Just a short walk through the pines delivers the hopeful geyser gazer to Steamboat Geyser and an oversized viewing platform which welcomes the wishful. Steamboat’s eruptions shoot 300 feet skyward, making it the tallest active geyser in the world.
At least that’s what I’ve heard. I’ve never seen it erupt. I probably never will.
Steamboat is what park geologists call unpredictable, with gaps between eruptions as short as four days and as long as fifty years. Fifty year is a long time to wait.
As the pine-lined path nears the geyser, steam hovers above the trees, sometimes accompanied by the splashes of a short, minor burst – dangling carrots that raise the hopes.
Against this backdrop of steam and spurting thermal water, Steamboat’s interpretive sign presents the facts of its erratic eruption pattern to a disappointed touring public; people who have traveled for hours by car, bus, or plane to get to Yellowstone. We’ve come for wildlife and beauty and geysers and we want to see this geyser, with eruptions that dwarf Old Faithful’s, erupt. We gaze at Steamboat’s silent crater and wish we could will it to act even though we know that to control it would be to cheapen it.
Steamboat’s sign is different from others in the park. It lists no warnings. It states no rules. It goes beyond fact. Instead, it appeals to the heart and the mind. At least, it appeals to mine. Last July, just a couple of weeks before he and I headed to Yellowstone, my dad called and asked if I had heard that Steamboat had erupted. It was bad news. Our already poor odds of catching Steamboat in eruption had just plummeted.
We stopped anyway and walked the path through the pines. When I read its sign again, I wondered if it had been written by a sympathetic naturalist-ranger who longed to be present for an eruption. Learning to love the unpredictable. Maybe the words were as much a reminder to the writer as an appeal to the rest of us on the boardwalk to love Steamboat for what it is rather than for what it is not.
Is that not one of the challenges of life? To love our people for who they are and to embrace our jobs, our homes, and the circumstances of our life in the same spirit?
As the sign says, order, symmetry, and predictability are reassuring and I crave them like a toddler does routine because they make me comfortable. Life doesn’t seem to be about my comfort, though, and stripped to imperatives, the sign’s message has taken up residence on the fringes of my unwilling mind: Learn to love the unpredictable. Appreciate surprise. Appreciate suspense.
So daily I struggle to choose between a life that’s dependent and real and one that’s comfortable and reassuring.
Symmetry reassures. But it is not what the people and the circumstances of life deliver. They bring surprise. They bear suspense. I don’t always love that. But Steamboat’s sign doesn’t tell me to love unpredictability.
It encourages me to learn to love it.
Perhaps my problem isn’t with unpredictability. Or surprise. Or even suspense. Maybe the real struggle is that to love these things I must first learn to love. That, my friends, is something I can not do on my own.