Podcast Episodes

The Wonderful Wind Cave

In 1881, Jesse and Tom Bingham heard a whistling noise coming from a beach-ball-sized hole in a rock formation near Hot Springs, South Dakota. Wind was blowing out of the hole, just as it does today, with such force that it blew off Tom’s hat. As the story goes, a few days later, when Jesse returned to show the phenomenon to some friends, the wind had switched directions and his hat was sucked in. The hole was the only natural entrance to a cave…a massive one.

We now understand that the movement of the wind is caused by the difference in atmospheric pressure between the cave and the surface. The place was dubbed the Wonderful Wind Cave, before it became only our seventh National Park of the United States. On today’s episode of America’s National Parks: three eras of Wind Cave National Park: It’s first explorer, the Lakota origin story, and a teenager lost for 37 hours. 


Listen


Listen to the episode in the player below, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Download this episode (right click and save)


Connect & Subscribe


You can find America’s National Parks Podcast on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, and make sure to subscribe on Apple or wherever you get your podcasts, so you’ll never miss an episode.
Join the America’s National Parks Facebook Group here.

Learn More


Links to some of the resources we used and the website links we mentioned in this episode.
Wind Cave National Park

Transcript


Jason Epperson: The America’s National Parks Podcast is sponsored by L.L.Bean.
This year, L.L.Bean is joining up with the National Park Foundation, the official nonprofit partner of the National Park Service, to help you find your happy place – in an amazing system of more than 400 national parks, including historic and cultural sites, monuments, preserves, lakeshores, and seashores that dot the American landscape, many of which you’ll find just a short trip from home. L.L.Bean is proud to be an official partner of the National Park Foundation. Discover your perfect day in a park at findyourpark.com.

In 1881, Jesse and Tom Bingham heard a whistling noise coming from a beach ball-sized hole in a rock formation near Hot Springs, South Dakota. Wind was blowing out of the hole, just as it does today, with such force that it blew off Tom’s hat. As the story goes, a few days later, when Jesse returned to show the phenomenon to some friends, the wind had switched directions and his hat was sucked in. The hole was the only natural entrance to a cave…a massive one.

We now understand that the movement of the wind is caused by the difference in atmospheric pressure between the cave and the surface. The place was dubbed the Wonderful Wind Cave, before it became only our seventh National Park of the United States. On today’s episode of America’s National Parks: three eras of Wind Cave National Park.

Abigail Trabue: Alvin Frank McDonald was born in 1873 in Franklin County, Iowa, and moved to the Black Hills of South Dakota in 1890 at the age of 17. His father had been hired in by a mining company to oversee the company’s claim. It’s not known if the mining company expected to find minerals of value in the cave or planned on developing it for tours. The McDonald family decided to attempt to make a living from the cave by enlarging passageways and building wooden ladders and steps with the hope of attracting travelers.

Alvin fell in love with the cave, and began systematically exploring its passageways. He used a single candle at a time, and unraveled a string behind him as he went deeper and deeper, so that he would always know his way out. He kept a journal in which he described his exploration of the cave and the naming of the rooms and passageways. He began giving tours to travelers from nearby Hot Springs, calling himself “the permanent guide” of Wind Cave.

Though the wonders of wind cave were spectacular, travelers were not prepared to crawl on their hands and knees in suits and dresses. One day, Alvin left a small tour group in a room in the cave with their lunch while he explored a bit. He got so deep into discovering, he forgot all about them, only to remember moments before falling asleep in his bed that he left the group behind with one candle which was surely burnt out.

Alvin spent all day almost every day for more than three years exploring and guiding within Wind Cave. He gave names to rooms, routes, and interesting features. He estimated distances, and through his diary he kept a record of explorations. He quickly realized the complex nature of the cave; passageways that he would explore 10 miles of. He wrote in his journal that he had given up the idea of finding the end of the cave. He appreciated the beauty and natural features, but like others of his era, removed cave formations to sell to visitors.

In the spring of 1891, the McDonald family was busy making improvements in the cave and gearing up for the tourist season. J.D. McDonald, Alvin’s father, was making weekly visits to Hot Springs to report to the local paper on the progress of developments. Talk of the cave’s potential caught the interest of a man named John Stabler, who McDonald sold somewhere between 1/3 and 1/2 interest to, creating the Wonderful Wind Cave Improvement Company. Stabler was also given the right to build a hotel near the cave entrance.

