Two years before the creation of our first National Park, Truman C. Everts got lost in Yellowstone. He lost not one, but two horses. He set not one, but two forest fires. He waited out a mountain lion in a tree. He slept in a bear’s den. He fell through the crust of a hot spring and burnt his hip. He keeled over into his campfire while hallucinating. All in all, he spent 37 days battling against insurmountable odds, and he survived.
On this episode of the America’s National Parks Podcast, we present our abridged version of Everts’ 10,000-word essay, which shocked the nation – complete with the sounds of Yellowstone from the National Park Service’s archives.
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Links to some of the resources we used and the website links we mentioned in this episode.
Full text of Everts’ “Thirty-Seven Days of Peril” from Scribner’s Monthly Vol III Nov. 1871
Yellowstone National Park Official Website
Sound Library of Yellowstone National Park
In 1870, 14 men led by Henry Washburn, Surveyor General of Montana, set out to explore the Northwestern region of Wyoming, an area known as Yellowstone. During their explorations, they made detailed maps and observations, exploring the numerous lakes, climbing several mountains, and observing the wildlife. They visited the Upper and Lower Geyser Basins, and after observing the regularity of eruptions of one geyser decided to name it Old Faithful.
For a 54-year-old U.S. assessor, the expedition through unknown lands was a chance of a lifetime. He fell ill for a few days a week into the journey, having to separate from the party a few days to recover, a precursor of what was to come. The expedition reached Two Ocean Pass, near the headwaters of both the Snake River and Yellowstone River on September 9th, 23 days into the journey. It was in camp that evening that the party discovered that Truman Everts was gone.
On this Episode of America’s National Parks, Truman C. Everts and the harrowing tale of his 37 days alone in Yellowstone.
This is a wild story – almost unbelievable, but the account we’re about to share is our faithful adaptation of Everts 10,000 word account that he shared in the November 1871 issue of Scribner’s Monthly. It’s not for the faint of heart.
Here’s Abigail Trabue
The Washburn expedition to Yellowstone, having already spent 23 days exploring the various wonders, including the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River and its falls, was circling Yellowstone Lake, forging through a dense growth of pine forest and occasional large tracts of fallen timber, rendering progress nearly impossible. From time to time, each man in the party would make their own passage through, because there was no other possible way.
The 54-year-old Truman Everts, during one such attempt, found a passage, and continued into the forest, out of sight and sound of his comrades. The day had been hard. The afternoon had drawn late, and Everts continued on unalarmed confident that he would rejoin the company or find the camp soon.
Riding his own horse, he was also spurring along a pack horse, laden with some of the party’s provisions, but Everts was having trouble getting the riderless horse to cooperate. He left it behind, intending to return later with his companions’ to retrieve it.
Knowing the pack horse would be a needed addition to the camp, Everts accelerated his pace, pressing on in the direction he supposed had been taken, until darkness overtook the dense forest.
Still unalarmed, he had no doubt of rejoining the party at breakfast. He selected a comfortable spot, picketed his horse, built a fire, and went to sleep.
The next morning he rose at early dawn, saddled and mounted his horse, and headed toward the intended camp. A beach on the shore of a lake had been the agreed upon destination. But on this morning, the forest was dark, and the trees were thick, and Everts could only very slowly get through them. He became confused.
The falling foliage of the pines obliterated every trace of travel. He frequently dismounted and examined the ground looking for the faintest indications of someone traveling ahead.
Everts came upon a clearing, from which he could see several vistas, and dismounted, knowing he was near the beach and had to confirm the direction. He walked a few yards to look about and was startled by the sound of his horse taking flight, turning in time to see it disappear at full speed into the trees, carrying away his blankets, guns, fishing tackle, and matches. Everything, except a couple of knives, a small opera-glass and the clothes on his back, was gone.
Still, the idea of permanent separation from the company hadn’t crossed Everts mind. Now knowing the way to camp, he turned, back into the forest, in pursuit of his horse.
