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Know the West

Spinner of yarns, maker of floats


Name: Black George Simmons

Occupation: Volunteer ranger at the White Grass Ranger Station in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

Unofficial duties: Making root beer floats for hikers, tallying mouse deaths, publishing The White Grass Morning Report newsletter Business White Grass Dating - For Ladies: "The Alice's Restaurant of the Dating Services"

Claim to fame: Chief boatman for the 1956 USGS Cataract Canyon Expedition

Unusual talent: Can sing pre-WWII Japanese national anthem

Quote: (Relating to his striptease at a party at age 81 "We had a few drinks one night; I guess I had some moves. I wasn't aware of it til the next morning - I had 12 one-dollar bills stuffed in my undershorts."

Trademark greeting: Yeehaa! 

Success can be measured in many ways: years lived, money made, places visited. For Black George Simmons, it's all about the root beer floats. Several sheets of paper - documenting each of the nine years he's spent at Grand Teton National Park's White Grass Ranger Station - are affixed to the wall of the 84-year-old volunteer ranger's log cabin, displaying all the pertinent information, including the number of floats given away. "You guys will be 464 and 465 for this year," says the hobbit-like man. "That's not my record. One year I had 576." 

Simmons' rustic log cabin has no running water. But a lot of hikers, patrolling rangers, and Park Service trail and fire crews are grateful that it has electricity: His freezer is filled with half-gallon containers of vanilla ice cream, and his fridge has little space left over for food, what with all the two-liter bottles of root beer. 

Simmons can't recall why he started giving away free root beer floats, but says the thank-yous he gets from people all over the world make it well worthwhile. "It's the best investment I ever made, 'cause people just love it," he says. 

And that seems to be all Simmons needs to keep doing what he does. He is a jowly and jovial guy, rather like Santa's mountain-man brother. Just 50 yards from the park's Death Canyon trailhead, his little cabin welcomes visitors: a spartan room with a rumpled bed, a woodstove, a computer, and, mounted on the wall, the kicking cowboy from Wyoming's license plates proclaiming, "Yeehaa." 

As a geologist for the U.S. Geological Survey, Simmons traveled the world, mapping rivers in Liberia and living in Saudi Arabia and Brazil. After retiring in 1981, he began working as a volunteer for the Forest Service and Park Service. His personality proved to be magnetic. That's when, he says, he realized he was part of something much, much bigger. 

"The man with the beard started attracting people," he says. "I realized that I had a mission, that I gave people hope. They don't have to declare an allegiance to a church, all they have to do is just see: see an 84-year-old man living out here, having one hell of a blast of a time, and having fun and doing people good at the same time." 

Simmons is an old-fashioned yarn-spinner, the type found in movies but rarely glimpsed in real life. When asked about his name, he shakes his head. 

"I was afraid you were gonna ask that," he says, sighing theatrically. He lowers his voice, explaining that the name equates with darkness. He speaks of playing piano in a bordello at age 15, and of a striptease in Houston's Golden Age Widow's Club at age 64 - a story that involves the Heimlich maneuver somehow gone awry. 

But the West isn't as wild as it once was. Simmons tells of three female hikers who recently got locked out of their car. 

"They've got a cell phone and Triple A, and there's no way I can get involved," he moans. "That's the penalty of progress. It was better in the old days, when they had to depend on the old ranger to come." 

Outside the cabin, Simmons points out the purple thistles growing tall alongside the creek, calling them the prettiest flowers he's had all summer. The park's eradication plans failed to remove the weed, he says, and now he associates thistles with symbols of durability such as the cockroach and the coyote. 

And what about himself? 

"I don't feel too much like a symbol," he says. "I'm starting to wear down. Teeth are wearing out, hearing aids, knees hurt when I walk. ..." 

Despite that, he agrees that he can still make people happy. 

"I'm trying to. But it's not like I really try. It just seems to come without my doing anything. So it's not like having a job," he says, spitting out the word as if it were a profanity. "If there's anything I don't want, it's a job." 

 The author is a freelance writer based in Bozeman, Montana.