John Coulter slowly took off his hat and fell to his knees, staring down at the canyon glowing with dark orange, yellow, and tinges of red hues. The roaring river fell hundreds of feet and meandered its way down the canyon that it had carved into for millennia. A sharp cry made him flinch and his eyes tracked the flash of brown and white as an osprey carrying a fat trout winged its way to its nest. He smiled as he watched it drop the carcass to its hungry chicks and returned to gape at what he had quite literally stumbled across.
Nobody had ever seen anything quite like this, Coulter thought as he greedily drank in the views. No one with his color skin, that is. A twinge nagged at the back of his mind. If he were to report back to Thomas Moran and his expedition, let alone assume that they would let him back, this place would be destroyed. Coulter shoved the thought away and continued staring in amazement at the sight before him.
How long had it taken the small river to carve out this enormous canyon? How long did it take for this entire wonderland to emerge from the earth? He couldn’t wrap his mind around the enormity of the canyon and how small he felt compared to it. A crunching noise to his left shook him from his awe, and he turned to see a small coyote boldly sniffing at him, not even twenty-five yards away. He swiftly got to his feet, backing away, knowing that the coyote could probably smell the food in his pack. It cocked its head, watching him back away before snarling quietly and disappearing into the brush it came from.
Coulter shook his head in wonder, before casting one last longing look at the majestic canyon spread below him and walking away.
The newspapers were sold out in mere minutes, everyone excited to hear what President Grant had to say about the decision over whether or not Thomas Moran, Henry Washburn, and Nathaniel P. Langford‘s newly dubbed Yellowstone Park would become a national treasure or not. Eighty-year-old John Coulter smiled sadly at the sight of his neighbor’s kids running up the porch eagerly waving a copy of the newspaper. His park, his wonder, was going to be a victim of these curious people, and there wasn’t a damn thing he could do about it.
He nostalgically tried to bring up an image of the first time he had stumbled upon the canyon, his slack-jawed wonder at the mighty force of nature the river was, carving for millennia a canyon of the most beautiful colors. The mist that formed from the unfaltering river as it crashed hundreds of feet below, danced with all the colors in the world, and the abundance of wildlife that peacefully and harmoniously co-existed in the great ecosystem Yellowstone was.
“Mister Cody, have you seen the papers?” A small voice brought him from his reverie, and he looked down to see Nate Albright, the neighbor’s kid, at his feet. He had given the town of Cody, Wyoming, a fake name when he had bought the small house, not wanting his bad reputation to precede him, or anyone to know who he really was. But they were still slightly suspicious at the sight of him, weather-roughened by his years living and wandering the wilderness, wildness in his eyes and mind, and the pelts he traded in.
“No, I haven’t, Nate. Pray, tell me what the president has said?” He said, shifting in the rocking chair he had carved himself. Nate’s face lit up and John barely suppressed a chuckle at the eagerness on the young boy’s face. He unfolded the paper and started reading.
“President Ulysses S. Grant,” he started, then stopped and said to Coulter, “I’m learning about him in school!” Coulter chuckled.
“Are you now?” Nate nodded so hard, his mass of floppy hair fell over his eyes. He pushed it out of the way and continued reading.
“…has announced that he will be signing Yellowstone Park into the National Park title, and it is to be the first of its kind in the entire world.” At that, Nate’s eyes grew wide.
“Can you imagine, Mister Cody? The entire world! I wonder how many people are in the entire world?” he mused.
“Getting off track, Nate.” Coulter reminded the young lad. Nate smiled and returned to the paper.
“The park is to be opened in May of this year, with public access to the wilderness open. President Grant urges the public not to flock to the park, but instead wean it into use. It will be there forever, America’s first National Park.” Nate finished reverently. He looked up at Coulter, his heart laid out in his eyes.
“I would love to go there, Mister Cody. Will you tell me another story? Of the park?” He asked, pleading with his brown eyes. Coulter sighed but gave in to the boy. One of eight, he had no hope of going to Yellowstone any time soon, his father and mother too poor to take him.
“Where did I leave off last time?” Coulter asked, shifting in his seat to find a more comfortable position. Nate’s eyes lit up and he sat forward eager not to miss a single word that came out of Coulter’s mouth.
“At the hot springs. Tell me about those!” He practically shouted. Coulter dug into his memories.
“Ah, yes. Yellowstone’s hot springs….”
