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Know the West

Idiot invasion; outhouse fail; rim-to-rim rule rupture

Mishaps and mayhem from around the region.


Season after season, park visitors disregard rules and risk life and limb for the chance to marvel up close — and maybe photograph — those flamboyantly photogenic “fluffy cows,” aka bison. In South Dakota’s Custer State Park in 2020, a woman got too close to a herd of bison, one of which charged her and hooked her by her belt on its horns, an experience neither of them had planned for. The bison waved her around like a handkerchief and then flung her off, galloping away triumphantly with her jeans still stuck to its horns. The bison and its trophy — those jeans — became an internet sensation in Indian Country, memorialized on memes, quilts, beadwork, T-shirts, ledger art, cartoons, ribbon skirts and more. The woman escaped without serious injury, and her somewhat tattered jeans (with car keys) were later recovered as well. 

Confusing national parks with petting zoos is so common (and sometimes so unintentionally funny) that a Facebook group called “Yellowstone National Park: Invasion of the Idiots!” has over 45,000 members. Its description reads: “Welcome to YNP: Invasion of the Idiots! Every year hordes of tourons descend upon Yellowstone National Park and this is the place to share their dumb, dangerous, illegal, and what-were-they-thinking exploits. Darwinism at its finest!” The page accepts posts from national and state parks as far away as South Africa, where wildlife watchers who flout park rules sometimes end up eaten by lions. 

Newsweek.com reported on one video clip that Sean Swetter shared with the Facebook group. In it, a man creeps up on a bison, which abruptly turns and bluff-charges him, until, like an old-time Charlie Chaplin reel, he is seen hightailing it at a very high speed back down the boardwalk to safety. The video racked up thousands of views. Despite signs cautioning wildlife viewers, animal “attacks” and visitor injuries keep happening. Visitors are warned to stay 100 yards away from bears and wolves and 25 yards from other wildlife. And penalties are severe, even if you don’t lose any clothing. In 2021, KRTV reported a woman who faced jail time for taking photos less than 30 feet away from a bear and her cubs in Yellowstone’s Roaring Mountain area. In March 2022, Yellowstone, the world’s first national park, celebrated its 150th anniversary, but as far as we know nobody volunteered to be tossed like a Caesar salad by the big fluffy cows.

We’ve heard about being caught between a rock and hard place, but have you ever been trapped between a rock and an outhouse? The Kitsap Sun reported on a woman who fell into the vault of an outhouse in Olympic National Forest northwest of Seattle. She accidentally dropped her phone into the hole and tried to retrieve it, MacGyvering dog leashes into a harness to rescue it. But her ingenious plan failed and she ended up plunging headfirst into the toilet. After 10 or 15 horrifying minutes, she managed to locate her phone, miraculously get a cell signal and call 911. Firefighters from the Brinnon Fire Department and Quilcene Fire Rescue got her out by passing her blocks to stand on and using a harness (one not made from leashes) to pull her out. The rescuers said the woman, who was uninjured, was thoroughly washed down, but though she was “strongly encouraged to seek medical attention after being exposed to human waste … she only wanted to leave.”

A Washington man was banned from all national parks, monuments and federal lands in Arizona for two years, the National Parks Traveler reported, and ordered to serve two years of supervised probation. In 2020, Joseph Don Mount facilitated — sans permit — a 139-person rim-to-rim hike through the Grand Canyon’s inner canyon area. Extended day hikes for groups of 12-30 hikers, particularly in select inner canyon areas, must first obtain a Special Use Permit due to growing problems involving trail use — abandoning gear, excessive littering, human waste, overcrowding at restrooms and trailheads and just general concerns regarding trail courtesy with other park users. It’s no coincidence that park personnel are also seeing an increase in injuries and rescue response; in 2021, they responded to 411 search and rescue situations, breaking a 20-year record. One is company, but by anyone’s standards, 139 is a crowd. When you head outdoors this summer, follow these simple rules: Don’t smuggle illegal hordes of hikers into overcrowded parks; keep your eyes open (and your pants on) around wildlife: and, um, do be careful with your phone.    

Tiffany Midge is a citizen of the Standing Rock Nation and was raised by wolves in the Pacific Northwest. Her book, Bury My Heart at Chuck E. Cheese’s (Bison Books, 2019), was a Washington State Book Award nominee. She resides in north-central Idaho near the Columbia River Plateau, homeland of the Nimiipuu.

Tips of Western oddities are appreciated and often shared in this column. Write [email protected], or submit a letter to the editor