest we nearly fell into a little sapphire lake — but never sapphire was so blue — called Mary’s Lake; and that between eight and nine thousand feet above the sea.

Afterward, grass downs, all on a vehement slope, so that the buggy, following the new-made road, ran on the two off-wheels mostly till we dipped head-first into a ford, climbed up a cliff, raced along down, dipped again, and pulled up dishevelled at “Larry’s” for lunch and an hour’s rest.

Then we lay on the grass and laughed with sheer bliss of being alive. This have I known once in Japan, once on the banks of the Columbia, what time the salmon came in and California howled, and once again in the Yellowstone by the light of the eyes of the maiden from New Hampshire. Four little pools lay at my elbow, one was of black water (tepid), one clear water (cold), one clear water (hot), one red water (boiling). My newly washed handkerchief covered them all, and we two marvelled as children marvel.

“This evening we shall do the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone,” said the maiden.

“Together?” said I; and she said, “Yes.”

The sun was beginning to sink when we heard the roar of falling waters and came to a broad river along whose banks we ran. And then — I might at a pinch describe the infernal regions, but not the other place. The Yellowstone River has occasion to run through a gorge about eight miles long. To get to the bottom of the gorge it makes two leaps, one of about one hundred and twenty and the other of three hundred feet. I investigated the upper or lesser fall, which is close to the hotel.

Up to that time nothing particular happens to the Yellowstone — its banks being only rocky, rather steep, and plentifully adorned with pines.

At the falls it comes round a corner, green, solid, ribbed with a little foam, and not more than thirty yards wide. Then it goes over, still green, and rather more solid than before. After a minute or two, you, sitting upon a rock directly above the drop, begin to understand that something has occurred; that the river has jumped between solid cliff walls, and that the gentle froth of water lapping the sides of the gorge below is really the outcome of great waves.

And the river yells aloud; but the cliffs do not allow the yells to escape.

That inspection began with curiosity and finished in terror, for it seemed that the whole world was sliding in chrysolite from under my feet. I followed with the others round the corner to arrive at the brink of the canyon. We had to climb up a nearly perpendicular ascent to begin with, for the ground rises more than the river drops. Stately pine woods fringe either lip of the gorge, which is the gorge of the Yellowstone. You’ll find all about it in the guide books.

All that I can say is that without warning or preparation I looked into a gulf seventeen hundred feet deep, with eagles and fish-hawks circling far below. And the sides of that gulf were one wild welter of color — crimson, emerald, cobalt, ochre, amber, honey splashed with port wine, snow white, vermilion, lemon, and silver gray in wide washes. The sides did not fall sheer, but were graven by time, and water, and air into monstrous heads of kings, dead chiefs — men and women of the old time. So far below that no sound of its strife could reach us, the Yellowstone River ran a finger-wide strip of jade green.

The sunlight took those wondrous walls and gave fresh hues to those that nature had already laid there.

Evening crept through the pines that shadowed us, but the full glory of the day flamed in that canyon as we went out very cautiously to a jutting piece of rock — blood-red or pink it was — that overhung the deepest deeps of all.

Now I know what it is to sit enthroned amid the clouds of sunset as the spirits sit in Blake’s pictures. Giddiness took away all sensation of touch or form, but the sense of blinding color remained.

When I reached the mainland again I had sworn that I had been floating.

The maid from New Hampshire said no word for a very long time. Then she quoted poetry, which was perhaps the best thing she could have done.

“And to think that this show-place has been going on all these days an’ none of we ever saw it,” said the old lady from Chicago, with an acid glance at her husband.

“No, only the Injians,” said he, unmoved; and the maiden and I laughed.

Inspiration is fleeting, beauty is vain, and the power of the mind for wonder limited. Though the shining hosts themselves had risen choiring from the bottom of the gorge, they would not have prevented her papa and one baser than he from rolling stones down those stupendous rainbow-washed slides. Seventeen hundred feet of steep-est pitch and rather more than seventeen hundred colors for log or bowlder to whirl through!

So we heaved things and saw them gather way and bound from white rock to red or yellow, dragging behind them torrents of color, till the noise of their descent ceased and they bounded a hundred yards clear at the last into the Yellowstone.

“I’ve been down there,” said Tom, that evening. “It’s easy to get down if you’re careful — just sit an’ slide; but getting up is worse. An’ I found down below there two stones just marked with a picture of the canyon. I wouldn’t sell these rocks not for fifteen dollars.”

And papa and I crawled down to the Yellowstone — just above the first little fall — to wet a line for good luck. The round moon came up and turned the cliffs and pines into silver; and a two-pound trout came up also, and we slew him among the rocks, nearly tumbling into that wild river.

. . . . . .

Then out and away to Livingstone once more. The maiden from New Hampshire disappeared, papa and mamma with her. Disappeared, too, the old lady from Chicago, and the others.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38