Oh, Ranger!
NPS Arrowhead logo

Dudes and Sagebrushers

IN the early days, all visitors to the national parks were divided into two kinds, "Dudes" and "Sagebrushers."

Dudes were those who traveled by train and motor stage.

Sagebrushers were those who rolled their own cars over the mountains.

In more recent years, with the tremendous increase in motor travel to the Parks, "Dude" has come to mean any one who stopped at the hotels or lodges. The campers are still called "Sagebrushers."

The term "Dude" originated years ago in the ranch country of North Dakota and Wyoming and was early adopted in Yellowstone Park. In those days the tourist who could afford the luxury of train travel was considered a person of some means. He wore his good clothes, at least until he reached the ranch or the park, and even then he was accused of being finicky. To the old-time horse wranglers on the ranches and to the old stagecoach drivers the infallible test of a Dude was to look behind his ears. Dudes invariably washed behind the ears even when they were roughing it. Try as he might to dress as a ranch hand and look like a regular wrangler, the Dude always gave himself away by some little foible such as this.


From a term of derision, the title "Dude" has grown in a quarter of a century to become one of distinction. At first it was used only by the help in the parks. Later Dudes began calling each other Dudes and were proud of it. The popularity of the western Dude Ranches as a headquarters for summer vacationists has helped to make the nickname popular. From the Yellowstone, the term spread to the other national parks, with certain variations. In all the parks the Dude is the visitor who stops at either the hotels or the lodges. Actually, a visitor's social standing or wealth or taste have nothing to do with his rating in a park. A Dude is a Dude and a Sagebrusher is a Sagebrusher. The latter may own the First National Bank in his own home town and arrive in the finest automobile, driven by a liveried chauffeur, but as soon as he crosses the park boundary he is a Sagebrusher, even if he chooses to camp out.

Nicknaming of people in the national parks does not stop with the visitors. The hired help are called "Savages." They fall into several groups. The dishwashers are called "Pearl Divers." The waitresses are called "Heavers." Tent girls and chambermaids are known as "Pillow Punchers." Chauffeurs are "Gearjammers" or just plan "'Jammers." Laundry girls are "Bubble Queens." Porters and bellboys are "Pack Rats" or merely "Rats." When a young man and a young woman step out in the evening for a stroll, they are said to be "rotten-logging," in the vernacular, whether or not they surrender to the temptation of sitting out a few dances on a nice soft decaying log. Much of the help in the hotels, lodges, and camps of the parks is recruited from colleges. One of the great charms of life in the parks is the vivacity and enthusiasm of these collegiate "Savages." Many of them choose a different park each summer. In most of the parks they are selected not only for their willingness to work, but also for their ability to entertain camp visitors with songs, skits, and programs.

Counting Dudes, Sagebrushers, and Savages alike, the total number of visitors to the national parks alone each year except in recent war years is approximately six million. That astounding total makes the parks the greatest tourist attraction of the United States, and possibly in the world. In fact, it has been said that the trek to the national parks each season is the greatest migration of all time, greater than the Gold Rush of 'Forty-nine or the invasion of Europe by Attila and his Huns. Rocky Mountain National Park for many years held the lead in number of visitors, then phenomenal increase in travel to Yosemite gave that park undisputed leadership in popularity, surpassed only recently by Great Smoky Mountains and Shenandoah and some of the historical parks in the East. Yellowstone, Rocky Mountain, Mount Rainier, Grand Canyon, and Hot Springs Parks are now visited by upward of a half million people each year. Crater Lake, Sequoia, Glacier, Zion, and other parks are each sought yearly by hundreds of thousands.

The majority of the Sagebrushers bring their own camping equipment and stop over whenever a mountain, a forest, or a fishing stream appeals to their fancy. They move on only when the spirit stirs them, some lingering all summer long in the mountains, where the air is clear, the mornings crisp, the sky blue, broken only by the clouds that drift lazily by. They delight in roughing it de luxe, in wearing khaki and knickers and boots and sweaters, either about their own campfires or at some rustic established camp where food and warmth and shelter are available at a cost so low that it is cheaper than staying at home.


Traveling through the national parks on de luxe stages is comfort itself nowadays. But before the coming of the automobile, it was an experience enjoyed only by the more adventurous spirits. The trip to Yosemite on the Cannonball Express, which made the run at what was considered terrific speed in those days—possibly ten miles per hour—was one full of thrills. Today the trip that once required an entire day is an easy run of three hours. The Cannonball Express carried the mail. The contract specified the time allowed to make delivery to Yosemite Valley. On one occasion, the Cannonball stage ran into a forest fire on a narrow road high in the mountains, at a point where it was impossible to turn around. With the flames sweeping down upon the coach, the situation was one of great danger. Calling to his passengers to cover their faces, the driver whipped his horses and dashed at full speed into the fire and through it. Not one of his frightened passengers was injured, though the horses were badly singed and the canvas cover to the luggage at the back of the coach was blazing when the rolling vehicle came to a stop a mile or so beyond the forest fire.

