“Yellowstone is a dangerous place,” she tells us, waving her hand, gesturing to the apocalyptic landscape of the park. She has a smile on her face, a savage grin, as she makes eye contact with every child in the group. The park ranger gets down to her haunches, making sure she’s at eye level with the child in front of her, “Yep, someone your size just died the other week.” The woman rustles the child’s hair and smiles, as if she hadn’t just threatened him with his life. He looks around, holding back the tears and moves forward with the rest of the group.
The woman moves and talks with an air of confidence. She speaks of terrible things with the same casualness one uses when speaking of Melba toast or their favorite argyle sweater. I didn’t know much about religion, God, or Satan as this point in my life, but it seemed to me she displayed the same characteristics one might see in Lucifer. Or at least someone really bad, like Stalin, Hitler, or my 4th grade teacher Ms. Denning. She seemed like the kind of person who would take a job as an Ice Cream truck driver, switch on the music, then laugh manically as she watched dozens of desperate children through the rearview mirrors of her truck as she sped away. Yes, even at the age of seven, I knew that this woman had a mean streak from here to Pluto. But she was missing the iconic mustaches of former dictators and her hair was the wrong color to be Ms. Denning. Hitler, no. Lucifer? Maybe.
“You see that pool right there?” Park Ranger Lucy asks, pointing to a pool to our left. “Well, way –“ (she stretches the last letter of the word to denote time) “ –back, about, oh I don’t know, thirty years ago now, there was a nice young couple that came her for their honey moon.” Lucy hooks her thumbs into the belt loops of her pants and looks out at the pool. “They asked one of us to take their photo, in front of the pool, so that they can send them back home to the family.” She looks down and smiles again, as if recollecting some pleasant memory.
“Yes, they were a nice couple, I liked them quite a bit.” The story goes from taking place wayyyyyyyyyy back, to just the other day. And now the ranger knows them? The logical part of my brain tells me this ranger is lying, but the child part of my brain says, “Shhh, I’m trying to listen to this story.”
“So we’re taking the picture, and the wise guy thinks he’s going to scare his girlfriend. Right as we’re about to snap the photo, he pretends to fall in.” She’s displaying all rows of her sharpened shark teeth when she gets to this part of the story. “Well, he was pretty good at it, and fell right in! Missed his step, and Splash!” She laughs now, as if retelling a story about a opportune wedgie and not death by scalding. “Yes, he splashed for a bit, but once your body hits that 250 degree water, it’s over.”
“Did he die instantly?” the child from before asks.
“Oh heavens no,” she retorts. “He was dead the second he entered, yes, but it took him hours to die afterwards. Third degree burns on 100% of his body. That man suffered.” The crowd is silent. We all look around, wondering if perhaps we signed up for the Tim Burton version of Yellowstone. I peer at her nametag, just to make sure it said Park Ranger and not Sociopath.
She ushers us onward and continues. “That one right there claimed a kid a few years back,” she says. Lucy takes a cursory glance over her shoulder at another child, “About your age, if I remember correctly. He was playing a game with his family, a game of tag I suppose, and tripped on the boardwalk. You see, back then the park was much more dangerous.” I heard it, but I still don’t believe it. How can Yellowstone be any more dangerous?
“No railings,” the woman answered, “so the kid hit the edge of the board walk and fell face first into the roiling water. He got two or three strokes in, he was a strong kid, then he succumbed to the heat and pain.” She paused for a moment, then added “Eight pounds.”
“Excuse me?” one person asks for the rest of us.
“Eight pounds,” she responds, turning back to the captives to her campfire stories. “By the time they excavated the child, all that was left was eight pounds of bones. The pool cooked him right up. Skin, flesh, eyes and all.”
Well, that certainly left an open casket funeral out of the question.
She sighed a sigh that was completely out of place. It would have been more fitting if she were sitting on a front porch drinking iced tea and watching the sun set. Relaxed.
“The salt in the boy’s system damaged the pool,” she says with a sort of forlorn regret. “The color was off for a year or so. And you can still see the iron deposits from his blood.” Lucy points to various parts of the pool, we all nod in approval as we spot where she’s looking; which of course means absolutely nothing because we have no idea what we’re looking at.
The Park Ranger is more upset with the damage to the pool, than the boy’s family. She shakes her head in disapproval and throws a dismissive hand towards the pool, moving away from a regretful memory. It was clear to me that this woman was most undoubtedly mentally unstable. The park clearly didn’t do thorough mental and criminal background checks on their employees. In fact, every park ranger we ran into had the uncanny ability to terrify every child within a 15 foot radius.
“Bears look hungry!” one ranger shouted amongst the large group of people stopped on the side of the road. “I bet someone your size would be just right.” He teases a kid next to him and nudges his shoulder, winking at him the way friends do when sharing an inside joke. The child smiles like a man at the altar of a shotgun wedding and slowly backs away from the ranger and the bears. He runs back to his dad and grabs his leg: the safest place to be as a kid.
