The other day, over on Six Writers and a Frog, I read a post by Robison Wells wherein he 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 those you experience when you realize once you’re strapped into a scary amusement park ride they won’t let you off if you change your mind.
The memories that made me to 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 forbid him to pursue his dream of attending flight school. However, after seeing a photo of an ice-plane in a magazine he purchased at a Rigby, Idaho drugstore, 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 further and faster. He captained Sno-Planes for endless hours across ice-covered Jackson Lake -- even as the ice cracked and parted behind him -- without even flinching. Insurance companies wouldn’t have touched him with a ten-foot pole!
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 the first man ever 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 inherent to the area, he would not 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 when adults said children were boiled down to nothing when they fell into geysers. Not even their bones, I was told, remained to bear record of their demise. I smiled politely but ignored my mother when she droned on about 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, schmer!
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 grizzly (no pun intended) 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 paw -- 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 hot pots laying 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.
You may or may not be wondering what became of my grandfather. Did he succumb to some terrible demise in Yellowstone? No. His adventures took him all across America, over to Hawaii, and up to Alaska where he sold Sno-Planes to the Eskimos. He died, late last December, at the ripe old age of 96, of a broken heart after my grandmother passed away on Christmas Day.
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. Just this week 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 who I fear will be in prison by the time they’re ten.
Like Grandpa, I’ll take Yellowstone.
Robison, as Bob Hope would say, thanks for the memories…