After searching most of the day for his horses, Everts was convinced of the impracticality, and turned back to hike on foot to camp. As the day wore on without any discovery, alarm began to take the place of anxiety at the prospect of another night alone in the wilderness, this time without food or fire. But even as hunger began to set in, he thought about the laugh his companions would have upon reuniting.
Looking at the negative side of a misfortune was never Everts way, and he banished from his mind the fear of an unfavorable result. Seating himself on a log, he recalled every step he had traveled since separating. Having left several notes along the way, he figured the expedition must have run into one of them by now, and would surely be waiting near a spot he had already traveled.
But it was late, and he still must spend the night alone amid the tree trunks before his return. He resigned to lay upon a bed of pine needles, as he looked up at the near-black sky. The wind sighed mournfully through the pines. The forest seemed alive with the screeching of night birds, the angry barking of coyotes, and the prolonged, dismal howl of the gray wolf. With no fire and no blanket, he felt more exposed than the night before. These familiar sounds, now full of terror, kept him awake through the night. Still, the hope that he should be restored to his comrades the next day kept Everts going.
He arose the next morning, unrefreshed, and began the trek over the fallen timber. The sun was high in the sky as he reached the spot where his notices were posted. No one had been there. For the first time, Truman Everts fully realized he was lost.
A crushing sense of destitution suddenly hit him. He had no food, no fire, and no means to procure either. He was alone in an unexplored wilderness 150 miles from the nearest human abode, surrounded by wild beasts, and famishing with hunger. The calamity elevated his mind — breaking free from despair he resolved not to perish in that wilderness.
He spent another sleepless night forming a plan. Attempting to reunite with the party still seemed the most logical move. He rose and pursued his way through the timber-entangled forest, set on finding the peninsula on the lake where he could see the entire shore, perhaps even getting ahead of the party, as they made their way towards Madison Valley.
As Everts continued, a feeling of weakness took the place of hunger. He was conscious of the need for food, but felt no cravings. Occasionally, while scrambling over logs and through thickets, a sense of faintness and exhaustion would come over him, but he would suppress it with the audible expression, “This won’t do; I must find my company.”
He thought of home—of his daughter—and of the possible chance of starvation, or death in some more terrible form; but as often as these gloomy thoughts came, he would strive to banish them in order to focus on the immediate necessities.
Mid-day, he I emerged from the forest into an open space at the foot of the peninsula — exactly where he planned to be. A broad lake lay before him, glittering in the sunbeams — a full twelve miles in circumference. It was one of the grandest landscapes he ever beheld. An impenetrable mountain range directly across the lake, the vapor and smell of the hot springs and the spray of a single geyser set off the magnificent vista. Large flocks of swans were sporting on the quiet surface of the water; otters in great numbers performed aquatic acrobatics. Deer, elk, and mountain sheep stared at him, manifesting more surprise than fear at his presence.
But jaded, famishing and distressed, Truman Everts was in no mood for ecstasy. He longed for food, friends and protection. He gave the lake the name Bessie Lake, after his daughter, and waited.
For the next two days, his fear of meeting natives gave him considerable anxiety, but as desperation became worse, he began to long for someone, anyone to find him. Just then, to his amazement, across the water, he saw a canoe, with a single oarsman rapidly approaching. He ran to the beach to meet his salvation. As he reached the shore, the approaching mass spread dragon-like wings and flew off to safety. The pelican, as if mocking, took it’s own solitary point further up the lake.
Nearly unhinged, Everts looked for a sleeping spot. He came across a small green plant with a striking, lively hue. He pulled it up by the root, which was long and tapering, not unlike a radish. He tasted it, and then devoured it. The thistle root was the first meal he had in four days, and a discovery that would nurture him until he rejoined his companions.