To publicize the cave, J.D. McDonald traveled to Iowa to display minerals at the Ottumwa Coal Palace and the Sioux City Corn Palace. During the summers of 1892 and 1893, two large publicity stunts made local headlines. One was a petrified man “found” near Wind Cave and promptly displayed inside it. The other was the arrival of Professor Paul Alexander Johnstone. Johnstone, a famous mind reader, ventured into the cave blindfolded to search for and eventually find a pin hidden there by local townsfolk.

In November of 1893, Alvin left Hot Springs to join his father in Chicago. He was to assist in selling cave specimens at the World’s Columbian Exposition. He contracted typhoid fever in Chicago, and died about a month later. He was 20 years old. Alvin was buried near the cave he loved so dearly. A bronze plaque on a stone marks his grave on a hill above the natural entrance.

Though his life and time at Wind Cave were short, much of what we know today about the mysterious caverns are a direct result of Alvin McDonald’s meticulous journal.

Jason Epperson: During the next few years, ownership of the cave became a major question. A lack of a government survey of the area made possession of a clear title almost impossible. Mining and agricultural claims provided only a small degree of protection to the owner as they were dependent upon proofs of improvement and/or valuable mineral deposits. In 1893, the South Dakota Mining Company brought suit against the McDonalds and Stablers for restitution of property and premises. But by this time both the McDonalds and Stablers had filed homesteading claims around and over the entrance to the cave. The case was in court for several years, but no decision was reached.

Of course, as it goes with most of our natural wonders, indigenous people had long before found Wind Cave, though there’s no evidence they ever entered it. To the Lakota people, wind cave is a sacred place, an important piece of their very existence.

Ranger Sina Bear Eagle: In Lakota culture, history is passed down to new generations through the spoken word. There are many different versions of the Emergence Story, varying from band to band and family to family.

his story begins at a time when the plants and the animals were still being brought into existence, but there were no people or bison living on the earth. People at that time lived underground in the Tunkan Tipi — the spirit lodge — and were waiting as the earth was prepared for them to live upon it.

To get to the spirit lodge, one must take a passageway through what the ancestors referred to as Oniya Oshoka, where the earth “breathes inside.” This place is known today as Wind Cave, referred to in modern Lakota as Maka Oniye or “breathing earth.” Somewhere, hidden deep inside this passageway, is a portal to the spirit lodge and the spirit world.

There were two spirits who lived on the surface of the earth: Iktomi and Anog-Ite. Iktomi, the spider, was the trickster spirit. Before he was Iktomi, his name was Woksape — “Wisdom” — but lost his name and position when he helped the evil spirit Gnaskinyan play a trick on all the other spirits. Anog-Ite, the double face woman, had two faces on her head. On one side, she had a lovely face, rivaling the beauty of any other woman who existed. On the other, she had a horrible face, which was twisted and gnarled. To see this face would put chills down any person’s spine.

Anog-Ite was once Ite, the human wife of the wind spirit, Tate. She longed to be a spirit herself, so when the evil Gnaskinyan told her dressing up as the moon spirit, Hanwi, would grant her wish, she followed without question. Gnaskinyan used both Ite and Woksape as pawns in his trick on the other spirits. The Creator, Takuskanskan, decided not to punish Gnaskinyan for this trick, because evil does what’s in its nature. Woksape and Ite were both punished because they let their pride determine their actions and allowed themselves to be guided by evil, when both should have known better. Takuskanskan transformed the two into Iktomi and Anog-Ite, allowing Iktomi to play tricks forever and Anog Ite to be the spirit she desired to be. Both were banished to the surface of the earth.

Iktomi and Anog-Ite had only each other for company. Iktomi spent his time playing tricks on Anog-Ite, torturing her and never allowing her to live in peace, but this pastime soon bored him. He wanted new people to play tricks on, so he set his sights on the humans. He knew he needed help for this trick; he asked Anog-Ite, promising he’d never torment her again. She agreed to these terms and began loading a leather pack.

Anog-Ite filled this pack with buckskin clothing intricately decorated with porcupine quills, different types of berries, and dried meat. She then loaded the pack onto the back of her wolf companion, Sungmanitu Tanka. When the wolf was ready, Iktomi led him to a hole in the ground and sent the wolf inside Oniya Oshoka to find the humans. The wolf followed the passageways until it met the humans.

