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Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Yellowstone Magic

The summer of 1916 in Yellowstone Park was a very strange time in history—the whole of Europe and half the rest of the world had become involved in a desperate war, but the staff of the Wylie Camping Company seemed oblivious of it. The young men and women cleaning the tents and cabins and the drivers of horse-drawn wagons who took tourists around the Park spent their free time hiking, picnicking, dancing, entertaining, and all the while flirting with one another, and on the part of the young women at least, looking for potential marriage partners.

I read a diary kept by a newspaper reporter who was on a leave of absence from the paper and working as one of the “Wylie Savages” that summer. She was my grandmother, bent on adventure and romance and finding both in bucketsful.

Their parties consisted of food, lots of sweets, singing, joking, talking, much laughter and staying up late, but everybody stayed in the same room and couples did not indulge in public displays of affection. There were lots of fudge parties at which fudge was cooked in a scoured-out washing basin over the pot-bellied stove in one or another tent occupied by the young women, using sugar filched from the kitchen and cocoa that one young lady had brought from home—someone with remarkable foresight. Their favored young men were invited over to wait for the fudge to be done while everyone would sing, joke, talk, and laugh together. Then they would feast, and invariably someone would have filched more snacks from the kitchen to eke out the feast.

Every evening the staff members were expected to participate in a campfire program followed by dancing in the pavilion. Several were singers, some were known for readings, and some performed skits. After the campfire was over, dancing began, and the staff members were expected to dance with the tourists. They also danced a lot with each other and made dates for that and for other things.

The young men and women did go off alone in pairs—it was called “rotten logging” after the practice of finding a place in the woods to sit together.

The double standard was in full force in 1916. The young women were expected to control the physical side of their relationships, and the young men were expected to take whatever liberties they were allowed. Everybody knew that a woman’s reputation could be irrevocably ruined if she allowed too much. The men could gain a reputation too, but they would not be treated the same way women would. The women would let it be known among themselves that this or that man was one whom they shouldn’t go out with alone. They developed a telegraphic system for advising each other, and they took turns acting as an unofficial chaperone for various activities.

Drunkenness among the men was strongly disapproved and barely tolerated. When a woman found out her companion was drunk, she made every excuse to rejoin others in order to better control her situation, and she’d ditch him if she could.

All the elements were in line for romance to bloom: plenty of moonlight, geysers erupting, paths through the woods, conveniently large rocks in the river to sit upon, beauty spot after beauty spot to visit, and plenty of time after chores were finished in which to indulge in cultivating friendships.

It was a magical summer, and seen against that backdrop of world history, something very like magic kept the tragedy of war—which would deeply affect their lives in only a few months—from intruding on those brief, shining months in Yellowstone.

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