[Scared to] Death in Yellowstone

This is my and Scott’s third visit to Yellowstone together. On the first day of our second visit, we were in one of the visitor centers buying fishing licenses. Always one to scope out literary opportunities, I found myself in the book section. One good-sized shelf was predictably lined with more than a few historical accounts of the park’s origin and its colorful characters. But one volume jumped out at me from the shelf and I simply had to buy it.

Written by park historian Lee H. Whittlesey, Death in Yellowstone chronicles “accidents and foolhardiness in the first national park” resulting in the deaths of 300 park employees and visitors between 1870 and 1995 when the book was published. It is an amazing combination of historical details, good storytelling and haunting interviews conducted with family members of the deceased and those who witnessed the events. And the accounts are organized in an interesting fashion: by nature of the deaths.

For example, there is a chapter dedicated to deaths caused by goring by bison entitled “These Animals are not Real: The Myth that can Kill You.” Others focus on death by lightning, death by poisonous plants, death by falls, death by freezing and avalanche, and of course, death by bear attack. You’ve also got your death by suicide, murder, falling rocks, falling trees and Indian battles.

But my favorite is the book’s first chapter, “Death in Hot Water,” which describes in horrifying detail the loss of life due to burns experienced by individuals stepping or falling into geysers and thermal pools.

During that visit, I made a point of reading a chapter each night. And frankly, while I was entertained and educated, doing so also made me nigh on hysterical.

My timing was especially bad as I read the thermal burn chapter the night before we visited Norris Geyser Basin. After reading about the many children who had perished in the pools, it took everything I had not to screech at parents who failed to pay attention to their kids as they ran up and down the boardwalk. I nearly passed out when one youngster jumped off onto what I was sure was the thin gray crust of a caldera crypt.

Amused, but only to a point, Scott finally grabbed my arm and insisted we leave the area. He also tried to take the book away from me so that I couldn’t read about death by drowning the night before we were to visit Yellowstone Lake.

I didn’t bring my copy of Death in Yellowstone with me on this trip. I meant to, but in the midst of being nearly catatonic about how to pack my clothes and shoes in our Airstream for a three-month road trip, I simply forgot it.

But I’ll be damned if the book wasn’t waiting for me in the Mammoth bookstore. I thought Scott would pooh-pooh my desire to buy another copy, but he was unflappable, as he always is, and generously bought it for me.

If you’re headed to Yellowstone anytime soon, I highly recommend the book.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to read tonight’s chapter: Death by Gas Stove Explosion. And then we’re having grilled chicken Caesar salad for dinner, which will NOT involve the use of our Airstream propane stove.

Yellowstone on Dwellable


  1. Colleen
    Sep 27, 2012

    I knew it! I knew you couldn’t visit Yellowstone without that book. Now, all’s right with the world.

  2. Janie
    Sep 28, 2012

    You’re right. I just love this book! It makes the park all the more fun. Now that I have two, I’ll give one to you. You’ll need it as you absolutely have to get here to Yellowstone. You would love it!

  3. Colleen
    Sep 29, 2012

    Great! Thanks, Janie.

  4. scott
    Oct 1, 2012

    Janie forgot to mention that you can boil eggs in the hot springs.

  5. Colleen
    Oct 1, 2012

    Good to know, Scott. But how do you get them out after they’re cooked?

  6. Stacy
    Oct 4, 2012

    I remember when you had me read that book before our trip. It scared the daylights out of me! Your pictures are beautiful! Can’t wait to see more!

  7. Janie
    Oct 6, 2012

    Woohoo, Stacy! Thanks for reading the blog. Everywhere I look in Yellowstone, I see memories of us here together. (And it’s almost as cold now as it was back then!) I hope we’ll be able to come here again some day. Love and miss you – xoxo

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