Unbearably hot and rightfully so, the plumes of water that shot from the ground periodically seemed to come from deep within the earth itself. They were expelled forcefully from the earth, much to Coulter’s amazement. He couldn’t take his eyes off them. There was one, in particular, that Coulter couldn’t stay away from. It was a bigger spout than most of the others, and every so often, as if it was on a time-piece, it spurted into the air. He tested the theory often and sure enough, it was faithful to the dot every time.
There were so many other geothermal spots nearby. There were bubbling mud pools that gave off a sulfuric smell similar to rotten eggs. Coulter steered clear from them after watching a rabbit that got too close to the edge slip and fall in, the only sign of its death, an extra loud bubble that smelled faintly of meat.
There were gigantic terraces of hot springs and vents that seemed almost mammoth-like. They covered one side of the mountain and steam rose constantly from where the hot ground met the cool air.
Then there were the hot springs, pools of still water with multicolored rings surrounding them. Coulter loved those, in particular, using the superheated water to cook his fish instantly.
For almost a month he stayed there, documenting in his notebooks the different features and landscape around him, never losing the awe he felt at the sheer majesty of what he was experiencing.
And in the nights, with the smell of sulfur that he was getting used to, were as bright as the day. Innumerous stars studded the inky black velvet of the sky, winking at him in a myriad of colors. He felt as small as an ant when he stared up at the stars, unexplainably small next to the wonders that had been there for millennia before him, and would be there for millennia after him.
The first public trip to Yellowstone National Park was over three thousand strong. Families packed up and hired carriages to take them across the country, and newspapers covered every moment of it. Every time carriages passed through his town, full of excited kids and exuberant parents, he felt a small part of his soul that would always belong to the untamable wilderness that was Yellowstone, break away.
It wasn’t his fault, per se, but it would always feel like his fault. It was him who had first ventured into the wilderness locked in by the purple mountain majesties, and it was him who had left it free for Thomas Moran’s expedition to explore. The most he could do was entertain Nate with his exploits across the now National Park, and it was in those moments that he felt most alive.
“Mister Cody! Mister Cody! Did ya hear? Momma says that President Grant is going to Yellowstone, and he’s passing through our town! Can ya believe it?” Speak of the devil, the boisterous eight-year-old, a tenth of Coulter’s age, sprang up Coulter’s front porch and danced around near his rocking chair. “We’re gonna be famous, Mister Cody, famous!” His eyes were shining and Coulter had to laugh at the sheer excitement on the lad’s face.
“Come here, boy, come here. Or you don’t want to hear about the Indians and Mister Cody being the smartest man around?” Coulter said, smiling at the fact that Nate’s eyes grew, impossibly, wider. He immediately stopped prancing and sat down practically on Coulter’s lap.
“You met Indians? And survived?” His voice was hushed as he looked at Coulter. Coulter waggled a finger at him.
“Now, now. They aren’t savages, Nate. They are human beings, just like us, and they were here before us. This is their land and you would do well to remember that, okay?” Nate nodded, the awe on his face replacing the fear.
“Yes, sir.” He said smartly. Coulter smiled.
“Now, let me tell you about the Blackfeet people…”
Coulter was walking through the trees when suddenly an arrow twanged into the tree right next to his ear. All senses instantly alert, he tried to stay perfectly still so that no arrows would pierce him. Instantly, he was surrounded. Half-naked men with bright pigment smeared across their faces and a variety of feathers in their hair pointed their spears at him. He felt a flash of fear but knew that he did not own this land and he was trespassing. An older man stepped out in front, directly across from Coulter, and regarded him with disgust. He looked him up and down before turning in speaking in his own tongue to his fellow men.
They laughed and guffawed, a sound that made Coulter uneasy, but he knew that this was his fault. He was the intruder upon their land and therefore it was only right that they see fit how to punish him.
“You come with us,” the man said, turning back to face him. He didn’t point his spear at Coulter again, but he didn’t need to. Everyone else already had. He swallowed, nodding, walking in what he hoped was a deferring way.
The Indians led him through the forest, leading him around the tall pines and over crisp mountain streams. They led him around the enormous bubbling mud ponds and through valleys covered with sagebrush. Finally, they led him into a camp at the base of a mountain, bustling and bursting to the seams with people. Coulter stared in amazement at the sheer number of people working, living, and laughing in this camp. Although everyone turned and stared at him as he passed, he still saw the harmony and the love that was within these people, completely untouched by his fellow whites.
Around animal skin teepees and through what must have been their latrine, the warriors took Coulter to the front of the camp and stopped him in front of a small tent decorated with all sorts of animal tokens. Elk antlers, bison horns, raccoon tails, and deer hooves were only what animals Coulter could identify, and he was a fur trapper for goodness sakes! But nothing was going to waste. The elk antlers were being used to fortify the tent, bison horns to hold small items, raccoon tails as a different way of ear muffs, and deer hooves as pouches.