Overjoyed, he stretched out in the crook of two trunks under a tree and fell asleep. How long he slept, he did not know, when he was awoken by a loud, shrill scream, that of a human being in distress, poured, seemingly, into the very portals of his ear. There was no mistaking that fearful voice. He had been deceived by and answered it a dozen times while threading the forest. It was the screech of a mountain lion, so alarmingly near as to cause every one of his nerves to thrill with terror.
Adrenaline pushed him hurriedly up the tree, until he was as near the top as safety would permit. The savage beast was snuffing and growling below on the very spot he had just abandoned. He answered every growl with a responsive scream. Terrified at the pawing of the beast, he increased his voice to its utmost volume, broke branches from the limbs, and madly hurled them at the spot where it paced.
Failing to alarm the animal, which now began to make a circuit of the tree as if to select a spot for springing into it, he shook the slender trunk until every limb rustled with motion. The mountain lion pursued his walk around the tree, lashing the ground with his tail, and prolonging his howlings almost to a roar. It was too dark to see, but the movements of the lion kept him apprised of its position. Whenever he heard it on one side of the tree, he moved to the opposite — an exercise which, in his weakened state, could only have performed under the impulse of terror.
Expecting any moment it would take the deadly leap, Everts tried to collect his thoughts and prepare for the fatal encounter which he knew must result. Just at this moment, it occurred to him to try a new tactic — silence.
Clasping the trunk of the tree with both arms, he sat perfectly still. The lion, at this time ranging around, occasionally snuffing and pausing, and all the while filling the forest with the echo of his howlings, suddenly imitated his example. This silence was more terrible than the clatter and crash of his movements through the brushwood, for now, Everts didn’t know what direction to expect his attack. Moments passed like hours, until the beast sprang screaming into the forest.
His strength decimated by the encounter, Everts climbed down and unwillingly fell asleep in the same spot, not waking until morning. The experience of the night seemed like a terrible dream; but the broken limbs on the ground in the daylight confirmed the reality.
Knowing that such an encounter was bound to happen again, Everts faced a new challenge — a change in weather. A storm of mingled snow and rain set in, the wind piercing the tears in his clothing. He began to realize that reuniting with his friends was a fool’s errand, and he must escape the wilderness on his own accord.
The accomplishment of that task seemed impossible, as he sheltered below the branches of a spruce tree for two more days as the storm continued to rage unabated. While laying exhausted, and again starving, a little bird, not larger than a snow-bird, hopped within his reach. He seized, killed it, and, plucking its feathers, ate it raw.
On the morning of the third day, the storm lulled. Everts rose early and started in the direction of a large group of hot springs in the distance. He knew the spot unmistakably and could see it in the distance. It was at the base of a mountain that Henry Washburn had named after him – Mount Everts. The journey was only 10 miles, but the storm raged again long before he made it to the clearing. Chilled to the bone, with his clothing thoroughly saturated, he lay down under a tree upon the heated crust of the hot springs until completely warmed.
After one of the worst storms he ever saw subsided, Everts found a place for revival. Thistle roots abounded, and a boiling hot spring allowed him to cook them. The vapor which supplied him with warmth saturated his clothing. He was enveloped in a perpetual steam-bath. At first, this was barely preferable to the storm, but he soon became accustomed to it, even enjoying it.
For days he thought of little but escape. The want for fire filled his mind, knowing he would need it to leave the warmth of the hot springs. He knew it would keep the wild beasts away, and he knew another storm would kill him if he had no way to recover from the cold. He recalled everything he had ever read or heard on producing fire, but none of them seemed within his reach.
As he lay anxiously awaiting the disappearance of the foot of snow which had fallen, a gleam of sunshine lit up the lake, and with it, a thought flashed through his mind. The opera glass. He quickly dismantled it, removed a lens, and focused the suns rays. As the smoke curled from the bit of dry wood in his fingers, all thoughts of failure were instantly abandoned, and he made preparations to leave.
