For Truman Everts, it was the chance of a lifetime: join an expedition into the heart of Yellowstone National Park, an expedition into unknown country, where few people had gone before. Everts, a 54-year-old former assessor for the territory of Montana, decided to join a party of nineteen men and forty horses. The Washburn-Langford-Doane expedition of 1870 set out into the wilds of Yellowstone, chronicling the region’s wonders as they went.
For much of the trip, they circumnavigated Yellowstone Lake and in early September, while on the south end of the lake, Everts nearly met his demise. While the party was whacking its way through thick timber between Heart Lake and Yellowstone Lake, Everts became separated from the main force. Apparently, this separation didn’t cause too much alarm, for in the thick going of a lodgepole pine forest, the travel can be tough, especially for a party the size of this one. When Everts became separated with his horse, he didn’t get alarmed, even when he had to spend that first night out. In an account of the harrowing adventure that he would survive, he wrote of that night, “I rode on in the direction I supposed had been taken until darkness overtook me in the dense forest. This was disagreeable enough, but caused me no alarm. I had no doubt of being with the party at breakfast the next morning.”
The next day, he rose early and set off in the direction he had been traveling, certain to meet his comrades. But somewhere in that thick timber, he lost his way again—and made a serious mistake. He dismounted his horse and left it with the reins trailing while he walked ahead to scout a route over a particularly tough section. Something spooked his horse and it took off, “at full speed among the trees. That was the last I ever saw of him.” On the horse were Everts’s supplies, blankets, guns, everything. He had only the clothes on his back, a couple of knives and a small opera glass.
Thus began a terrible odyssey in which Everts would be beset by a series of calamities, guided by visions, and hammered by autumn weather in the mountains. September in Yellowstone country can be a beautiful time of year, but for Everts, it was nearly fatal. Snow, wind and rain lashed him. Instead of going back toward Yellowstone Lake and a possible rendezvous with his party, he initially set off south and ended on the shores of Heart Lake, where he lay down beside some thermal springs and thus kept from dying of hypothermia. He ate a few things such as a small bird that made the mistake of seeking shelter from a mean storm under the same tree as the starving Everts.
Although probably not the best of woodsmen, he ingeniously started fire using his opera glass and was able to fashion a knife (after he lost his two knives) from a buckle and a fishhook from a pin. He lost these in a forest fire that he apparently accidentally set, burning off a lot of his hair before he awoke.
Ironically, the party waited for some time for Everts and set off in different directions searching for him. At one point, Langford and another man rode almost to the shore of Heart Lake, where Everts was lying on some warm ground next to a hot spring, but turned back, failing to find Everts, when Langford’s horse plunged through the crusted surface of a thermal area.
For 37 days, Everts’s main staple was the root of a thistle commonly known today as Everts thistle or elk thistle. This sustained him as he walked, crawled and struggled his way around Yellowstone Lake and down the Yellowstone River. At last, he was found in mid-October by two men who were looking for him and who, at first thought he was a wounded bear crawling among the rocks near Crescent Hill at the north end of end of what today is the park (this was two years before the park was created).
Everts gained much publicity for his harrowing tale and was even honored by being offered a job: first superintendent of the new park in 1872. He turned the job down, noting that he wanted it very much but could not take it because there was no salary for the position. Everts later moved away from Montana, and fathered a child when he was in his seventies (he had married a girl of 14 when he was in his mid-sixties). He lived until 1901, dying in Maryland at the age of 85, apparently none the worse for wear from his ordeal in the first national park.