At least some of the credit for the bill’s relatively smooth passage through Congress must go to Thomas Moran, a member of the 1871 Hayden Expedition, whose field sketches provided Eastern lawmakers with their first color images of Yellowstone. If you’ve seen Moran’s work, you know that his paintings are as grand as the actual landscape—although not in precisely the same way. Moran’s brush reveals a wonderful eye for details, and a romantic’s disdain for fact. “My general scope is not realistic,” he declared. “All my tendencies are toward idealization.”
|The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, 1872, Smithsonian American Art Museum|
This statement seems an apt description of my own attitude toward Yellowstone. I love everything I see there, but take occasional pains not to see everything. One hundred and twenty-three years after Moran’s first visit, I curated an exhibit of sepia-tone photographs, historical letters, and turn-of-the-century writing tools at the Madison Museum. I also conducted workshops on letter writing, and wrote a daily letter myself, which I hung in the museum, as if it were just another artifact. Depending on my relationship with the intended recipient, the letter might have been chatty, nostalgic, or confessional. Some of the tourists ignored my efforts, some expressed interest, and some stole the paper off the wall. (I took that as a compliment.)
That summer, the museum docent was Naomi Olson. The two of us spent a lot of time considering the disparate motives of park visitors. On some days, the population split comfortably into two groups: spectators and participants. For example, one August afternoon we met a family from Massachusetts who flew to Billings because their first-choice destinations (unmentioned) were “already booked up.”
They rented a van, and in five days visited Helena (the museum and the capitol), Great Falls, East and West Glacier (they didn’t mention the park), Polson (both little museums), the National Bison Range (closed due to fire), Missoula, Butte (the Big Pit), and Bozeman. They planned to spend the next four days in a comparatively sedate tour of Yellowstone and the Tetons.
According to their eldest daughter, Montana was nothing but casinos and pawn shops, suitable only for such rural pursuits as cow-tipping, a thrill she remembered with some fondness from a recent trip to Vermont. These folks were definitely spectators. They didn’t hike or fish, and had no particular interest in Western history or ecology, so it was no wonder they found the state lacking in entertainment value.
The next morning, I was in West Yellowstone doing laundry, buying groceries, and pondering the general nature of entertainment when I suddenly felt duty-bound to visit the grizzly theme park and IMAX theater. That was a frequently asked question at the museum—“Hey, where’s the IMAX theater?”—and most folks seemed a little put out to discover that it was run by a private concern, outside the park, another fourteen miles away, and that neither Naomi nor I had ever paid to see it. “Since Yellowstone is right here,” I would ask, pointing out the picture window to the confluence of the Gibbon and the Firehole, “why watch the movie?” But they usually just shrugged in response, or glared at me like I was some sort of smart-aleck, before climbing back into their cars.
Considering the West Entrance with a stranger’s eye, I could sympathize with their confusion of theme park and national park. When you drive into town from the north, the principal four-lane highway dead-ends in the Grizzly Discovery Center’s ample parking lot. If you aren’t paying attention, you might miss the innocuous little sign that points left, to Yellowstone, and end up watching a couple of neutered, declawed black bears pace behind a partition of plate glass.
But I was only just beginning to understand that, to many visitors, such manufactured scenes are more comprehensible than the reality of wild animals in their more-or-less wild habitat. I had been asked what time we let the elk and bison out—as if park employees were nothing more than a bunch of zookeepers in funny hats. I also had been badgered by a Swiss man for a printed copy of the geyser schedule. When I explained to him that only a very few of Yellowstone’s geysers erupted in a predictable fashion, and that even then the rangers’ predictions were simply rough estimates, he glowered at me as if I had just said that Mickey Mouse was long dead and Donald Duck with him.
In order to help myself understand and interpret these encounters, I felt that I should face the theme park myself, observe it with a detached and critical eye, take notes, imagine that I was a teenager from Massachusetts, try to have fun, and become a better person for the experience. But as I drove back along the main thoroughfare from the laundromat, past the mini-mall and the shirt shops and the antler boutiques, I couldn’t make myself do it. The pickup drifted into the left lane, my left hand hit the blinker, and before I knew it, I was accelerating toward the genuine gates of Yellowstone.
I salvaged the rest of that day fishing, of course, mostly in the Madison, where the water temperature had dipped into the low sixties and the first pods of big brown trout had started upstream from Hebgen Lake to spawn. Those lake-run browns were beautiful fish, sleek and solid, with dark backs and golden bellies. A few of them hit so hard that the bones in my wrist ached, and the first jump often sent the fish sailing flat over the water, like a performing porpoise. As you can imagine, I found this immensely entertaining.
Eventually, I learned not to take it personally when vacationers declined our offers to participate in the Yellowstone that existed outside their cars or beyond their videocameras. On some occasions, I even found myself shifting focus, away from wildlife and waterfalls, and onto the other mammals like myself. For instance, there was a fiftyish man from Idaho who told me former superintendent Bob Barbee should be shot, then described his bible-camp counselor playing “How Great Thou Art” from a tinny, battery-powered tape deck balanced on the Tetons’ Table Rock.
And there was another two-legged specimen, dressed all in purple—except for an orange handbag—who carried a bottle of spring water in one hand and a cigarette in the other. She claimed that we would all live longer if we each drank six gallons of water daily. Not six cups, six pints, or even six quarts, but six gallon jugs between sunup and sundown. Naomi drew her portrait, an image as compelling as that of any sow grizzly or bull elk.
Truth be told, the wildest of Yellowstone’s migratory inhabitants are human. One of my favorites: a woman with sharp elbows and expansive hips dallying by the bar in Old Faithful’s Bear Pit Lounge, clutching an unopened bottle of champagne by the neck.
“Can we buy more of this stuff in the restaurant?” She wanted to know.
“Sure,” said the bartender, “we can even serve champagne with your breakfast, if you like.”
“That‘s good,” nodded the woman, “because when I drink champagne, I don’t like to run out.”
“Hell,” one of her two companions grumbled, “she’ll drink champagne until she foams at the mouth.”
Her other sidekick laughed out loud. “Or at least,” said that one, “until the bubbles come out her nose.”
I had to hand it to her. The woman knew how to have fun. None of us can watch the world go by all the time—even the radiant and rarefied world of Yellowstone.