Christmastime In the Summer. 

Just passing through the park, we encounter an odd Yellowstone tradition.

It had been a long day on the road for John and me. We had started in Grand Teton National Park, driven up the spine of the northern Rockies, and were in Yellowstone National Park, where most driving days are long anyway. This was August 25th, you see, and Yellowstone is the Ultimate Land of the RV. Travel on its winding mountain roads averages about 13 m.p.h. in the summer.

Such was our day, with our destination Butte, Montana, that, despite all the beauty and wonder in Yellowstone, we were just passing through. Frankly, all we wanted was a bathroom and a sandwich, in that order, so when we pulled into Grants Village we were moving with that special sense of urgency which can come only from biological need.

We sped through the store and into the men's room, where we were soon side-by-side at the urinals. I had been so focused on getting there that, once there, my mind began to relax, and then an odd thought occurred to me: Did I see Santa Claus out there?

I gave this some more thought, and then I remembered Christmas music. And people dressed as elves. And lights. I feared an LSD flashback. I turned to John, not sure how to phrase my question.

"Um, John "

But he was already laughing. "Yes," he said, "you did see Santa Claus out there."

We emerged from the bathroom cautiously. People were on ladders, hanging tinsel around the stuffed-animal display. I approached a woman at a cash register -- she was wearing an elf hat and a "Noel" sweatshirt -- and asked, "What's with all the Christmas stuff?"

She explained that on August 25th of some bygone year, it had snowed some crazy amount like two feet, and people got stuck at the Yellowstone Lodge. So they decided to get out all the Christmas stuff and have a party, thus creating a tradition.

I should take a moment here to admit that after this experience, a Yellowstone official explained to me that the snowstorm never happened. Apparently the whole thing started in the late 1930s when the park's employees started having an end-of-season party called Savage Days -- "savage" being a nickname for the employees. In the late '40s, the park asked a group of Christians to take over Savage Days and clean it up a bit -- hence, Christmas in August.

When John and I were there, they were planning a pageant and putting trees up in the hotels, and employees were exchanging gifts. Santa would be greeting kids later and asking them what they wanted for Christmas -- a special thrill, no doubt, for parents in the middle of spending their life savings on a trip for the whole clan to Yellowstone. ("Santa, I want one of those $1,200 hand-carved wolves!")

Not everybody, I should point out, was in the Christmas spirit that day. We asked our waiter, Steve from Michigan, if he was going to the Christmas party, and he said, "Shit, no -- can't even spike the punch." Steve was actually wearing an "Employee of the Month" pin, so when he gave us free refills on our drinks, John said, "That must be why you're the Employee of the Month." Steve's response: a loud, long ass-kissing noise followed by "That's how you get to be Employee of the Month."

Such sarcasm, from a guy who said he'd rather be a mechanic in Knoxville, was entertaining but odd, cast as it was against a backdrop of party preparations and other displays of joy to the world.

When we went to settle up at the counter, we were greeted by Sis, a chubby, high-pitched woman who said she was from "BO-mawnt," Texas. As she rang us up, a ranger approached, and Sis called out, "Hey, Critter -- hahr yew?" So now we're talking with Critter and Sis.

Critter had a real blurry picture of a bear to show Sis, and Sis squealed, "Say, Critter, have you seen mah sawks?" She whipped her leg up onto the counter, and she had on these green-and-red, knee-length Christmas socks, with little holiday figures on them: candy canes, reindeer, etc. I stole a glance at John, and I could see he was barely suppressing laughter, not to mention his flight instinct.

Then Critter reached down and touched a little pouch on one side of Sis' sock, and the thing started to play music!

"What have you got in thar?" the astonished Critter cried.

"It plays music," Sis drawled back.

Critter, leaning closer: "Mah gawd, I kin hear it!"

Sis, with a cackling laugh: "Yep, it plays eight sawngs! This'n here's 'Santa Claus is Comin' to Town.' If you push the little reindeer, it plays 'Jingle Bells.'"

Critter: "Well, ah'll be!"

By this time, John and I were dashing through the fake snow, making our merry way the hell out of there. Nothing against Christmas, of course, but these days we get plenty of it in the winter -- for that matter, in the fall. To see it in August was a little too much, especially when a person named Critter is pushing buttons on the clothing of a person named Sis and the Employee of the Month would rather be working on cars somewhere else. We hitched up our sleigh and drove like the wind for the Montana border.


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