Had the internet been around and in the same capacity it is today, my internet search history would be chock full of entries for personal protection. Kevlar vest, a twelve-gauge shotgun, a cyanide tooth, bear mace and a set of water wings impervious to temperature. Making a quick look through my history would make my parents wonder if I was prepping for doomsday, that perhaps I had seen Water World and thought it was a documentary instead of a demonstration of a façade named Kevin Kostner.
Lucy continues her walk down the boardwalk and keeps reciting horrifying tales of proof of Darwin’s Natural Selection. By the end of the tour I’m sick to my stomach. I can’t get the image of poached eggs out of my mind, and to this day they still remind me of boiled eyeballs. When the tour is finally over we go to Old Faithful and check it out.
“That’s easy,” a new cicerone answers to the question Why is it called Old Faithful? “The geyser used to go off every 67 minutes. Exactly. And, well, after a few earthquakes, it fuddled with its timing so now it happens somewhere between 60 and 95 minutes. Once every ninety minutes or so would probably be more accurate.” He adds, when we look at him skeptically.
Call me a curmudgeon, but once-every-ninety-minutes-or-so doesn’t have the same draw as the exact timing of 67 minutes.
“Excuse me,” I wanted to ask, “But wouldn’t it be more accurate to call it Was Faithful? Or maybe, Old Kinda Faithful. Or maybe, Old Not So Punctual.” It was a lie to continue to call it by its old name. It went through a transformation. The very characteristic from where it got its name was now gone. These are the same people that would continue to call someone Adam when they clearly stated they are Amanda now, after a few gender altering surgeries. It’s insulting, really. Mocking. If Stephen Hawking were to get Alzheimer’s, would it be nice to ask him to recollect his favorite award winning speech?
If I were this geyser I’d want my name changed. Actually, if I were a geyser, I’d want a large fence put around me. I’d ask for 20ft high walls with four guard towers and a man with a rifle at every corner, and a loud speaker blaring warnings and telling visitors of their possible plight. I’d ask for signage – lots of signage – about how dangerous I was, with detailed pictures about every possible way someone might die from my boiling water. There would be wavers, verbal and written agreements as well as the opportunity for people to update their living wills. People would look at me – from a far, safe, comfortably temperatured distance – with wonder and awe. “Let me see!” a child would say, pining for the binoculars to take a look at me.
“Wow!” he says, elongating the vowel of the word to demonstrate his wonder. “Ol’ Once-Every-Ninety-Minutes-Or-So is really pretty, even from all these miles out.”
And the best part? No park ranger would have the opportunity to turn me into a theme park ride. Ranger Lucy wouldn’t have a chance to try her best at recreating a horror house. No stories about eight pounds of bones, newly wed mishaps, or attempted dog saviors.
When we finally finished with our very own Satan Guided Tour, I never wanted to leave the car. I had walked around the park for a week or so, and it looked remarkably familiar to the Yellowstone special I saw on National Geographic weeks before. The exact same, actually. Why take the risk of dying at the park at all? God saw fit to bless us with opposable thumbs and color TV. What, my seven-year-old mind thought, is so special about seeing it up close? It wasn’t worth the danger. I’ll take my fill boiling water in a pot filled with spaghetti, thank you very much.
In fact, it all makes sense now. Yellowstone is a park that you can best enjoy from the comfort of your car. Although perhaps it’s best to replace the word ‘comfort’ to with ‘safety.’ And ‘car’ with ‘home.’ And ‘enjoy’ with ‘watch on TV.’ I thought it was the most American thing I had heard, but now it just seems to me that it’s simply the most logical.
Yes, thanks to National Geographic, Yellowstone is a park you can best watch on TV from the safety of your home. And that’s what I planned on doing.
Once we got back on this open road, I was ready for a vacation from our vacation. I was pumped for the miles ahead, and the gem donuts at every gas station. Hell, I even looked forward to Silverwood and those dreaded dogs my grandmother had. You might have even said I was ecstatic. Why?
Because every mile, every donut, ever insufferable bark from those tiny dogs brought me that much closer to home. And home meant freedom; true freedom. I had lost my ability to sleep in, to do what I wanted, eat what I wanted and go where I wanted.
But most of all, I hoped that my friends would remember who I was. That they’d recognize me as the same Nick that left home so many weeks before. Of course, they had.
I flipped on the switch to my Nintendo 64 with Banjo-Kazooie safely slotted in its resting place and let the beautiful pixelated bliss assault my senses once more. Yes, as old friends do, we clicked just like old times, as if no time had passed at all. I smiled at the TV and welcomed the entertainment before me that was something other than the open road. I welcomed what little vacation I had left.
Some, after all, is better than none.