As he slept on that third night, a toss and turn broke the crust of the hot spring, pouring steam upon his hip, scalding it severely. This, in addition to his frost-bitten feet, kept Everts from setting out again for seven days.
He was now able to make fire, but both of his knives had been lost on the way to the springs. He made a convenient substitute by sharpening the tongue of a buckle he cut from his vest. He used it to cut the legs off his boots, forming them into slippers. He mended his clothing by unraveling a handkerchief for thread, which he also fashioned into a fishing line, along with a fish hook made from a pin on his coat. With the leftovers of his boots he made pouches to carry food, which he fastened to his belt.
On the morning of the eighth day, Truman Everts bade the springs a final farewell and started out, back for the lake. It was a beautiful morning. The sun shone bright and warm, and there was a freshness in the atmosphere. Hope returned.
As the day went on, he became aware that his sanity was under attack. He’d drift off into dreams of the subconscious, and quickly shake them off, in full understanding of the malnourishment taking over his mind. A change in the wind brought an overcast sky, and as the afternoon drew on, he was unable to get a ray of sun to light a fire. A freezing night set in, again exposing all its terrors. After a week of warmth, suddenly death felt eminent. He struck his numb feet and hands against logs to awaken them. After everything he had endured, this seemed the longest and most terrible night of his life, and he was glad when dawn approached.
He made his way quickly to Bessie Lake, arriving at noon, and built a fire on the beach. He remained by it and again recuperated for the next two days, preparing for his escape.
Everts had three directions he could travel if life and strength held out. He drew a map in the sand of the different courses and considered the difficulties of each. He could follow Snake river 100 miles or more to Eagle Rock Bridge. He could cross the country between the southern shore of Yellowstone Lake and the Madison Mountains, scaling them to reach the settlements in the Madison Valley. Or he could retrace his journey over the long and discouraging route by which the expedition had entered the country. This was the least inviting, if only because he was familiar with it. He had heard of the violent waters of the Snake River and decided — most unwisely — that the shortest route, over the mountain barrier, would be his quest.
He set out over timber heaps, and through thickets. By noon, he took the precaution to light a torch, which he kept alive until he made camp in an impervious canopy of trees. The shrieking of night-birds, the supernatural scream of the Mountain lion, and the prolonged howl of the wolf set the tone for another difficult night. The burn on his hip was so inflamed that he could only sleep sitting up. The smoke from the fire almost enveloping him, his imagination ran wild with terror. He could see the blazing eyes of a monster through the trees. Rousing in and out of hallucinations and sleep, he fell forward into the fire and inflicted a wretched burn on his hand.
A bright and glorious morning succeeded the dismal night, and Truman Everts, again, resolved to banish the thought of peril, and now the hallucinations, from his mind. Resuming his journey, in a few days, he arrived at the far end of Yellowstone Lake, finding a camp last occupied by his friends on the beach. He found no note or food, but a left-behind dinner fork proved to be a very worthwhile root-digging tool, and a yeast powder can converted into a drinking cup and dinner pot.
He left the camp in deep dejection, now knowing that his friends did not leave food behind. He intended to follow their trail to Madison, pursuing signs of travel downstream. The wind howling, he built a shelter of pine boughs and built a fire to sleep for the night.
Everts woke in the middle of the night to the sound of the snapping and cracking of burning foliage, finding his shelter and the adjacent forest in a broad sheet of flame. His left hand badly burned, his hair singed off, he made his escape from the semi-circle of burning trees, leaving his buckle-tongue knife, fish-hook, and line behind.
He hastily forged on as an immense sheet of flame leaped madly from tree-top to tree-top. The roaring, cracking, crashing, and snapping of falling limbs and burning foliage was deafening. On and on he raced the destructive flames, until it seemed as if the whole forest was enveloped in flame, spread rapidly by the howling wind.
