Hidden Gems 10 - Summer Vacation
May 30, 2013
As we reach Memorial Day and the start of the summer vacation season, I thought it would be appropriate to write about one of my favorite vacation spots, Yellowstone National Park. The two weeks just before Memorial Day is the best time to visit this national treasure, in my opinion. Most of the facilities throughout the park are open and in operation, and the crowds and traffic are substantially less than you will face later in the summer. Of course, you do face the risk of the occasional, infrequent snow squall at the higher elevations. Throughout the lower elevations that represent the bulk of the park, though, the weather is like early spring here in Kansas City.
I wanted to write about Yellowstone because I just finished reading a book, Letters from Yellowstone, by Diane Smith. Letters is a work of fiction set in the summer of 1898 and is about a scientific field study of the park’s flora and fauna. The book is a collection of letters between members of the expedition and their families and co-workers. A prominent character in the book is A. E. Bartram, a woman who joins the all-male science team simply by using the subterfuge of using her initials rather than her full given name when applying for the job. She undergoes some initial rough-sledding after her arrival (due to anti-feminist sentiments), but she eventually becomes a valued member of the team.
I admire the author’s research into the history of the park. She describes many of the ecological and park management issues faced at the end of the 19th century. The letters of the book describe many of the wonderful features of the park (geysers, thermal vents and mudpots, mountains and forests, etc.) as well the network of roads (the big, figure eight shaped main loop road that passes many of the most interesting sites). At the time, the rough wagon roads were considerably more of a challenge than the paved roads of today. Smith’s prose describes how the park was administered by a cavalry troop (the National Park Service wasn’t to come into existence until many years later), whose role was to protect the park and wildlife from poachers and souvenir hunters. I am amazed that the park remains today, mostly the same as it did back in the 1800s. With the exception of the paving of the grand loop road and the advent of automobiles versus the horse drawn wagons, the park remains the same wild and beautiful place it did back then.
Now for the hidden gem of this story. The first time I visited the park was about eight years ago. After my visit, I learned from my mother that her parents had honeymooned at the park in the early 1920s. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to locate any of their photographs from their trip. Smith’s book painted a lifelike picture for me, though. I am sure that my grandparents travelled to the edge of the park by train, just as A. E. Bartram does, and then visited the sites of the park via horse drawn wagons (or perhaps early, small open air touring buses.) I really enjoyed this gem connecting my visits to the park with that of my grandparents and Smith’s characters in Letters from Yellowstone.