A Little Bit of Old Faithful
Ron, Caroline and I visited Old Faithful last July. We stayed at a campground inside Yellowstone National Park for six days and explored nearby sights of interest. The first day we drove to its most popular location. We followed the frontage road around to the parking lot at the Visitor Center. After we parked, we walked toward the viewing area of Old Faithful.
As we drew close, we saw that most seats were taken in front. We turned left and walked around the semi-circle of bench rows. Soon I saw an opening on a bench that would hold the three of us. Caroline and I sat down while Ron stood behind. As people do when they sit in the company of a large group of strangers, I looked to my left, then to my right, and noticed all kinds of visitors. Out of the corner of my eye I saw that the woman seated next to me wore a white bonnet. At first glance I thought she was a nurse. However, as I scanned other people sitting and standing next to her, I noticed two other women had bonnets on also.
I was very interested. Amish, I thought, for they all wore calf-length skirts. I’d never seen or met any although my ex-brother-in-law John came from the area in Pennsylvania where many of the Friends’ sect lived.
Caroline was seated to my right and as is typical for a 12-year old stared at the women in bonnets. I asked her not to. After a minute or so I overheard a tourist in front of me remark that Old Faithful was going to start jetting at 11:48am. Since we skipped visiting the Visitor Center when we arrived, we didn’t see the timetable posted there. I looked at my watch. There was at least a half hour to wait. So, I turned my head to the left in a curious way, where this young Amish woman I’d noticed wore a white blouse and green skirt. She was talking to a young man on her other side. Because we were so close I heard her speak to him with an inflection on certain syllables. I wanted to ask where she was from but didn’t want to be forward.
When she turned from speaking with him, we looked at each other. I sensed a friendly presence who was waiting for an opening to chat. I smiled and asked:
“How long have you been at Yellowstone?”
“We just arrived today and are leaving right afterwards,” she replied.
I looked beyond her to where three or four young Amish men were standing and talking in a group. They were all dressed alike in white shirts and dark pants. They had short curly hair and the skin behind the nape of their necks was darkly tanned. I thought that odd for young men.
“We’re on our way back to Michigan and hope to arrive tomorrow evening,” she continued, also with a smile.
She was very pretty in her bonnet tied under her chin. Later I asked Ron who remarked that they wouldn’t make it back to Michigan from western Wyoming the following evening! It was a long drive. It had taken us a couple of days to drive from California through Nevada and Utah.
Caroline kept up her interest and whispered, “How do they drive and how did they get here?”
“I don’t know,” I mumbled in a low voice to her. I didn’t want to ask this woman such a gauche question. However, the question from my daughter was a positive indication that Caroline was learning American ways and culture at school.
The Amish woman moved in her seat. “My town is … in Michigan.”
“Oh,” I replied. “Is that near Detroit?” I didn’t catch the name.
“One hour outside Ann Arbor,” She anticipated my train of thought with a little quirk of her mouth. “There are pockets of Amish in Michigan.”
I nodded. I had never heard of that either. I thought all Amish came from Pennsylvania, buggies and all. We continued chatting as more visitors arrived. She was concerned that my husband wouldn’t have a place to sit next to Caroline and myself if he didn’t sit soon. I was touched by that concern. The space between Caroline and a family on her right became smaller. The “reserved” spot for Ron was in peril. As it was, he was looking around for a vantage point to stand and take photos once Old Faithful streamed. I don’t think he minded.
“How about you. Where are you from?”
“California,” I replied, pleased by her interest. “We left a couple of days ago. We drove out in our truck, stopped in western Wyoming and also spent the night before last in Jackson. We drove into Yellowstone from there. It was a very beautiful drive, plush and green this time of year unlike California, where hills turn brown in summer. My husband Ron took great pictures of the Grand Tetons. Did you see the gorgeous peaks?”
“No, we drove in through the East, through Cody.”
We lapsed into silence, contented to have made contact with each other. She turned and spoke again to the man with a sprinkling of Dutch words. Now I understood the inflection behind her speech. As they spoke, they held hands. If I leaned forward I could see his face beyond hers. I found these young men unappealing. Their skin was tougher than a day laborer’s, they resembled one another closely with their tanned hands and dirt under the fingernails. A throw-back to the 1800’s. One of them had a bottle of Gatorade sticking out of his pants’ pocket.
“Ha,” I thought, somewhat unkindly; these thoughts snaking their way around my brain. “I guess they can’t just drink plain water out of a bucket.” How can they really be so far removed from everyday technological life!
Meanwhile, the young Amish woman, whose name I never knew, wanted to know more about my life.
“Are there a lot of people in California?”
“Oh, yes,” I replied. I noticed a few sub-continental Indians over to the left. I inclined my head toward them.
“The population is very diverse in California. There are many Indians, from India of course, Asians, Mexicans and people from the Philippines.”
“Wow,” she exclaimed. She looked towards the Indians. “I didn’t know that. We have Negroes.”
My mind did a double take. I didn’t throw that word out loud in a light-hearted way, challenge her use of it laughingly and politically correct her. Who was I to correct her? I felt pity. I thought she should have challenged herself in her young life. I slowly felt ashamed of myself.
The moments slipped by. We picked up talking again after a brief pause. There were ten to fifteen minutes left.
“I’m in a hurry to get home for I’m expecting,” She leaned back slightly to show her stomach. “I’m afraid I’m going to have my baby on the road.”
“Oh, no.” I exclaimed. Under her blouse, she didn’t look too far along. I became bolder in my curiosity about this anachronistic way of life:
“Will you have your baby in a hospital?” To me a hospital equaled technology.
“No, I plan on having a mid-wife come in. I want to birth naturally in water.”
“Ah.” It took time for that to register. I imagined a large, round, tin tub like the kind we used to bob for apples when I was a child in Massachusetts.
“What will you name the baby?”
“Melinda,” she answered. “If we have a girl, that is. My sister’s name is Melinda. She’ll be the midwife, stay in our home for a month to help prepare for the birth.”
“How old are you?”
“Twenty,” she replied. She was extremely friendly and I warmed to her again. She wanted to know about me. I actually felt sorrow for a short amount of time to meet and then part from someone. Here also, was a slice of America I had never experienced.
The noise from the crowd was getting louder and everyone was squeezed in on the benches. In a few moments Old Faithful started its gush, higher and higher rhythmically. I started snapping pictures with my digital camera over the heads of the people in front. With each new stream, I heard the young Amish woman exclaim with pleasure to her husband. They continued to hold hands. From time to time a complete sentence was uttered in Dutch. She was happy. The geyser peaked and ebbed. It was over. Caroline was in raptures next to me and Ron’s hand appeared at my shoulder.
On the spur of the moment I turned and asked the young Amish woman if I could take her and her husband’s picture.
“Because we’re Amish," she affirmed with a smile.
I gently replied, “Actually, I want a memory of this moment.”