I froze. Then, those two words transported me from the Buffalo Bill Center of the West’s entrance to an elementary school classroom thousands of miles and thirty years away. The recess bell was ringing; my hands were sticky with glue. It was only as Mr. Roche shook my hand that I came out of my reverie. I was Tom now, married, with two kids. But in my second-grade art teacher’s eyes, I’d always be the student who drank an entire cup of green tempera paint.
“Paintings.” That’s what Mr. Roche and his wife said brought them to the Center of the West. While my family was in route to Yellowstone, the Roches were ending their Yellowstone vacation at the Center’s Whitney Western Art Museum. I couldn’t believe I was bumping into my old art teacher in Cody, Wyoming. But I could believe I was bumping into my old art teacher in the lobby of an art museum.
“Without his paintings, there might not be a national park,” Mr. Roche said, referring to the museum’s Thomas Moran collection. “We just hiked the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, so it’s only fitting that the grand finale of our trip is to see the work of the man who helped put it on the map.” Mr. Roche (once a teacher, always a teacher) explained how Moran—an East Coast native—had been one of the first artists commissioned to sketch and paint Yellowstone. His work helped convince Congress that the land was worth protecting.
I knew our Center of the West tickets gave us access to its five different museums, including the Whitney Western Art Museum. But our family’s Yellowstone intel-gathering mission had just involved visiting the Draper Natural History Museum and the Plains Indian Museum. Now, the Roches were telling us the world’s finest collection of artwork representing the world’s first national park was just a few yards away. If you couldn’t see Yellowstone during all four seasons, or you wanted to see what it looked like 400 seasons ago, all you had to do was visit this museum.
“And it’s not just extraordinary watercolor and oil renditions of Yellowstone’s waterfalls and geysers,” added Mrs. Roche. She explained she was most looking forward to checking out the museum’s collection of vintage posters and serigraphs that promoted the park. “Today, we consumers see all kinds of ads,” she began, “but clearly a Yellowstone geyser here or a waterfall there is still timeless marketing.”
“We just saw Yellowstone’s bears!” proclaimed Aiden. My seven-year-old son was already showing off for the Roches. He, and his sister, Lucy, were still on a high from the Draper Natural History Museum. With its wildlife mounts installed in 3D settings designed to simulate—sounds included—the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, it was like a wax museum on steroids. A wildlife safari so convincing, I kept watching where I walked. I didn’t want to get too close to a predator, or worse, step in fresh scat.
“It’s like a Who’s Who of Yellowstone reunion,” Amy, my wife, observed. She was right. Instead of walking around Yellowstone with a field guide, we were walking around inside Yellowstone’s field guide. Imagine a bull moose on the left, a wolf and her pups at three o’clock, and then just a stone’s throw away, two grizzly bears close enough to the mountain lion exhibit you could really appreciate their size.
“Remember how you used to have us make shoebox dioramas?” I asked Mr. Roche. “Well, the Draper Museum is the mother of all dioramas.” Instead of amateur artists working with pipe cleaners, it’s professional taxidermists assembling actual skeletons. Although that’s not to say all the Yellowstone representatives we saw at the Center were no longer in the land of the living.
“Haya was so hungry,” Lucy recalled, as though she’d seen enough peregrine falcons in her nine years to know a ravenous one from a moderately hungry one. My daughter told the Roches how, if they’d only arrived an hour earlier, they could have met Hayabusa and watched her eat lunch in the garden amphitheater. The rescued falcon is just one of ten birds of prey, all native to Yellowstone, in the Draper Museum Raptor Experience.
“Lucy and Aiden also learned about the people who once called Yellowstone home,” I informed the Roches. I told Mr. Roche that when he was ready to move on from the Whitney Western Art Museum, he had to head next door to see the incredible handiwork showcased in the Plains Indian Museum. It was clear to see how Yellowstone’s harsh and colorful environment influenced everything from the residents’ clothing to their dwellings—and even their weapons.
Long before they were used for hunting, the Shoshone’s arrowheads were Yellowstone’s obsidian deposits, evidence of Yellowstone’s violent, volcanic past. Much like the Center had taught us about Yellowstone’s flora and fauna, it also familiarized us with the park’s geological history. Granted, reading about Old Faithful and experiencing an eruption are two different things. But, I had a feeling the reading part would enhance the experiencing part.
“Experiencing Yellowstone is half the fun; the other half is remembering it,” Mr. Roche acknowledged with a wink as we said our goodbyes in the Center’s lobby. The Roches were about 60 seconds from being surrounded by art inspired by the Yellowstone they’d just visited. My family, on the other hand, was about 60 minutes from seeing the Yellowstone that inspired that art. Even though none of us had yet stepped a foot inside the park, I had a feeling we’d feel right at home when we did.