Rod Miller:  Colter’s Run Through the Disneyland of Death, Version 2.0

Columnist Rod Miller writes: "Instead of marketing Yellowstone as some sort of benign, Eden-like fantasy land, we should be honest and say that its one of the few places left on earth where we are not on top of the food chain. Im convinced that well attract a better, smarter bunch of visitors with that approach."

Rod Miller

April 24, 20224 min read

Rod miller headshot scaled
(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

If I had a magic wand, I’d wave it over Yellowstone National Park. There’d be some changes made, and the place would look a lot more retro.

The hundreds of miles of asphalt in “the largest intact ecosystem in the temperate zone” would be ripped up and hauled off to a landfill in Utah. Old Faithful Inn – Molesworth furniture and all – would be burned to the ground to make room for fireweed.

Every gas station, vaulted biffy and overpriced souvenir shop would be bulldozed. The cell phone towers and other modern metal infrastructure would be cut up for scrap and sold to the highest bidder.

The only tourists allowed into that sacred place would enter as did John Colter -Yellowstone’s first white visitor-..stripped naked and chased through the Geyser Basin by Blackfeet who wanted to scalp him. If they survive, their clothing will be returned when they wander out of the Park, including a t-shirt that says, “Been there. Done that. Cheated Death.”

The glossy brochures and airbrushed advertising for Yellowstone neglect to mention that some of the first visitors to the newly-designated Park were killed while they picnicked by Nez Perce. We have sanitized and sugar-coated a very dangerous place. We invite Mom & Dad & Buddy & Sis from Akron or Biloxi to come enjoy “nature” as a happy American family.

And we’ve made bank doing that for years.

We have convinced tourists from around the world that Yellowstone is a nice place to visit. Three million or so come here annually to take selfies with the buffalo, critters that can, in a heartbeat, stomp them into gooey puddles of guts and blood. They crowd close as they can to Yogi the Bear to take precious videos to wow the folks back home.

They become involuntary participants in the “Yellowstone Park Guaranteed Instant Weight Loss Program.”

Tourism industry marketers gloss over the fact that Yellowstone is a theme park of doom, situated over a wafer-thin layer of the Earth’s crust with a cauldron of magma seething just beneath and waiting to bust out into the fresh Wyoming air. They don’t tell tourists that eventually some of them will be buried under a hundred feet of lava and pyroclastic ash.

They don’t mention that those inviting thermal pools can be so caustic and rank that the water will dissolve a human body before supper…meat, bone, hair, fingernails and all. Yellowstone can turn, and has turned, careless tourists into soup.

Death is everywhere in Yellowstone. In fact there is a strip of the extreme western edge of the Park called “The Zone of Death” for legal and jurisdictional reasons. But that’s a story for another day.

Instead of marketing Yellowstone as some sort of benign, Eden-like fantasy land, we should be honest and say that its one of the few places left on earth where we are not on top of the food chain. I’m convinced that we’ll attract a better, smarter bunch of visitors with that approach.

Instead of our current crop of fanny-packed looky-loos who want to be comfortably coddled by government concessionaires, we’ll see fewer but hardier visitors who aren’t afraid to die in bubbling mud or in the mouth of a grizzly. They’ll risk death in order to see Yellowstone as it really is.

We should remind anyone thinking about visiting the Park of that tragedy in the late-1990s when three east-European backpackers met the true face of Yellowstone. It was right after the Berlin Wall came down, and folks were finally free to leave the Soviet Union.

These three doomed adventurers – Hungarian, Czechoslovakian and Polish, if I recall correctly – hiked way up the Pelican Valley to camp. Ignorant of safety in bear country, they went to sleep with food outside their tent and burnt s’mores in the campfire ashes.

Naturally, a pair of grizzlies found them…a boar and a sow. They killed and dined on the unfortunate tourists and left only scraps.

A few days later a search party of rangers found the camp and tracked the grizzlies, locating the pair a couple of drainages away. They euthanized them and, to make sure they got the guilty bears, did a stomach content analysis.

Sure enough, they found remains of the Hungarian and the Pole in the stomach of the female. They went no further, logically concluding that the Czech was in the male.

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Rod Miller

Political Columnist