Oh Yellowstone

The last road trip Russ and I took my parents on was to Yellowstone National Park. We sandwiched the park visit between attending our daughter’s college commencement in Missoula, and a shorter “drive through” visit to Teton National Park. We then dropped my parents at Jackson airport, a final flight for the two of them together I realize now, as they flew to attend a different granddaughter’s high school graduation in San Francisco. This was only one year before Dad died in 2014. I am grateful that we had this lifetime trip, while saddened at the traumatic losses created by recent flooding of the Yellowstone River: 2022 being the 150th anniversary of Yellowstone as a national park. The only silver lining I can vaguely imagine is perhaps to park animals. Might they feel a sense of wildness being restored? No motorists crawling along the highway or tempting bears with leftover garbage. Life might be more difficult for a bit for those like the osprey. I live with a geologist who is excited by the movement of the earth as caused by natural events; and yet the potential impact of climate change increasing the frequency of these “every hundred years” is worrisome. As is the impact to budgets to rebuild, and to those reliant on the local economy nearest the park.

We took this trip not long after Dad’s recovery after he acquired an infection in his heart following implanting an internal defibrillator. A surgical act that was intended to protect his life, though possibly shortening it, even though I’m grateful he lived fully two more years. As considerate as I was to my dad, I hadn’t recognized how the extra elevation at Yellowstone might be a bit taxing on someone recovering from a heart ailment. He was a good sport, and was pleased to sit on a bench with a book or not, while his then agile wife hiked the trails with us, oohing and aahing over blue pools and rising steam. He reluctantly agreed, later in the trip, to let us borrow a wheelchair at Old Faithful Inn, for our short stroll to see the predictably timed burst of Old Faithful. While we waited, a small crowd building, Dad remarked how he felt a bit like FDR. More than a few people laughed; our dad the best ad-libber of one liners.

Our 2013 trip to Yellowstone was precipitated by a sudden realization that, while my mom’s dad, my grandfather Merrill Daum, was assistant superintendent at Yellowstone Park from 1925-1930, Mom had only been there once. And in fact, her one visit was with me on a spring break cross country ski and camping trip barely inside the northern park boundary outside Gardiner, Montana, while I was a University of Montana college student.

Travertine deposits at Mammoth Hot Spring
Mom at Yellowstone Falls. (Dad had fear of heights and was sitting on a bench nearby, even though I forced him to walk to the canyon before realizing he wouldn’t look down.)
Yellowstone River and Lake.
A mama at Mammoth.
Dad finds a friend at Teton Lodge

Most of my writing has focused on my Oregon roots; those on my dad’s side of my family. Yet, Mom too has roots of her own in the west. While her mother, Esther Pearl Holmes, was born in Indiana and her father, Merrill Frieland Daum hailed from Kansas, they both found themselves in Montana in 1920. Merrill fought in World War I, but immediately delayed his return from France by stopping in Edinburgh as he took an offer to complete post graduate education in civil engineering in the first few months of 1919. My grandfather’s notes leave me to believe he didn’t attend class all that often, choosing instead to travel to see as much Scotland as he could with his bits of money. When he finally returned to Iowa the army gave him a physical, declared him fit, and paid him $60 upon his discharge.

I’m not sure how or why, but his first job after Army duty was in Missoula with the U.S. Forest Service that fall of 1919. It’s funny to me that while Mom was wildly excited when I chose the University of Montana in 1979, I’m not sure I understood then this grandfather’s connection to the state. (In Mom’s last months she said once she had lived in Missoula. I thought her confusion was because of the many trips she and Dad made to Missoula to visit me and my brother over the years, not realizing her love and ties to Montana went much deeper.) In December Merrill returned to Gary, Indiana to marry Esther on Christmas Eve, before returning to a new job with the State Highway Commission based in Helena. (Mom loved to point out how he helped “build” the highway as it passes over the Montana border near Wallace, Idaho.)

Not long after, he and Esther built a cabin and attempted homesteading near Dillon, Montana, and he would have liked to try to build a ranch but my grandmother wouldn’t have anything to do with it. Somewhere in here she spent a summer in more “civilized” Portland as Merrill began working for the National Park Service in 1923. However, when he became assistant superintendent of Yellowstone Park in 1923, the family moved to Mammoth Hot Springs, with the first of their six daughters, in tow. In those days tourists arrived by train at Gardiner where they were met by big open touring cars and driven through the park. My Aunt Barbara remembered meeting President Coolidge once when he toured the park. Nine students were taught in a one room classroom there in Mammoth in what was called the recreation building. Two more of my aunts were born during their time in the park, Dorothy and Marjorie. I know my mom would have loved to be among her older sisters with birth certificates claiming that spot as birth location, but she and her older sister Audrey, and youngest sister MIriam, arrived after they moved into northeast Portland in 1930.

Merrill Daum, 1917
My Aunt Barbara at Mammoth, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.

Grandpa Daum was proud to have been the one to learn about oiling roads after visiting California to see how they handled their dusty roads. He too shared stories about the various epidemics taken on by tourists, one with a hundred or so sick people. He wrote

“We had to go around shooting them all with a needle. I don’t know what we injected them with.”

The story I remember most, though, is about how he dealt with a bold bear visiting their back porch for food.

“I finally got tired of bears once and I took an apple, filled it with red pepper, pinned it together and put it on the porch. That bear came up and swallowed that and all of a sudden, boy, he was blowing and wiping his nose in the snow trying to get cool. He never bothered us again.”

Before leaving the NPS, he also worked stints at other parks including Crater Lake, Mt. Lassan and Tetons. My grandfather claimed he left the park service because he was tired of the “political mess” all the time, though I too know there was pressure from his wife to rejoin city living. My Aunt Barbara shared her own childhood memories of the difficulty of the move from their simple but beautiful home with a grand piano where they entertained guests in Yellowstone, to a small home in Portland in times when everyone felt poor. My grandfather began selling insurance during these difficult economic times of the depression, a career he kept until retirement. He and Mom had good and bad times together, though they always shared their love of the out-of-doors and nature. And even with bad stuff like what happens to us in life, she found a way to be there with him for the rest of his life.

Our times roll on. People die. So much changes. Rivers alter course. I have no idea if any of those original roads Grandpa Daum once erected, had oiled, and maintained are active thoroughfares in the park of yesterday. Today, though, we know that the footprint of the park has changed. For a very long time.

Grampa D and me, 1979, Portland.

5 thoughts on “Oh Yellowstone

    • Oh David, thanks for thinking that about my memory but the truth is we are fortunate on both sides of my family that people have captured, tracked down, and shared these stories in writing. Yes, the power of the written word!

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