We’re in the gift shop looking at knick knacks, books and pictures we want to purchase. Alison rifles through items, puts on hats, checks out books and tests out the Official Pen of Yellowstone National Park. My mom looks at bags and sweatshirts. My dad does his best with damage control – he keeps mental track of the family’s bank account balance. Every item seems like a great idea until he turns it around and lifts up the paper price tag that hangs by a string.
“Oh, this is great! The hat fits you perfectly, how much… TWENTY DOLLARS?!” He shouts, as if asked if he’d lick the toe jam from between my grandmother’s toes. “I could make a hat for half that price!” Incredulous, he puts the hat back. If he had a super power, it’d be the ability to make any item over the fifteen dollar threshold for half that price. It’s an argument he has used with cashiers and with us kids when trying to talk us down from an expensive purchase like a man talking someone off the railing of a bridge.
“Don’t do it, Nick! You’ll regret it forever.” he tells me, holding the $70 pair of skateboard shoes in his hand. “I bought two pairs of tennis shoes – two pairs – for half that price!” He was right, but wearing the New Balance shoes he bought made one apt to get their ass kicked at school.
He’s doing it now, lifting up stuffed animals, Official Yellowstone jackets, Official Yellowstone socks, Official Yellowstone hats, books, sandals and pictures. I can hear the not-so-muffled gasps of surprise from the other side of the gift shop as my father moves down the aisle and checks the prices on every item. I never have an issue finding him when I need to buy something.
I’m rummaging through the texts, looking for self-help books on bear-induced PTSD when one catches my eye. By catches my eye, I mean it’s impossible to miss. It has its own display rack: shelves stacked upon shelves of this book, a tower of nonfiction that almost reaches the ceiling. People come and go, picking up their own copy and smiling insanely as they flip through the book.
The title is Death in Yellowstone, written by a sadist that goes by the name Lee H. Whittlesey. It accounts for every recorded death in the park since its opening in the late 19th century. It ranges from lightning strikes, bear attacks, geyser scaldings, hot pool boilings, all the way to deaths by falling. I had to rub my eyes, blink a few times and shake my head to make sure I was seeing right.
Not only did they know their park was a precariously dangerous place, but they flaunted it. They wore it with pride, like a boy-scout merit badge in manslaughter or a middle schooler’s first attempt at a mustache. Lee H. Whittlesey is smiling on the back of his book. His face follows a compendium of killing – and he’s grinning.
Against all logic, I flip through the book, perhaps hoping I’d find some tidbit of information that could save me from the same fate. One man dies after jumping into a pool trying to save his dog. The water is well over boiling, cooking his eyes like a couple of poached eggs, blinding the man instantly.
A little girl dies after her grandmother puts peanut butter on her arm, attempting to get a picture of her with a 1,200 pound grizzly bear. Park rangers are forced to put the bear down, though I think the putting the grandmother down would have been more fitting.
A man dies while free climbing Yellowstone’s Grand Canyon. Another man prods a grizzly cub with his umbrella, pissing off the mother bear.
A twenty-year-old hiker accidentally jumped into a hot spring when she and her friends went on a midnight hike with no flashlights. She reportedly thought she was jumping into a stream.
After only half a dozen entries, I soon found the one thing I had that these people didn’t: a functioning brain. It seemed to me, even as a seven year old, that a lot of deaths in Yellowstone could have been prevented if they administered a simple IQ test at the entrance.
“How do you feel about boiling water, sir?” The park ranger might ask a tourist.
“What about wolves?”
“They’re like dogs right? I’m going to have my three-month-old child feed them scraps of old meat.”
“Alrigh– wait, no. Sorry, you can’t come in.”
The idiot would snap his fingers, uttering rats! under his breath and stuff his hands back in his pockets, moving back towards the van filled with the potential victims of his idiocy.
How many people would have been spared the suffering of their own stupidity? Lee H. Whittlesey certainly wouldn’t have had the opportunity to write a book, that’s for sure.
There are so many others. Nineteen people have died in just Yellowstone geyser-related deaths. I flip to the chapter about bears where Whittlesey says only seven people have died in bear-related attacks, making it just above death by lightning strike; only five people have died by electrocution. He says this to calm the reader but for me the tactic has the opposite effect. I had never thought about death by electrocution. I add another item to my list: Reasons Not to Go to Yellowstone National Park. When talking about my fear of death by a shark, a friend told me I had a higher probability of being licked by a bum in the New York subway. Both cases sound equally horrifying.
And why are the two comparisons always terrible? When talking about my fear of planes, my dad tells me I have an astronomically higher chance of dying on the bus on my way to school. When telling my mom about my fear of parasites, she said I have a likelier chance of contracting pneumonia. All the comparisons do is make me want to wear a helmet on the bus or wrap a scarf around my neck in the heat of July.
I prefer the positive comparison: I’m more likely to win a jar of salsa in a raffle prize than be mauled by a bear in Yellowstone. My chances of contracting ringworm in Portland, Oregon are a little lower than my chances at scoring a date with Jennifer Lawrence. I had better chances at becoming Prom Queen, than I did being struck by lightning.
Perhaps that is why the book disturbed me so much. It was all doom and gloom with no hope of a happy ending. There were no survivors. It was called Death in Yellowstone, after all. Not, They Thought They Were Going to Die, But Then At the Last Second Pulled Through and Survived in Yellowstone.
I put the book back without having to hear my father’s explanation for why it was overpriced. I hear my mother shout that it’s time to go. A disturbed gasp of disbelief emanates from the other side of the gift shop; my dad has found Official Yellowstone gloves for $35. I move towards my family and out of the store. We’re trying to get to a guided tour and we’re running on Blakeslee time – so we’re late. As our family trots towards the meeting spot in the usual marching order, we see the guide waving people down. She’s about 5’2” and is wearing what I can only describe as hand-me-down park ranger gear: oversized, faded and billowing in the wind. She fills the clothing in a way that reminds me of a deflated whoopee cushion.
Her smile and wave coaxes us in, however, her eyes hiding behind transition lens glasses.
“We were just about to start,” she tells us. “I’m glad everyone made it.” The park ranger turns towards the boardwalk and ushers us to follow. “Yellowstone National Park is not a safe place…” she begins. I listen against logic as she begins to recite the deaths one by one with perfect clarity. The woman is a walking, talking, almanac of death.