Thursday, January 15, 2009

Taxi Ride to Remember

I think that my favorite Yellowstone story is one that is not even my own experience. Rather, it was one that was told to me by an old Bozeman neighbor, Ron Hess. It is one I borrowed and incorporated many times. When I worked as an interpretative ranger, my evening ‘campfire’ slideshow program was on the Fires of ’88. So, Ron, I hope you don’t mind me sharing your adventure one more time.

During the summer of 1988, the Year of the Fires in Yellowstone, Ron was moonlighting as a taxi driver. This was just one of his moonlighting jobs. The other was host of the Torch & Toes Bed & Breakfast in Bozeman. His primary paycheck came from the university where he was an architecture professor. The taxi driver gig, as he put it, was to gather stories to tell his students. So, here’s one of them.

Volumes have been written about The Fires of ’88, but for the point of this story, let’s leave it that on any given day that summer roads might be open or they might be closed because of smoke, flames, and winds. Campgrounds and hotels might be evacuated with little notice. But visitors, as if on a religious pilgrimage, insisted on eye-witnessing the damage, the destruction, the devastation…the “D-words” as we called them. Doug and I weren’t working in Yellowstone yet, but were living in Bozeman. We remember nearly gagging on the smoke in our sleep and having to put a piece of paper over a glass of water by the bedside or there would be an accumulation of ash on the surface.

Ron’s taxi company got a call in early September from a group of eight senior citizens whose tour had been cancelled. Would he be willing to take them on the Grand Loop tour, lunch at the Lake Hotel, watch Old Faithful erupt, and have them back in Bozeman for a 6:30 pm dinner engagement? Sure, why not? It would be a long day, everyone was up for it. They entered the Park through the West Entrance (West Yellowstone) and were duly warned about the smoky conditions, but were told all roads were open. So far so good, and the group elected to continue. The eruption of Old Faithful was lost in choking clouds of smoke. The entire geyser basin was engulfed. Firefighters were hosing down the Old Faithful Inn in an attempt to save the historic structure, and guests were being forewarned of an impending evacuation.

The eeriness that Yellowstone presented itself that day was spooky, even to someone like Ron who had been there numerous times. As he reached West Thumb Junction (Grant Village), there were no closure signs, so he pressed on to Lake Village and lunch at the Lake Hotel. They drove through pockets of intact forest, seemingly untouched by the fires, and then through areas charred beyond recognition. A Yellowstone war zone. The only conversations at lunch were about fire.

After lunch they piled back in the van to head off toward the North Entrance (Mammoth) and back to Bozeman, only to discover that entrance had now been closed. They would have to double back through Grant Village and Old Faithful and out the West Entrance. But, by the time they reached Grant, a sign was posted that the West Entrance was now closed. The only way out of the Park was south, through the Tetons.

In an effort to make up for some lost time (and overcome the addition of a few hundred extra miles) Ron barreled through Teton National Park…and got a $80 speeding ticket. Several hours late and several hours later, the group finally arrived back in Bozeman around 2 am, well past their 6:30 pm dinner date. When he dropped the eight senior citizens off, Ron apologized for getting them home sooo late. They tossed off his apology, tipped him, just about enough to cover his ticket, and moreover, they all confirmed that “they had just been on the ride of their lives.” Well worth the ticket, eh, Ron?

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