« Return to this article

Know the West

Laundry at Old Faithful; Death Cafés; Dumpsters in the wind

Mishaps and mayhem from around the region.


If any place is a Western icon, it’s Yellowstone
National Park, which happens to sit atop a massive caldera that could turn into a super-volcano at any time, or so geologists say. Despite that, 4.2 million people visit the park every year. Yellowstone has long been a magical place of boiling springs and surprising geysers, but in 1877, when early visitors Frank D. Carpenter and his companions first arrived, they did other things besides ooh and ahh at Old Faithful. After an arduous trip on horseback, they had dirty laundry, so “the group put their soiled clothes in a pillowcase and threw it into the geyser’s cone. When it erupted, the clothes were sent flying over 100 feet in the air,” reports Atlas Obscura writer Eric Grundhauser. Once rounded up, the clothes appeared to be boiled clean.

The park doesn’t keep an inventory of all of the foreign objects that have been ejected from its many geysers and pools, but anecdotes abound. Certainly, Carpenter and his pals didn’t stop at turning geysers into super-powered washaterias, as Carpenter revealed in his book, The Wonders of Geyser Land. For its next trick, he and his group piled “at least a thousand pounds of stones, trees and stumps” into Old Faithful, which dutifully “expelled” it all into the air. Carpenter found this an “entertainment of unusual magnitude and duration,” and unfortunately, geyser-dumping became a trend. Yellowstone spokeswoman Linda Veress said that in the 1880s, visitors — finding the bubbles delightful — threw so much soap into the geysers that gift shops couldn’t keep bars of soap in stock. One man even tried to open a laundromat, but that failed when the geyser blew up his business, along with his tent.

Creation of the National Park Service in 1916 helped discourage these destructive experiments, but increasing numbers of tourists continued to surreptitiously throw coins, trash and rocks into geysers. As a result, the Handkerchief Geyser, once as famous as Old Faithful, stopped functioning in the 1920s or ’30s, Veress said. According to T. Scott Bryan’s The Geysers of Yellowstone, another geyser called Morning Glory was artificially induced to erupt in 1950 in an effort to clean out its debris — a kind of geothermal enema. What emerged included “bottles, cans, underwear, 76 handkerchiefs and $86.27 in pennies.” Toss in a penny today, said Veress, and the fine can be up to $5,000 and six months in jail. Yet an unknown number of tourists continue to treat the park’s geothermal wonders as trashcans or wishing wells. Recently, a new kind of debris fell into the Prismatic Spring, thanks to a visitor from the Netherlands who was piloting a drone. The drone “was recovered but not returned,” said Veress.

So what are the chances of Yellowstone, the earth’s largest known potential supervolcano, blowing up and killing everyone within hundreds of square miles? In his new book, Wonderlandscape: Yellowstone and the Evolution of an American Cultural Icon, John Clayton is reassuring. Although the last eruption was 640,000 years ago, meaning that another is just about due, the U.S. Geological Survey estimates the probability as about 1 in 700,000 — “about the same as that of an asteroid hitting the earth.” Yet we worry, he says, because many of us see the world threatened as never before, making the Yellowstone supervolcano “the zombie apocalypse wrapped in mostly legitimate science.” In the summer of 2014, for example, a series of videos went viral and may have alarmed over a million viewers. They reportedly showed animals fleeing Yellowstone in advance of an alleged volcano eruption. Clayton says there was just one problem: “The animals were actually running toward the park.”

Gathering for conversation at a “Death Café”
in the town of Hotchkiss in western Colorado recently, about two dozen people talked freely about getting prepared and trying to make things easy on the heirs, as well as their hopes for a “good death” without too much pain or fuss, and the possibility of suicide, if necessary. One 90-something man, though, took the cake for frankness, reports the North Fork Merchant Herald. “I’d be OK if I died tomorrow,” said Bob Heid of Crawford. “I’m not afraid of death.” In fact, Heid is so comfortable with the inevitable that he said he’d already had a gravestone installed at the Crawford Garden of Memories. He’s also had the stone engraved with the date of his expected death — his 100th birthday.

Speaking of death,
a powerful rainstorm swept through Death Valley National Park recently, bringing winds of up to 100 miles an hour and fast and furious lightning bolts, said Park Superintendent Mike Reynolds. It only lasted 10 minutes, but the microburst blew the roof off a historic building as well as the windows from several cars. What was most striking, Reynolds said, was watching dumpsters blowing down the road — an extreme form of trash pickup.

Tips and photos of Western oddities are appreciated and often shared in this column. Write [email protected] or tag photos #heardaroundthewest on Instagram.