Knowing he could search for a trail no longer, Everts aimed for the lowest notch in the Madison Range. All the day, until nearly sunset, he struggled over rugged hills, through thickets and matted forests, with the rock-ribbed beacon constantly in view. Half way there, he stopped for the night.
The next day, another new wave of hope set upon him as he grew closer and closer to the mountains until he arrived at the base and scanned hopelessly its insurmountable difficulties. It presented an endless succession of peaks and precipices, rising thousands of feet, sheer and bare above the plain. No friendly gorge or gully or canyon caught his weak eyes.
Thinking his journey over the last two days was in vain, he turned his sights down the Yellowstone River. He knew what lay down that route. Dreary miles of forest and mountain. He was surely only 20 miles from the Madison Valley. He was already out of the supply of thistles he carried from the lake, thinking they would be in abundance on his journey, but none were to be found here.
While considering whether to remain and search for a passage or return to the Yellowstone River, an old friend, whose character and counsel he had always cherished, suddenly appeared before him.
“Go back immediately, as rapidly as your strength will permit. There is no food here, and the idea of scaling these rocks is madness.”
“Doctor,” Everts said, “the distance is too great. I cannot live to travel it.”
“Say not so. Your life depends upon the effort. Return at once. Start now, lest your resolution falter. Travel as fast and as far as possible—it is your only chance.”
He did just that. His friend returning time and time again for guidance, Everts made his way back to the lake, back toward the Washburn Expedition’s entrance to these lands. Distances were greater than anticipated. He did not eat until the 4th day, and once again, laying down by his fire near the river nearly abandoned all hope of escape.
He pressed on. “I will not perish in this wilderness,” he continued to say, even as his wish for life wavered. He lost all sense of time. Days and nights came and went. The thistle roots that gave him life now failed to digest and packed in a mass in his stomach. Though he was starving, he experienced little hunger and little pain. His hours of sleep were filled with beautiful hallucinations as his mind seemingly settled in for death.
After another terrible cold night with no fire, he pulled himself into a standing position and realized he could not move his right arm. His other limbs were so stiffened with cold as to be almost immovable. Fearing paralysis would suddenly seize the entire system, he dragged himself through the forest to the river. He anxiously awaited the appearance of the sun. He kindled a mighty flame, fed it with every dry stick and broken tree-top he could find, and without motion, and almost without sense, remained beside it several hours. The great falls of the Yellowstone roaring within three hundred yards.
He plodded along, starving, foot-sore, half blind, and worn to a skeleton. As weakness increased, more imaginary friends came, traveling companions he so long desired.
He ate a raw minnow, and though tasty, his stomach would have none of that. He spent hours trying to catch trout with a hook fashioned from the rim of his broken glasses to no avail. He saw large herds of deer, elk, antelope, occasionally a bear, and many smaller animals. Numerous flocks of ducks, geese, swans, and pelicans inhabited the lakes and rivers. But with no means of killing them, their presence was a perpetual aggravation.
One afternoon, he came upon a large hollow tree, which, from the numerous tracks surrounding it, and the matted foliage in the cavity, he recognized as the den of a bear. Instead of fearing its return, Everts’ warped mind saw the den as the most inviting couch. Gathering a needful supply of wood and brush, he lit a circle of fires around the tree, crawled into the nest, and passed a night of unbroken slumber. He rose the next morning to find that during the night the fires had burned a large space in all directions, doubtlessly intimidating the bear’s return.
He left the river for the open country of sagebrush and desolation. He awoke one morning after a snowfall to completely lose his bearings. No tracks or objects showed which way he came or where he was headed. He scrambled until he found the river again and stayed until the snow melted. He filled his pouches with thistles, knowing he would find none in the open country, and set out one last time.
A few days into this final journey towards civilization, he collapsed ascending a steep hill, without the power to rise. He soon woke, having no idea how long he slept, and scrambled to his feet to pursue his journey. As night drew near, he selected a camping place, gathered wood, and felt for his lense to light the fire. It was gone.