Anog-Ite was once Ite, the human wife of the wind spirit, Tate. She longed to be a spirit herself, so when the evil Gnaskinyan told her dressing up as the moon spirit, Hanwi, would grant her wish, she followed without question. Gnaskinyan used both Ite and Woksape as pawns in his trick on the other spirits. The Creator, Takuskanskan, decided not to punish Gnaskinyan for this trick, because evil does what’s in its nature. Woksape and Ite were both punished because they let their pride determine their actions and allowed themselves to be guided by evil, when both should have known better. Takuskanskan transformed the two into Iktomi and Anog-Ite, allowing Iktomi to play tricks forever and Anog Ite to be the spirit she desired to be. Both were banished to the surface of the earth.

Iktomi and Anog-Ite had only each other for company. Iktomi spent his time playing tricks on Anog-Ite, torturing her and never allowing her to live in peace, but this pastime soon bored him. He wanted new people to play tricks on, so he set his sights on the humans. He knew he needed help for this trick; he asked Anog-Ite, promising he’d never torment her again. She agreed to these terms and began loading a leather pack.

Anog-Ite filled this pack with buckskin clothing intricately decorated with porcupine quills, different types of berries, and dried meat. She then loaded the pack onto the back of her wolf companion, Sungmanitu Tanka. When the wolf was ready, Iktomi led him to a hole in the ground and sent the wolf inside Oniya Oshoka to find the humans. The wolf followed the passageways until it met the humans.

Once there, he told the people about the wonders of the Earth’s surface, and showed them the pack on his back. One man took out the buckskin clothing and felt the soft leather. His wife tried on a dress and, when he looked at her, he thought the dress accentuated her beauty. Next they took out the meat, tasted it, and passed it around amongst some of the people. The meat intrigued them. They’d never hunted before, and had never tasted anything like meat. They wanted more.

The wolf told them if they followed him to the surface of the Earth, he’d show them where to find meat and all the other gifts he brought. The leader of the humans was a man named Tokahe — “The First One” — and he refused to go with the wolf. He objected, saying the Creator had instructed them to stay underground, and that’s what he’d do. Most of the people stayed with Tokahe, but all those who tried the meat followed the wolf to the surface.

The journey to the surface was long and perilous. When they reached the hole, the first thing the people saw was a giant blue sky above them. The surface of the earth was bright, and it was summertime, so all the plants were in bloom. The people looked around and thought the earth’s surface was the most gorgeous place they’d ever been before.
The wolf led the people to the lodge of Anog-Ite, who was in disguise; she had her sina — “shawl” — wrapped over her head, hiding her horrible face and revealing only her beautiful face. Anog-Ite invited the people inside, and they asked her about the clothes and the food. She promised to teach the people how to obtain those things, and soon she taught the people how to hunt and how to work and tan an animal hide.

This work was difficult, however. The people had never struggled like this in the spirit lodge. They grew tired easily and worked slowly. Time passed, and summer turned to fall, then to winter. The people knew nothing about the Earth’s seasons and had worked so slowly that, by the time the first snow came, they didn’t have enough clothes or food for everyone. They began to freeze and starve.

They returned to the lodge of Anog- Ite to beg for help, but it was then that she revealed her true intentions. She ripped the shawl from her head, revealing her horrible face, and with both faces — beautiful and horrible — laughed at the people.

The people recoiled in terror and ran away, so she sent her wolf after them to chase and snap at their heels. They ran back to the site of the hole from which they’d emerged, only to find that it had been covered, leaving them trapped on the surface.

The people didn’t know what to do nor where to go, so they simply sat down on the ground and cried. At this time the Creator heard them, and asked why they were there. They explained the story of the wolf and Anog-Ite, but the Creator was upset.

The Creator said, “You should not have disobeyed me; now I have to punish you.” The way the Creator did that was by transforming them — turning them from people into these great, wild beasts. This was the first bison herd.
Time passed, and the earth was finally ready for people to live upon it. The Creator instructed Tokahe to lead the people through the passageway in the cave and onto the surface. On the way, they stopped to pray four times, stopping last at the entrance.

On the surface, the people saw the hoof prints of a bison. The Creator instructed them to follow that bison. From the bison, they could get food, tools, clothes, and shelter. The bison would lead them to water. Everything they needed to survive on the earth could come from the bison.

When they left the cave, the Creator shrunk the hole from the size of a man to the size it is now, too small for most people to enter, to serve as a reminder so the people would never forget from where they’d come.

Jason Epperson: Wind cave, like many caves, is full of rooms with tongue-in-cheek names provided by their discoverers. The Bachelor’s Quarters is named for the thin layer of dust and dirt that covers everything in it. Spelunkers on a lunch break in two large rooms they had just found had all coincidentally brought sandwiches made on bagels. The new rooms were dubbed the Bagel Ballroom, and a hole in the floor that led to another room was dubbed “Bagel Hole.” A large, connected gallery became the “Bagel Bowl.”

