Visitors to Yellowstone National Park typically go home with a story or two to share about wildlife, wilderness or wide-open spaces. But with modern vehicles, hotels and even smartphones and laptops, their experiences are usually a far cry from the frontier adventures of the park’s earliest visitors.
Those first tourists entered a park that lacked not only hotels and restaurants, but boardwalks and even roads. For Montana writer and historian M. Mark Miller, who will sign books this weekend and next at Old Faithful Inn, sharing those tales of early travel in Yellowstone is a passionate pursuit that has deep personal roots.
Miller recalls hearing stories from his grandmother about her 1909 trip to the park, as well as her recollections of Miller’s great-grandfather’s work surveying the park’s northern boundary in 1882.
“I often try to imagine what scenes in the park would have been like 100 or 150 years ago,” said Miller, author of Adventures in Yellowstone: Early Travelers Tell Their Tales. “What was it like to walk to the geyser cone of Old Faithful and peer into its bowels? What was it like catch a fish and cook it in a hot spring without taking it off the hook?”
Miller, a former newspaper reporter and journalism professor who lives in Bozeman, has collected, curated and annotated more than 300 written accounts from early travelers in Yellowstone. He posts new and updated stories on his blog (many of which are reprinted at YellowstoneGate.com), and he speaks regularly as part of the Humanities Montana Speakers Bureau, recounting the adventures of women who visited the park in the nineteenth century.
That includes women like Emma Cowan, who was captured by Nez Perce Indians in Yellowstone in 1877, and Mary Wylie, who in 1880 crossed Yellowstone Park as a member of the first tourist party to traverse Yellowstone on wheels, traveling from Mammoth Hot Springs to the Lower Geyser Basin in a covered wagon.
Miller recalls his grandmother’s trick for handling a monotonous chore when riding in a wagon.
“Grandma said she would hang a bucket of cream under the wagon axle in the morning where the rocking motion would turn it to butter by evening,” he said.
Despite his love of Yellowstone, Miller gets into the park less often than you might expect.
“I actually spend more time in libraries and archives than I do in Yellowstone Park,” Miller said. “Like many people, I usually visit Yellowstone Park when friends and relatives visit.”
Miller typically makes it into Yellowstone at least a couple of times each summer to sign books at Old Faithful Inn.
The hotel has a rhythm “governed by Old Faithful’s 90-minute cycle,” Miller said, and there are always “a few people who were eager to talk about the stories in my book.”
“Every time I speak or sign books, people share personal stories,” he said.
“Some of the stories are unique,” Miller said, like the ones shared by a man who drove one of the original yellow tour buses several decades ago.
“He said one day, the brakes went out and he took his passengers on a rollicking ride down a mountain,” Miller said. “He also said he saw more than 30 grizzlies at a dump in Hayden Valley.”
Even though modern-day visitors may never enjoy the same experiences as the park’s first travelers, they still cherish their time in Yellowstone, Miller said.
“People know that their Yellowstone experiences are special and are eager to share them. Uniques experiences like seeing geysers, waterfalls and bears get etched into people’s memories and they like to talk about them,” he said.
Contact Ruffin Prevost at 307-213-9818 or [email protected].
If you go…
M. Mark Miller will sign copies of his book, “Adventures in Yellowstone: Early Travelers Tell Their Tales,” at the Old Faithful Inn from 11 a.m. until 5 p.m. Aug. 10-11 and Aug. 17-18. in August.