This, more than any moment, Truman Everts thought was his last. The struggle was over. He rapidly ran over every event of his life in his mind, and said: “I SHALL NOT PERISH IN THIS WILDERNESS.”
5 miles stood between him and his lens. Through the night, he staggered back to the spot where he collapsed, and in the morning found the lens, on the spot where he slept. It was the most joyful moment of his journey.
A storm came in, but something in his mind told Everts he would be saved if he didn’t stop. He must continue. With torch in hand, he fought to travel through the storm. He would count on the lens no longer. He would keep a torch going. He went on another day. And another. A storm came on, and a coldness took hold unlike any other he had felt. It entered his bones. He attempted a fire but could not make it burn. He stumbled blindly on, knowing that death was very near. He heard whispers: “struggle on.”
Groping the side of a hill, he looked up through half closed eyes to see two rough but kind faces.
“Are you Mr. Everts?” a man asked.
“Yes. All that is left of him.” He replied.
He fell forward into the arms of his preservers and lost consciousness.
He soon awoke, his saviors having restored his consciousness. One made the 70-mile journey to Fort Ellis to get help, while the other stayed by his side and nourished him to health. In two days the now barely 50-pound Everts was sufficiently recovered in strength to be moved twenty miles down the trail to the cabin of some miners who offered every possible attention. For four days they abandoned their work to aid in his restoration.
The night after his arrival at the cabin, while suffering the most excruciating agony, and thinking that he had only been saved to die among friends, a loud knock was heard at the cabin door. An old man in mountain garb entered—a hunter. He listened to the story of Evert’s sufferings, and tears rapidly flowed down his rough, weather-beaten face. He left the cabin, returning in a moment with a sack filled with the fat of a bear which he had killed a few hours before. From this he rendered out a pint of oil. Everts drank the whole of it, and the next day, freed from pain, with appetite and digestion reestablished, began his path to recovery.
In a day or two, A carriage took Everts to Bozeman, Montana, where he was reunited with old friends, who gave him every attention until his health was sufficiently restored to allow him to return to his home in Helena.
Two years later, Yellowstone National Park was established. Truman Everts was offered the position of superintendent but turned it down because it included no salary. He moved to Maryland where he worked in the U.S. Post Office, dying of pneumonia at age 85 in 1901, 30 years after his 37 days of peril in Yellowstone.
The thistle which gave him life is now known as Evert’s Thistle, and a Mountain Peak still bears his name.
Truman Everts learned that his friends cashed food wherever they could for him that he never found, including right on the beach where he found the fork and the powdered yeast can. They recovered the pack horse, and fired their guns in the air when they could to try to telegraph their location.
It took him a month to recover fully. But by the second week of November, General Washburn decided that he was well enough for an official celebration and invited the cream of Helena society to a gala banquet at the fanciest restaurant in town.
Everts’ story, when published less than a year later became legendary, and was major part of the Yellowstone lore that led to the creation of Yellowstone National Park.
Yellowstone is an out of this world experience, with way too many sights and activities to list here. It covers nearly 3,500 square miles in the northwest corner of Wyoming, with small portions in Montana and Idaho. There are five entrance stations, and several are closed during winter. Hundreds of thousands of people visit during June, July, and August, the only months short on below-freezing temps and snow. May and September are best to avoid crowds. There are plenty of campgrounds both in the Park and just outside the entrances, with the majority of private facilities in West Yellowstone. Backcountry camping abounds, and the only electrical hookups inside the park are at the Fishing Bridge RV Park. You can also stay at one of the many National Forest campgrounds just outside the park. Campgrounds and lodges fill very quickly, so plan ahead.
This episode of America’s National Parks was written and produced by me, Jason Epperson, and Narrated by Abigail Trabue. If you enjoyed the show, we’d love a 5-star review wherever you listen to podcasts. Don’t forget to hit the subscribe button, and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Just search “National Park Podcast.”
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