National Politics in Yellowstone Park, July 29, 1914

Ed Trafton turns from the shimmering water
of Shoshone Lake to the first of fifteen tourist coaches,
pulls the black silk neckerchief up the bridge of his nose,
plants himself in the road and says, “Please step out
and come this way.” Black is so hot. “Drop your valuables
on the blanket.” Maybe the neckerchief isn’t necessary.
“Kindly take a standing seat and witness the convention.”

“A rather elegant man,” one woman confessed. “Steady
and calm, with a lovely sense of humor and a smile
that made his watery blue eyes sparkle. The kind of man
who might make a good president.” “Watery blue eyes?”
Ed wonders, his reflection in the mirror. “City councilman
or senator but president?” “Polite,” the woman added.

An elderly lady dropped her purse, which exploded
scattering bills, coins, a comb, and playing cards
over the dusty earth. The horses stamped their feet
and switched their tails to drive away the flies.
Someone coughed. Trafton bent over to gather up
the fallen valuables, the last card—jack of hearts.
“There madam, you keep these,” he said.
“You look as if you need them more than I do.”

“Gallant,“ the first woman went on. She laughed
and the air freshened, invisible birds began to sing.

As each coin or watch or earring hit the earth,
dust rose around the lodgepole and limber pines,
covered the water. Seeking clarity, coaches start
ten minutes apart—Old Faithful to West Thumb,
the horseshoe bend where they stop for the view.
But they can’t see what’s to come, coach after coach,
the blanket disappearing under the mound of treasure,
Mr. Trafton lightly touching each horse to send it on its way.

A young woman asked for a photo—“by the blanket.”
Other travelers pulled out their Brownies and lined up
beside the beguiling highwayman, the click of shutters
louder than the cicadas chirring in the dry grass,
pine resin rising with the heat, men fanning their faces
with hats or the news of the day—AUSTRIA-HUNGARY
DECLARES WAR ON SERBIA. Could be a joke—he was
so friendly and the water, lapping at the shore,
made that chuckling sound that says nothing
will change. It can’t be real silk, Trafton thinks,
tugging at his face, wouldn’t be so scratchy, people
milling around, the sun rising, the hills falling away,
the geysers and mudpots, and Shoshone Lake
coated in dust, still blue below the point.


Copyright © 2016 by David Romtvedt. This poem was commissioned by the Academy of American Poets and funded by a National Endowment for the Arts Imagine Your Parks grant.

About this Poem

"My wife, who was born in Wyoming, tells me that when she was a child they now and again traveled to Yellowstone to see what life in a city would be like. I’ve thought a lot about the number of people that visit Yellowstone and the strangeness of the scene—the grandest, most exotic natural features—the mudpots, the hot springs, Old Faithful—crossed with traffic jams. And then Ed Trafton, a man who made tourism in the park into a Hollywood comedy about stagecoach robbery, but Ed couldn’t decide if he was showman or thief. As to the link between Ed’s time and ours, I’ll leave that to the reader."
David Romtvedt