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Ch. 4: 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

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

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

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

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

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
Melican 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

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

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

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

"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

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

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

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.

Rudyard Kipling

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