After my wife, Tam, and I arrived at Beavertail Hill State Park on Friday, we chose a campsite and began setting up. Then something clicked inside our RV and all the doors locked tight. We were left outside with only the clothes on our backs and the stuff in our pockets.
Fortunately, the stuff in my pockets included my cell phone and my Triple A Card. After the panic surge subsided, we called for service. We were only thirty miles south of Missoula so help should have arrived in plenty of time for me to review my notes and prepare for my presentation at 8 p.m., an hour ahead.
After half an hour dragged by, I asked Tam to bring my notebook of “Sidesaddles and Geysers” stories as soon as she got into the RV. Then I headed to the amphitheater. I explained the situation to the park rangers and assured them that I could ad lib an hour presentation if I had to. I really do think I could do that, but it would be like a high wire act without a net. Probably everything will be fine—but what if you fall?
The park rangers kindly put back the start of the program for ten minutes—to allow for stragglers, they said. I was grateful for the delay. At 8:10, a ranger introduced me. As I stepped forward, a breeze began blowing out of the nearby trees and cold air penetrated my lightweight summer shirt. I stuck my hands in my pockets and began to speak.
My presentation was part of a series on Women in Montana History so I decided to tell a little more than I usually do about the women whose stories I read. I thought people might be interested in hearing about how pioneer women came to Montana.
There were three girls, about seven or eight years old, sitting in the front row and I asked them to help. “Every time I mention a new woman,” I said, “You ask: ‘How did SHE get to Montana?'” The girls agreed to help.
Then I said I was going to start with stories my grandmother used to tell about her trip to Yellowstone Park in 1909. Then I paused. The girls giggled and yelled: “How did she get to Montana?”
I explained that Grandma was the only woman I was going to talk about who was born in Montana. Then I launched into her stories about cooking bread in a hot spring, dyeing geysers by tossing red long johns in them and the handkerchief pool.
Next I said I was going to tell stories about Emma Stone, who was the first white woman to make a full tour of the park in 1872. Then I paused—and waited. Members of the audience prompted the girls who then yelled, “Oh yeah! How did she get to Montana?”
So it went for the rest of the evening. I would name another Yellowstone pioneer woman and pause. Other audience members would remind the girls of their job and they would giggle and yell. Everybody enjoyed the game.
Emma Stone came to Montana up the Missouri River on a steamboat. Emma’s niece, who chronicled that trip, told about how three large families who shared a small stateroom slept in shifts and about the day they saw Indians driving a herd of buffalo into the river. Young Emma said her uncle shot a buffalo and dragged it aboard so they could have fresh meat.
About then, Tam arrived with my notebook. Perfect timing. My grandmother and Emma Stone didn’t leave written accounts of their adventures, so I have to ad lib them anyway. But I like to read the stories of people who left journals or reminiscences. Their adventures and personalities shine through the words they wrote.
The sun was slipping behind the trees and I was starting to shiver, so I asked Tam to bring me a sweater. (She’s always my best audience member and I hated to see her miss my presentation, but I was grateful that I have what she calls “an author support system.”)
Next I told about Sarah Tracy. Like Emma Stone, Sarah Tracy came to Montana on a steamboat up the Missouri, but she was a new bride so she didn’t have to share a stateroom. In her reminiscence about her trip to Yellowstone Park in 1874, Sarah told about the cavalry that escorted her stagecoach from Bozeman to the Paradise Valley, the terrifying ride over the crude new road through Yankee Jim Canyon, and cooking doughnuts in bear grease.
I finished with Emma Cowan, who came to Montana as a 10-year-old girl in 1864. Emma said she loved the gypsy life of traveling across the prairie in a covered wagon. I usually read Emma’s gripping description of being taken captive by Indians in Yellowstone Park in 1877. That’s the year the Army chased the Nez Perce through Yellowstone Park after the bloody Big Hole Battle.
For a change, I decided to read from my next book, Encounters in Yellowstone that describes what happened when Yellowstone tourists and the Indians collided. The section I read is about the unbelievable ride Emma made to be by her husband’s side. As soon as Emma heard that her husband had survived being shot three times and left for dead, she drove 175 miles in 31 hours by team and wagon to the place where he was waiting.
The audience greeting the end of my reading with silence—which I’ve decided to take as a good sign. When announced that I had finished my presentation, they applauded vigorously.
I hung around for a few minutes to sell and sign copies of my book, Adventures in Yellowstone. Then I went back to the unlocked RV where the author support system fixed a hot supper.
— Photo by Vernon Carroll, Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.