For many years the Firehole Rangers have been making the annual pilgrimage to our namesake river in Yellowstone National Park. Depending on the individual Ranger the exact number of years varies considerably but the current core lineup has been consistently deployed since 2010. Our ringleader, Marck, began fishing the Firehole shortly after the park was established in 1872 (or it may have been a few years after that, say ~1994). His wingman, Goose, began joining Marck shortly thereafter. Nash began making sporadic appearances a couple of years prior to 2006, the year that I was drafted into the Ranger Contingent. Jimmy was added to the roster in 2010 and Morris was a Rookie Ranger in 2012. This assembly of six has been almost 100% consistent ever since.
I recall my first trip to fish the Firehole as if it were yesterday. The anticipation prior to the trip was almost unbearable. I could not wait to be standing for the fist time along the banks of the fabled river, surrounded by herds of bison and a plethora of geothermal activity; a riverscape like no other. And while the non-native rainbows and browns would not prove to be large, they would be plentiful and feisty. Years later they still are, and they are a lot of fun on a 3 weight rod. Some years the catching is better than others but it’s not uncommon to have 30 fish days on this river (more, if you exaggerate–less, if you’re honest). Another thing I was looking forward to on my first trip was our lodging. I had heard tales of this place in West Yellowstone known as the Ho Hum Motel.
In the early days we always made the long trek to the Firehole from western Washington on Memorial Day weekend as that Saturday marks the opening of fishing season in Yellowstone. The weather is nearly always unpredictable when fishing the park that time of year and we have encountered everything that Ma Nature could throw at us, from several inches of snow to 75 degrees and sunshine and everything in between. In about 2014 we began going on the trip a week later and it has made a world of difference as far as the weather is concerned. Sunny and fair has become more the norm and we’ve not had snow since (knock on wood) changing our trip dates.
One aspect about the trip that hasn’t changed much is our choice of lodging. Save for two years we have always booked rooms at the Ho Hum in West Yellowstone. The sign out front has displayed the same message—”Welcome to West”— for as long as I’ve been going, and the vacancy sign at the office entrance is always lit.
Staying at the Ho Hum was the tradition going back to Marck’s early days and we have been unwavering in our allegiance to the same motel–at least as often as we have been able. The exceptions have been 2020 (the year that the pandemic hit) and 2021. In 2020 we were not able to get rooms because there was no answer at the Ho Hum. Same results for 2021. We assumed the worst for the motel proprietor, Bernadette. She’s been elderly for as long as Marck can recall and, as we all know, the pandemic was particularly hard on the elderly folk. Astonishingly, as we drove past the Ho Hum on those two years, there were a few cars in the parking lot. We had no idea as to what may or may not have happened to Bernadette, but it’s safe to say that our trip wasn’t the same in 2020 and 2021. For one, it cost us considerably more to stay elsewhere (the Ho Hum had always been a bargain compared to what one would pay at other lodgings in West Yellowstone). But the presence of cars in the lot suggested that perhaps Bernadette was still with us. We asked around and heard nothing to the contrary from a few locals who knew her. Apparently she just wasn’t answering calls from “Marck from Seattle” (the name by which she had always remembered him when he called to book rooms).
Bernadette lives alone (with multiple cats) in her home behind the office of the Ho Hum. The cats have always had the freedom to come and go via an open window, and while they do venture outside from time to time, it seems pretty apparent that they always return to do their business inside. I’ve written before about the odor of cat urine that wafts from the motel office when the door is open. If the humidity and wind are just right you can taste a hint of cat piss stank from several yards away.
Stepping foot inside the office can take one’s breath away and has, in fact, brought many a Ranger to their knees on several occasions. Bernadette has always greeted us without so much as a mention of the thick odor that gets on the back of one’s tongue and can cause an instant gag reflex in those not accustomed to it. I believe that perhaps that cat urine is an elixir that keeps the immune system robust, as evidenced by Bernadette’s many trips around the sun. Truth be told the rooms at the Ho Hum are clean and do not smell anything like the motel office. “Adequate” describes the rooms perfectly and that suits us just fine. Some of rooms have even been slightly updated over the years while still retaining a 1980’s (or earlier) vibe.
In 2018, as we were checking out after our annual stay, I asked Bernadette if she might field a few questions about her life and the history of the Ho Hum. She eagerly agreed and fortunately stepped outside of the office to chat with Marck and me. With a quick wit she talked a bit about her life growing up in North (I think) Dakota in a large family with multiple siblings of which I believe she was the oldest (and only remaining one). She seemed to enjoy chatting with us and I made some rudimentary notes, planning to scribe a UA blog entry once I got home. We learned that she and her late husband moved to West Yellowstone many decades ago. Her husband worked construction and was on the road a lot. They opened the Ho Hum, which Bernadette ran, and that’s what she has been doing since. For the life of me I could not find those notes when I got home and I should have written my blog while the details were still fresh and clear. Alas I did not, and after two years of not staying at the Ho Hum my recollection is fuzzy. After we wrapped up the interview I said, “We’ll see you next year,” to which she replied, “I sure hope so. I’m getting old, you know!”
Prior to the trip this year Marck dialed up the Ho Hum on the off chance that Bernadette might answer. Surprisingly she did, and Marck reminded her who he was and requested rooms 7, 8 and 9. For decades he has identified himself as, “Mark from Seattle” despite that he has never actually lived in Seattle. “Marck from Western Washington” may have been more accurate but the extra verbiage is cumbersome and not as easily retained. Bernadette did not seem to remember Marck this year and all she said before hanging up was, “Call back later!” With that we headed toward West Yellowstone this year, hoping that we would have rooms waiting for us because we did not have a backup plan. Morris arrived first and sent a group text, “She’s not answering the door.” This was not a good sign. Then came a triumphant followup text, “Woke up the old lady, but she couldn’t stand up. She has no idea who Marck is and we didn’t have a reservation. Nevertheless, we are in the old 7, 8 and 9.” The Rangers were back in the saddle at the Ho Hum! We enjoyed our 3 night stay immensely—it was just like the good old days prior to 2020/21.
On the evening before our departure this year—as we always do—we held our breath, walked into the office of the Ho Hum, and rang the bell. Much to our delight, this time Bernadette came to the desk and greeted us. Our faces clearly did not ring a familiar bell with her and she looked a bit older than the last time we’d seen her (the same can be said of the Rangers as well). We chatted a bit and she told us she turned 100 in October (2021). I told her she looked great for being so young, to which she leaned in a bit closer and with a bit of a smirk replied, “Well, I eat good!”. We paid for our stay and bade farewell, telling her we’d see her again next year. “I sure hope so,” she said. “You know, I’m getting old!”
I fully anticipate that when he calls next year to reserve rooms 7, 8 and 9, Bernadette will answer and still won’t know who Marck from Seattle is. She’ll probably tell him to call back later and then hang up on him. Maybe he should introduce himself as “Marck from Western Washington” although that wouldn’t be accurate either. He lives in Boise now.