In 1989 a new room would be discovered, completely unintentionally. It was named before it was ever found … by a psychic.

Here again is Abigail Trabue.

Abigail Trabue: On Sunday, October 22nd, 1989, the National Outdoor Leadership school conducted a mock search-and-rescue operation at Wind Cave National Park. The 17 Young cavers were paired into teams of two, and set out into the various passageways. 18-year-old Talahassee Florida native Rachel Cox and her partner found themselves deep in a passageway disagreeing about the way back. An argument ensued, and the pair split, each going their own way. Rachel was unfortunately wrong. After a long time heading in the wrong direction her single carbon light source extinguished. But instead of staying put, she continued to try to find her way out before falling through a 50-foot vertical shaft.

Nearly 150 volunteers began searching for Rachel in rotating shifts, a process made difficult by the thick walls of the cave that don’t transmit sound well. Eventually, volunteers heard clicking noises about 1000 feet from where she was reported lost. They then made voice contact with her, but not until they were almost right above her. They passed her food and water through a crevice while they searched for another two hours for a large enough space for Rachel to crawl out of. She left the cave at 2:40 a.m. that Wednesday, 37 hours after she was lost.

Before she was found, the park received a call from a psychic who said Cox would be found in a room with “Duncan” in the name. In fact, the room she had been discovered in was new territory that had yet to be described. To fulfill the psychic’s prediction, it was dubbed Duncan Room.

Jason Epperson: Rachel Cox’s misfortune led to new safety precautions for cave explorers. Teams of three are the norm nowadays, and cavers always carry three sources of light.

Wind Cave is known for it’s formations of boxwork, a unique, brittle formation rarely found elsewhere that looks like mail slots, or miniature shoeboxes. Wind Cave National Park is full of underground wonders, of course, but the park is just as spectacular above ground, where the vast South Dakota prairie meets the island of Ponderosa Pines called the Black Hills. Bison and Elk majestically roam the open prairie, above the massive prairie dog towns. In fact, it’s one of the best National Parks I know of for wildlife, and you get to avoid the crowds of more popular parks like Yellowstone. Bison and prairie dogs will great you on any visit, but the Elk take a little more patience. They’re a finicky creature, but still can be seen from trails and the main park road, usually around dusk. There’s nothing like a massive bull leaping through the air.

Cave tours are offered year round, but the quantity drastically decreases outside of the summer busy season. There’s no fee to enter the park, and even if you don’t have time for a cave tour, the scenic drive on Highway 385 from Hot Springs, up through Wind Cave National Park, and into Custer State Park is well worth the trip.

There is a no-hookup campground and available backcounty camping within the park, but campers looking for water and electricity should consider staying at Custer, or in the Angostura Recreation Area to the south.

This episode of America’s National Parks was written by me, Jason Epperson, and narrated by Abigail Trabue, with ranger Sina Bear Eagle. If you enjoyed the show, we’d love a 5-star review wherever you listen to podcasts. Don’t forget to subscribe, and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Just search “National Park Podcast.” You can also join our new America’s National Parks Facebook group. We’ll link to all of our social media, as well as National Park Service resources, music credits, and more in the show notes at National Park Podcast dot com.

If you are interested in RV travel, give us a listen over at the RV Miles Podcast. You can also follow Abigail and I as we travel the country in our converted school bus with our three boys at Our Wandering Family dot com.

Today’s show was sponsored by L.L.Bean, follow the hashtag #beanoutsider, and visit LLBean.com to find great gear for exploring the National Parks.



Podcast Episodes

37 Days in Yellowstone

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.


Listen

Listen to the episode in the player below, or wherever you get your podcasts. 

Or Download this episode (right click and save)


Connect & Subscribe

You can find America’s National Parks Podcast on FacebookInstagram and Twitter, and make sure to subscribe on Apple or wherever you get your podcasts, so you’ll never miss an episode.


Learn More

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


Transcript

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.”

The America’s National Parks Podcast is part of the RV Miles Network of web resources for United States travelers. If you are interested in RV travel, give us a listen over at the RV Miles Podcast.

You can also follow Abigail and I as we travel the country in our converted school bus with our three boys at Our Wandering Family dot com, and all over social media.

The America’s National Parks Podcast is a production of Lotus Theatricals, LLC.


Music

Provided through the generosity of the artists under a creative commons license.

Scroll Up