Of guests and geysers

I finished transcribing “My Shanghai” about two weeks ago. The 20 or so hours of interviews and on-the-go filming came out to 226 pages of dialogue and description. I printed it out and took it on my road trip to Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons. Virginia’s stories were pressed in my mind, but the nuances of how a person tells a story are never so clear until you transcribe them word for word. My plan was to use the long drive on I-84 to highlight the best of it in blue, green and yellow. (Please note: my husband was driving.)

Well, the pages rode 2,200 miles round-trip in my backpack and never left their plastic portfolio. It’s not that I can’t read in the car. Heck, I can read on the teacups at Disneyland. But somehow, even the palette of brown hills and fields across eastern Oregon and Idaho captured my imagination. I think I just needed to be present. And once in Wyoming, the blue mountains, green pines, yellow aspens, bronze meadows, orange lichens and turquoise geysers left their indelible marks on me.

I’ve spent the last couple of days cropping my pictures (to 16:9, of course). It’s breathtaking country, and if my pictures do it justice, it’s because of my connection to these places. Not just what nature has put here, but what humans have put here, too.

Yeah, I love a good building. To me, a good building enhances the landscape, even in a place as exquisite as a national park. And while a good building tells its own story, a good tour guide brings it home.

Ruth Quinn has led tours of the Old Faithful Inn since 1992. As a storyteller, Ms. Quinn highlights the facts, but I suspect each telling is slightly different, even after twenty seasons. “I like to give this talk in terms of connections,” she says. To the land, to culture, to bold ideas.

Construction began in June, 1903. Fifty carpenters built the hotel in one year — 140 bedrooms on three floors — and doors opened to guests in June, 1904. Ms. Quinn leads us into one of those original rooms. It’s not a set piece for tours; last night’s guests left early and she has until 4:30 to show it before the next guests arrive. Two more wings were added, in 1914 and 1927, bringing the total number of rooms to 330.

Old Faithful Inn, Yellowstone National Park
Photo by P.H. Wells © 2012 First Straw Films

All the materials for the “old house” (the original hotel) came from a five-mile radius of the site, she says. The entire structure is lodgepole pine, which grows to 75 feet in Yellowstone. Architect Robert Reamer designed the lobby and main hall to be 76-1/2 feet high to give guests the feeling of being inside a forest. He built a treehouse in the rafters. He left the bark on the posts and beams, a mark of authenticity not fully appreciated by the housekeeping staff.

In those days, while guests ate together in the dining room, the staff would push back the furniture in the lobby and roll up the rugs for a dance floor. Now, you’re lucky to get a reservation in the dining room, and never mind the prices; but as piano and cello music fill the main hall, you’ll sit in an oak library chair with a red leather seat, your feet on that hundred-year-old pine railing long bare of its bark, sharing life and red wine with a new old friend on the next bench. He’s been coming here since Eisenhower was president.

You think about the transcripts in your backpack, and how a documentary filmmaker is really just a tour guide to a marvelous life story. A hotel, a film, a year in the making. You hope the guests will come.

The music drifts away. You pour another glass of wine, and listen for the roar of Old Faithful.


© 2012 First Straw Films