The older man who had spoken to Coulter approached the tent and spoke to the person inside. The tent rustled and Coulter unconsciously took a step back as an elderly man emerged from the tent.
He spoke with the first man, and they talked in low voices for a few minutes glancing at Coulter every so often, before the older man walked over to him
“I do not like speaking in the tongue of the white invaders,” he said plainly, his voice soft yet hard, “but I make exceptions for trespassers.” Coulter bowed his head. “You may speak, trespasser,” he added, his voice lifting in curiosity at Coulter’s refusal to speak out of turn.
“It wasn’t my intent to trespass, sir,” he stated, “I was simply traveling through to document the wonders that you are living in.” he spread his arms to indicate the environment around him. “You live in one of the most beautiful wilderness I have seen in my life, and all I wanted to do was to experience it. This part of the country is wild and free, and after I first saw the canyon, all I ever wanted was to leave it wild and free.” He stopped, gasping faintly at the sight of what looked like the entire camp watching him speak. The chief studied him.
“Because you have spoken in a way unlike your fellow whites, I will allow you to live,” he said. Coulter sighed. “But,” the chief added, and all the relief instantly left him, “you will have to earn it.”
And earn it he did, using his swift speed and running strength to outrun the Indians that the chief had made him outrun in order to live, finally outdistancing them and slipping into the river like a beaver, using the current to sweep him far, far downstream.
Coulter was weary. Weary of life, weary of his fellow Americans, and weary of the fact that he would never see Yellowstone again. The first few months of the park being opened had regaled the world with sights of geysers, hot springs, wildlife, canyons, and just the immense wilderness that the President had saved for all eternity.
“Mister Cody! You never said there were wolves in Yellowstone!” Nate’s young voice floated up to him and he watched as the boy, waving another darn newspaper, ran up Coulter’s porch. He had brought one of his younger sisters, Emily, with him this time, and they both sat in front of him with expectant faces.
“Well, how did you find out?” He asked, and Emily brought forth the newspaper.
“It says here, Mister Cody, that the Germangi family was driving through Lamar Valley, and they saw a pack of wolves, almost twenty strong, take down an elk.” She said, folding the newspaper back up and looking back at him. Coulter smiled.
“Yes, there are wolves in Yellowstone. Great gray wolves that number thirty strong, at least, in a pack, and can even take down bison. They are fierce creatures, and I have been fortunate to only see them from afar. But I knew that they would eat me in a heartbeat.” Coulter finished. Nate elbowed Emily.
“I told you he was amazing.” He whispered loudly. Coulter smiled. Emily studied him.
“Didya see any bears?” Coulter nodded, fixing a stern look on his face.
“I did. And barely,” the kids snickered, “got out of that situation alive.” The kid’s eyes were wider than saucers.
“How?” Nate whispered reverently.
“Because I kept my wits about me, and I never turned my back on her. She had a cub, you see, and I was careful to never get between her and her cub. She would charge and maul me, then. I simply made myself look really big by waving my arms and yelling incoherently, all the while backing slowly away until she and her cub walked out of the area.” Coulter still felt a tingle of fear at the memory. The kids sat in awed silence, broken only by Nate’s innocent question.
“But, Mister Cody, if you loved Yellowstone so much, why did you leave?” The smile fell off Coulter’s face and he turned inward to his memories.
Coulter had to leave this place. He was not ready to leave, however, but he needed to get back to civilization. No matter that he didn’t have anyone to get back to, or that he was perfectly happy to stay here for the rest of his life and just wander among the stars. He felt that if he stayed here any longer, he would never leave, and die out alone in the wilderness. Which, wouldn’t be a bad thing, necessarily, but wasn’t what he wanted to do.
Walking along the huge lake that fed the river that had carved the canyon, he searched for something to leave his mark of the time he’d spent in this wondrous place.
He picked up a rock near the edge of the water, about the size of his head. Searching the muddy bank, he found a sharper one. Whittling it to a fine point with his bear-skin hunting knife that was a present from his father, he carved the rock into a styling tool of sorts. And upon the rock, he scratched out: John Coulter. He flipped it over and carved the year: 1808. Satisfied with his work, he gently placed the rock onto the bank, taking a final look at the vivid pinks, blues, and violets, streaking across the sky as the sun descended behind the purple towering jagged peaks.
Smiling softly, he turned and headed back through the underbrush and away from the place that had stolen his heart, his soul, and his mind for all eternity.