National Parks Not Immune from National TantrumsRoundup
tags: National Parks, Civility, COVID-19
Tiya Miles is a history professor and Radcliffe Alumnae Professor at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard. Her latest book is All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake.
The first time I saw Yellowstone National Park, that otherworldly American place, I was in the mood to celebrate. My husband and I had just had our 1-and-a-half-year-old twins baptized on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation in Montana, where he’s from, and decided to drive the five hours to Yellowstone. It was a happy end to a trying first year as new parents to premature and sometimes sickly twins. We bathed the kids in the cabin sink, ate cheap meals of cereal and sandwiches, and pushed the double stroller along the easiest trails. The land flashed with sublime light, even if the human history of the park’s formation—the expulsion of Indigenous peoples and poor white trappers to make way for environmental conservation and commercial tourism—cast flickering shadows. Those days stand out in technicolor in my memory: our toddling daughters in their watermelon-pink and tangerine-orange short sets, the blue pools and hot rainbow-hued mists, the green-winged hummingbirds so small that we at first mistook them for insects, the bison in their rugged coats.
We’ve been going back to Yellowstone ever since, eventually adding a third child to the cacophonous, long-distance car rides. Now we always stay at the Old Faithful Inn, the historic lodge near the Old Faithful geyser. We missed a year during the first phase of the coronavirus pandemic, and when we returned last summer with three teenagers, we were met by a surprising sight. In the lobby were posted large signs begging guests to be nice. good nature. we’re all about it. and so are our loyal employees. In bold letters: please be kind to them.
Yellowstone had always been a place where our family found an unspoken camaraderie in the pleasant company of those who were, like us, delighted to be in that stunning surround, which somehow put human problems into planetary perspective. Had the tone at the park—the first of its kind in our nation’s history—changed so much that visitors had to be told to treat others with respect?
Since the pandemic, there have been reports of increased road rage, of people throwing tantrums in stores and on airplanes. America’s grandest natural spaces have not been immune to the contagion of anger. In this sense, the national parks may be more national than we realized.
Mike Keller, the general manager of Yellowstone National Park Lodges at Xanterra, a private company that operates all public lodgings and most concessions in Yellowstone, told me he sees far more good interactions than bad. But lately “when it goes sideways,” he said, “it goes really aggressively really quickly.” Keller recounted a shocking range of rude and abusive behaviors displayed by park visitors at the expense of employees, from the use of profanity, to calling them “morons,” to one instance of a guest shoving a worker. “I don’t want to make it sound like we’re in a killing zone here,” he told me. But he believes Americans have “lost our civility.”
This year was Yellowstone’s 150th anniversary. Celebrations coincided with all the stresses of the pandemic—mask-mandate politicization, supply-chain disruptions, staffing shortages, and ballooning numbers of visitors. And, oh yes, in June there was a 500-year flood that necessitated an evacuation and shut the park down for nine days. Any one of these factors would have been challenging enough. Combined, they made for a punishing trial that left some employees at the park shaken and tearful. As it turns out, Yellowstone’s sesquicentennial is highlighting not only the park’s physical majesty and cultural history, but also the present-day frailties of the nation that brought it into being.
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