I'll Take Yellowstone

I'll Take Yellowstone

Nawyn, Lori
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Not long ago, I read a blog post wherein an author gave a vivid account of his recent trip to Yellowstone. The post unleashed a plethora of memories. Some brought a smile. Others evoked emotions similar to being strapped into a scary amusement park ride.

The memories that made me smile were of my grandfather, Helmet. The eldest son of a desperately poor farm family, he became a self-made man who forged his life with hard work and determination. His stern German father forbade him to pursue his dream of attending flight school. However, after seeing a photo of an ice plane in a magazine. Grandpa decided to build a plane of his own. After scavenging parts for years, he finally came up with enough components to create a Sno-Plane.

Grandpa’s Sno-Planes (he built nearly 90 of them) were tri-skied vehicles powered by an airplane engine and propeller. The speeds they were capable of reaching enabled Grandpa to “fly” over snow and ice. With each subsequent model he constructed, he added improvements that allowed him to go farther and faster. He captained Sno-Planes for endless hours across ice-covered Jackson Lake—even as the ice cracked and parted behind him.

He decided to haul one of his creations to West Yellowstone on a flatbed trailer. From there he traveled by Sno-Plane to Old Faithful Lodge and became one of the first men to enter Yellowstone during the winter via mechanical means. In ensuing years, he frequently toured the park by Sno-Plane. Even had he known the full range of natural dangers in the area, he wouldn’t have cared.

Growing up, I loved to hear Grandpa’s stories of adventure. Yellowstone had been his playground. I wanted it to be mine as well. When I visited the Park with family I scoffed at the dangers my mother droned on about: kids being boiled down to nothing after falling into geysers (not even their bones, I was told, remained to bear record of their demise) and bears eating people alive.

“Don’t you dare roll down that window!” she’d screech as I deftly slipped a vanilla cookie out to bears that long ago stood by the roadside waiting for kids to defy their parents. Bear, schmare!

That was before I had children of my own. That was before I read Lee Whittlesey’s book Death in Yellowstone: Accidents and Foolhardiness in the First National Park.

Lee’s parents must have been like mine, constantly bombarding his childhood visits to Yellowstone with gruesome images passed down from generation to generation. Yes, because something obviously snapped inside Lee to convince him he needed to uncover all the deaths that ever occurred in the Park and jot them down in grisly detail.

The first night after I purchased the book, I sat huddled on the floor of our trailer with a flashlight, reading account after account of unspeakable horror. My parents and aunts and uncles, it seemed, had been correct. Yellowstone was a downright terrifying place! I fell into a fitful sleep fully expecting my family to be sucked into the fiery bowels of the earth by sunrise.

The next day, the Park just wasn’t the same. There were “bars” in them “thar” hills of the man-eating variety that could slice you in half with just one swipe of their horrible clawed paws—the book said so. There were other animals that went crazy and gored you when you simply tried to take of a photo of them grazing with their offspring. And there were cliffs where unsuspecting tourists fell to their deaths without warning, geysers that shot scalding water at you, and hotpots lying wait to drown you in sulfuric mud.

Much to the annoyance of my family, mom turned into a raving maniac.

“DON'T let go of my hand! Stay RIGHT next to your father! DON’T lean against the railing. STAY in the MIDDLE of the boardwalk. Is that a BEAR behind that tree? We’re all going to DIEEEEEEEEEEEEE!”

This after we’d already been camping in the Park without incident for over a week.

When we got home, and I gave the book away—permanently—so the nightmarish scenes it described wouldn’t haunt me, I put things into perspective. We still make one or two trips a year to Yellowstone and the surrounding areas. I love the beauty of the Park. I love to retrace Grandpa’s route to Old Faithful in the winter on snowmobile, imagining all he must have seen and felt.

Yes, there are many dangers in the Park and numerous folks have died there. Caution and common sense need rule when one visits. But there are also many dangers right in my own neighborhood. Recently, two of my neighbors were seen waving (then throwing) shovels at each other with the distinct intent to do harm. There are also a couple of moms who think our little lane should be driven like the Indy 500. We’ve had drug dealers and criminals on the lam in the pasture behind our house, vicious dogs and skunks even the dogcatcher is too afraid to apprehend, and neighborhood kids whom I fear will be in prison by the time they’re ten.

Like Grandpa, I’ll take Yellowstone.
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