Yellowstone National Park and P.C. Dustin Clark
As my summer in Yellowstone comes to a close, I've been reflecting on the arc of my experience and the evolution of my thinking. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I set off to be an Archaeology Intern at Yellowstone National Park more than two months ago. Having grown up in Brooklyn, New York, I was accustomed to busy streets, bright lights, and a 24-hour public transportation system. A part of me worried how I would adjust to this new and unfamiliar place. Without a car, how would I navigate the vast, sprawling landscape of the American West? Without internet in my house, how would I communicate with family and friends? But perhaps most importantly, I was unsure how I would spend my free time. With little wilderness experience and unfamiliarity with rural life, I wondered what would keep me entertained and engaged.
As I began researching the U.S. Army’s management of Yellowstone National Park, a major focus of my internship, I realized soldiers must have asked very similar questions more than one hundred years ago. These men were not outdoorsmen or naturalists like many Park Rangers today. Like me, they had to educate themselves about the region to effectively protect its resources. And like me, they also had to endure conditions of relative isolation. Stationed in remote cabins throughout the park and tasked with patrolling the park’s sizable backcountry, soldiers spent much of their time alone, cut off from the outside world for up to nine months during the winter season. As an urbanite, I empathized with their journey. As an archaeologist, I was eager to piece together their lives, trying to discover how they entertained themselves.
I soon saw many similarities between our experiences in Yellowstone. As I examine their old guitar picks and harmonicas, I remember the countless times I’ve turned to music this summer for entertainment (even developing a bit of a love for bluegrass and folk music). As I sort through animal bones and peach pits, imagining the meals they made, I take pride in how I’ve grown as a cook this summer, trying to recreate family recipes from memory. And as I study quills and inkwells, I think about the letters I’ve written to loved ones as well as the poems and stories I’ve crafted to remember this experience. Archaeology’s greater power is as a lens, bringing our lives into sharper focus. By studying the original guardians of Yellowstone National Park, I’ve learned a lot about myself.
When the U.S. Army eventually vacated Yellowstone National Park in 1918, turning over control to civilian leadership, many soldiers requested to stay behind, becoming some of park’s first National Park Rangers. During their time patrolling Yellowstone’s forests, rivers, and geysers, they developed a deep love of place. Like them, I’ve learned so much about the history, ecology, geology, politics, and culture of the American West. Although I’ll be leaving in two weeks, I already feel the magnetic pull of the mountains and hear the call of afternoon thunderstorms. I’ll be back.
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