CALISTOGA – One of this job's perks – or hazards; you decide – is that it can trigger long- repressed childhood memories.
Here at the geyser known as "California's Old Faithful," I stood in the noonday sun next to tourists from North Carolina and England. As we stared for minutes at a bunch of rocks in the center of a ruddy, murky pond, I was transported back to the early 1970s and a family trip to Yellowstone National Park, where we saw the real Old Faithful spout.
Memories all came flooding back, like so much geothermal liquid erupting. Those interminable hours in the back seat of our big American car, hoping the motor lodge where we'd decamp would have a pool – or, at least, coin-operated "Magic Fingers" on the bed. The awful diner food. The sibling sniping.
When we got to Old Faithful in northwest Wyoming – not our final destination – it seemed as if we had to wait forever for the geyser to do its thing.
Dad was not amused. Dad was impatient. Dad had a schedule and, by gawd, we were going to keep it. Dad tapped his foot. Mom ignored him. I squirmed. When is this blasted Old Faithful gonna blow? We gotta hit the road.
Of course, it did erupt after about 50 minutes. Right on time. It is Old Faithful, after all. I remember craning my neck and following the plume of water and steam, entranced. But as soon as the spurts began to subside, Dad was back behind the wheel, revving the V-8 engine, yelling, "Great, let's go," herding his brood and itching to drive to the next stop – the Little Big Horn Battlefield, if memory serves.
Back now in the 21st century, I found myself getting a tad impatient waiting for Calistoga's version of Old Faithful to spout off. It was awkward standing next to tourists Jim Thompson (North Carolina) and Dennis Wise (England). We had nothing to say to each other. We just stared at the rocks.
"Ah, there it comes," drawled Thompson, at last.
And so it did. Without warning – no rumble, hardly even a gurgle – jets of water shot up in rapid succession, as if someone was taking his thumb on and off a high-pressure garden hose. Cameras clicked. Smartphones shot video. At its peak, the geyser reached maybe 30 feet. The whole thing lasted one minute, five seconds.
"It was nice," Wise, the Englishman, said. "Very pretty."
His proper British politeness did much to mask what had to be his underwhelming feeling at the spectacle, which cost $10 to witness. Wise and Thompson wandered off, to check out the "Tennessee fainting goats and four-horn sheep" in nearby pens.
I chose to keep vigil at the geyser, awaiting the next eruption. Maybe I'd better appreciate the subtleties the next time around. Three women sat on a nearby picnic bench, chatting away and hardly taking a peep at the pond where Old Faithful does its business.
Turned out, they were three childhood friends from Sacramento – Frieda Stewart, Sharon Redifer and Carolyn Lutton – who had been on a wine weekend in Windsor and, on a whim, thought, what the hey, let's stop at this roadside attraction.
Frieda: "I've never seen one. It was nice, but I'm not like, 'Oh my God.' "
Carolyn: "It was worth the trip."
Sharon: "It's erupting more (often) than what the little card said. She (the worker inside) was saying every 20 minutes, but it goes off sooner."
Frieda: "The card says 40."
Sharon: "It's a nature thing. Nobody has any control over nature."
Seismic activity apparently can affect the frequency and power of the eruptions. Tiny earthquakes, not felt above ground, can make the geyser spout with greater frequency. A more significant quake slows the process.
At least, that's what the hollow-eyed guy behind the cash register told me. Later, I sought confirmation and found a geyser cover story from 2010 in a Canadian journal called Environmental Reviews.
The story revealed something not mentioned in Calistoga "Old Faithful" literature: This geyser is a drilled well with engineered spouts.
"In Calistoga, there are many drilled wells that, at one time, demonstrated the capacity to spout to great heights, but, now, most are capped or controlled with valves to supply hot water for nearby spa pools," author Kenneth A. Barrick wrote.
But just because someone drilled down into Calistoga's geothermal core to release the gaseous liquid to entertain tourists doesn't mean it's not a legitimate geyser.
But Barrick calls Yellowstone's Old Faithful "rare" among the national park's 500 geysers, because of its regularity of eruption (60 to 125 minutes) and its power (106 to 184 feet).
What Carolyn remembers most about visiting the real Old Faithful was "that there's a whole mess of those (geysers) going off and then it's like, 'OK, so what's going on underneath my feet?' I didn't want to be standing here. I wanted to move on."
Yeah, so did my dad back in day. I tell my childhood story to the women. They cluck, knowingly.
"What your dad did, at least to me, is a typical guy thing," said Frieda (or maybe it was Sharon). "My husband is that way."
Only four minutes, 28 seconds elapsed between eruptions. This time, I was standing next to the Farnon family of Modesto. Dad Aaron, mom Linda and eldest daughter Dallas, 7, seemed entranced and in no hurry to move on. Toddler Nolan was impressed, pointing and yelling, "Did that come from there!?!"
"Yes," his dad said. "From the ground."
The family lingered but Aaron, ever the patriarch, kept an eye on the clock. His brood did have to hit the road eventually. Their next stop: "That safari place down in Santa Rosa."
CALIFORNIA'S OLD FAITHFUL
Napa Valley Old Faithful Geyser of California
1299 Tubbs Lane, Calistoga
Hours: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. (winter); 9 a.m.-6 p.m. (summer)
Cost: $10 general; $7 seniors; $3 ages 6-12; free for children under 6.
Information: (707) 942-6463, www.oldfaithfulgeyser.com