For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People

By Peter W. Fong

Fivescore and forty-four years ago, President Ulysses S. Grant signed the bill establishing Yellowstone National Park. Way back then, the citizens of those thirty-seven United States lived without electric motors, zippers, or Coca-Cola. The invention of the typewriter was many months away, the plague of the video game still a century off. In that same year, Susan B. Anthony was arrested for voting.

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.” 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 every thing

The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone , Thomas Moran, Smithsonian American Art Museum.

The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, Thomas Moran, Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Photo courtesy Wendy Johnson.

Photo courtesy Wendy Johnson.

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 in Yellowstone National Park. 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 travel interests our visitors seemed to have. We met 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. These folks didn’t hike or fish, and had no particular interest in Western history or ecology. The very 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. Visitors frequently asked us, “Hey, where’s the IMAX theater?” Many seemed put-out to discover that it was run privately, outside the park and another fourteen miles away, and that neither Naomi nor I had ever been. “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 the confusion between theme park and national park. From the north, the principal four-lane highway dead-ended in the Grizzly Discovery Center’s ample parking lot. If you weren’t paying attention, you might have missed the little sign that pointed left, to Yellowstone, and ended up watching a couple of neutered, declawed black bears pace behind a partition of plate glass. To many visitors though, I realized, the manufactured scenes held as much appeal as the real wild animals in their more-or-less wild habitat. I had been asked what time we let the elk and bison out. One guest asked relentlessly for a printed copy of the geyser schedule. I explained 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.

In order to better understand these encounters, I felt that I should visit 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 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 gates of Yellowstone National Park.

Madison River,  photo  by Ken Lund / CC.

Madison River, photo by Ken Lund / CC.

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 if vacationers declined to participate in the Yellowstone that existed outside their car windows or beyond their videocameras. On some occasions, I even found myself shifting focus, away from wildlife and waterfalls, and onto the other visitors, like myself. For instance, a man from Idaho in his fifties described his Bible-camp counselor playing “How Great Thou Art” from a tinny, battery-powered tape deck balanced on the Tetons’ Table Rock. Another visitor, dressed all in purple with the exception of an orange handbag, carried a bottle of spring water in one hand and a cigarette in the other. Naomi drew her portrait. And one of my favorites: a woman with sharp elbows 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 asked, with some urgency.

“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: she knew how to have fun.  



Peter W. Fong is the author of the award-winning novel, Principles of Navigation, a love story set in the Florida Keys. His stories have appeared in American Fiction, Gray's Sporting Journal, the New York Times Sophisticated Traveler, and many other publications. He lives in Tangier, Morocco.