Sunday, November 16, 2008
Trail Ridin’ with Don
At the end of my second season at Yellowstone, and Nancy’s first, we were rewarded with a trip on horseback to Fox Park Cabin. The trip was about five days and included some work days and days off, but we were excited to go. Imagine being paid to ride around Yellowstone with two of it’s most seasoned rangers. The purpose of the trip, along with boundary patrol, was to build a wooden porch floor onto the old cabin. A bunch of bridge planks had been helicoptered in that were left over from bridge building job nearby.
It took a long day to ride in to Fox Park, which is on Yellowstone’s south boundary with Bridger-Teton National Forest. We came in through the National Forest from the south and only the last few miles were in the Park. We worked on the porch floor for two days and it took us two days to ride out along the Snake River with an overnight stop at Harebell cabin. At that cabin, our last night out, Dave, our leader, told us stories about being in the cabin one night and having a grizzly tearing at the window shutters and tearing at the shingles on the roof, trying to get into the cabin. Now, to this day, I don’t know whether Dave was trying to scare us (I think he was) or the story was true (I don’t know), but it was a good yarn before we hit the sack.
The fourth person on the trip was a older gentleman who we’ll call Don. We didn’t know Don before the trip, but we of course knew him well at the end. Riding through bear country for eleven hours at a stretch with someone, you get to know them pretty well. The first few hours Don and Dave reminisced about the old days in Yellowstone when Don had been a seasonal ranger. He told some pretty amazing stories about the old times and how things had changed. They trapped bears and broke horses and shoed the mules. They did the job of law enforcement, bear management, resource management and interpretation. Every once in awhile, the park radio would squawk about some incident back in the developed world, and it would set Don and Dave off about some long ago fracas in the park. As is normal, Don made it sound like the rules and regulations had tightened up considerably and that rangers nowadays were more highly trained and educated. We appreciated that every one of these old-timers were tougher than even the toughest ranger these days.
A couple of hours into the first day, Don revealed he had played football at Nebraska in his youth. That was fairly impressive and I asked a few questions about playing football back in the days when they had leather helmets and no face guards and every player had a broken nose all season. They were tough then and they didn’t have full-ride scholarships. Later on that day, Don talked about his coaching days. He coached football at some high school in Wyoming after WWII, and then he was head coach at Wyoming. I tried to imagine what it was like coaching a bunch of tough young cowboys and scrappy farm hands back in Laramie. It couldn’t have been easy. By now I was pretty impressed with Don, old fart ranger.
We rode through parts of the forest that had burned extensively in 1988. Bare and blackened lodgepole stood where once a dark, shady green forest had been. Nancy and I were still adjusting to the stark landscape of the post-'88 fires. Don however, remarked that he had ridden this trail 25 times and this was the first time he could see the sky and the mountains in the distance.
As the hours wore on the first day, Don began talking about being in the Navy during the War. There were some good stories, but what I remembered was that he had been a "frogman" as they were called in those days. He had reconnoitered Omaha and Utah beaches sometime before D-day, looking for obstacles that would impede the landing craft. He mentioned surfacing at night and seeing lights coming from German pillboxes and the silhouettes of German soldiers patrolling the beach. By now, I knew I had met a legend, and that he couldn’t top this story.
Don said he worked for the government after the war in a capacity he still couldn’t divulge. He gave small hints. It involved clandestine activities in Asia and I shouldn’t ask any more questions because he couldn’t answer. The next day I talked to Dave because I was getting skeptical. Dave said every word was true as far as he knew. He could vouch for all the ranger stories and football history and that he had no reason to doubt the wartime exploits.
I remember working away on the porch floor of the cabin the next day when Don mentioned that his life the past few years had been pretty idyllic. He worked winters as a ski instructor at Vail for many seasons, but now he and his girlfriend (Girlfriend? The man must have been seventy) spent winters on their boat in Mexico. She was a River Ranger on the Snake River in Grand Teton N.P. (Dave said she was gorgeous) and they spent summers in a cabin overlooking the Tetons.
On the fourth day, as we were riding between Fox and Harebell cabins, Don’s stories began to repeat themselves. It was okay though, they were good stories. The ride was long and hard and we needed a diversion. And while we had heard them once, he was telling them the same way and, for me, that was authenticating them.
On the last day as we were approaching the Snake River Ranger Station, Dave asked Don to tell one more story. "I thought you would have told the one about Gerry Ford by now," he prompted.
So.......Don told us one more story. Years ago, Don was ski instructor to President Gerald Ford. Mr. Ford had fallen in love with Vail and spent as much time as he could there. He said it was pretty exciting work if you could deal with the Secret Service details. The president was a mediocre skier, but very enthusiastic. They got along quite well ( Ford was a former seasonal Yellowstone ranger, by the way) and I guess they were about the same age. One day during a lesson, it happened that the President took a spill and planted his face in the snow. Ford pulled his head up out of the snow just in time to see Don ski up. "You’re doing great, you’re getting the hang of it Mr. President," Don said as he wiped the snow from the president’s face. "You know," Don mused, "Skiing is like sex. If you don’t get your face right down into it every once in awhile, you’re not doing it right." Ford burst into a big grin and then chuckled for a long time, Don said.
Don tried to visit us once in the park but we were on our weekend. We stopped by his cabin once on our way to Jackson, but Don was not there. We never saw him again.Twenty-three year old Gerald Ford in 1936 during his one season as a Yellowstone Ranger.