Hold-ups were frequent in those early days. Daring robbers frequently felled a tree across the road to trap a stagecoach where it could not be turned around to escape. Occasionally the bandits made off with good hauls. Some were captured, more were not. One particularly daring hold-up that has become notorious in story was staged about halfway between Old Faithful Inn and the Lake, in Yellowstone. The bandit took a position behind a rock projecting into the road at a very sharp curve, a point from which he could control the road for several hundred yards in either direction. He spread out a blanket near the road, and as the coaches came around the great rock he commanded the drivers to stop. He directed the passengers to step out and empty their valuables from their pockets to the blanket. The Dudes were huddled on a hillside which the bandit easily controlled from his vantage point. As the next stage appeared, he repeated the operation, carrying on a running conversation all the while with his victims, joking about their plight, bantering them, and generally keeping them in good humor. This fellow single-handed actually held up the passengers of twenty-eight stages in a row and made his get-away into the mountains with the blanket containing about four thousand dollars. This bandit escaped from the park, his identity unsuspected, and he would never have been caught had it not been for a quarrel with his wife, who in revenge revealed his secret. He was then captured, tried, and sentenced to a term in Leavenworth. Finishing his sentence, he went to California, where he died eventually eating an ice-cream cone!

Bandit stories and other yarns of adventure in the parks in the early days, as told by the Old-Timers, are still a source of delight to the Dudes as they gather for the evening lectures at the hotels and lodges. Some of the tales have grown with the years until they have become known as "whoppers." The whoppers started in the Yellowstone country shortly after the first explorers returned to civilization. The stories they told of boiling water spouts eighty feet high, of boiling mud puddles and hot-water pools and streams, were just too preposterous to be believed by the wise folks at home, who knew such things simply could not exist.


Most noted of all these early purveyors of whoppers was Jim Bridger, the pioneer trapper and pathfinder and one of the first white men to penetrate the fastnesses of Yellowstone. When Jim Bridger found that the truth was doubted anyway, he concluded that he might as well make his lies colossal ones. He enlarged and developed upon them until he arrived at a state of perfection, the like of which has never been equaled since his time. One of his best stories was an account of how he caught fish in a cold stream, flopped them into a pool of boiling water alongside the stream, and cooked them there. This was not necessarily fiction, for there are at least a dozen places in Yellowstone where one could do exactly that. To vindicate Jim Bridger's veracity in that one story the Sierra Club, the California mountaineering society, on the occasion of an outing in the Yellowstone did cook trout and make coffee in a boiling pool. So the distance between the truth and the whopper is not so great after all.

A few years ago, in the course of a summer spent in the Yellowstone, Harry W. Frantz, the well-known Washington correspondent and writer, became interested in these whoppers from the old days and gathered from some of the Old-Timers their most whopping whoppers. He would come to the evening gatherings at the hotels dressed in old buckskin clothes, a Buffalo Bill hat and long, black whiskers. Interrupting the ranger's nature talk, this picturesque character, who apparently had just straggled from the jumping off place would demand:

"Ranger, where does the West begin?"

The ranger never seemed to know the answer to that one. "Well, I'll tell you," the old man would say. "It's half way between St. Paul and Minneapolis. I know, because I was out here in the 'sixties when the West began. There wuz nothin' but sagebrush an' Injuns as far as the eye could see, Buddy, I helped to start the West. Say, would you like to hear about some of the Injun fights we had?"

The ranger invariably appeared annoyed at this interruption, but the Dudes always clamored for more.


"Well, it wuz in the fall o' sixty-nine an' the Injuns out here wuz thicker'n fleas on a yaller dog. I ran into thousands of 'em, right here on this spot where we're talkin' now, an' when they saw me they started to chase me. Their war whoops wuz blood-curdlin', an' they waved their tommyhawks an' came right after me. I ran up yon' canyon, hopin' to get away from 'em. But they kep' on comin' an' gainin' on me. I ran faster an' faster, but they kep' a gainin' an' a-gainin' an' pretty soon they caught up with me. I saw somethin' had to be done, an' I looked up. To the left o' me wuz a cliff a mile high and to the right o' me another one half a mile high, so I kept on runnin' straight ahead. All of a sudden I came 'round a bend an' right in front o' me wuz a cliff two miles high. I wuz trapped. That's all they wuz to it—trapped, where the devils couldn't help but get me"

Dead silence, as the old fellow finished his story.

Some Dude always broke it with:

"Well, what did they do to you?"

Trembling with emotion, the old man said: "By God, they killed me!"

Another whopper that always made a hit was the story originally told by "Buffalo" Jones who claimed he once saved the bison from extinction. He galloped into the Yellowstone one time, he said, to find the last of the bison being killed by the wolves and the coyotes. In fact, the bison were all dead but a few calves, which the wolves were just preparing to kill.

"I roped eight calves and saved them," he asserted, "though the wolves and the coyotes were surrounding us by the hundreds. As soon as I got one calf, I tied my hat to it, knowing the wolves would never touch anything tainted with the fresh scent of man. To the next calf I tied my coat, to the next my vest, and so on, until I didn't have anything on but my socks. When I had saved the eighth, I picked it up in my arms and galloped back for the seventh, which was surrounded by wolves. I then hurried back to the sixth and grabbed that calf just in the nick of time. I tied the lasso around these calves and fastened the end to the horse's neck and raced to the other calves and saved them again just in time. The strain of saving them all was so great that I fainted, but just then my boys came up and drove off the wolves and gave me some whisky and saved the calves so that the bison was never entirely wiped out."

It is a happy custom which has grown up in all of the national parks for the Dudes and Sagebrushers to gather after dinner about the fire, either in hotels, lodges, or in the private camps, for informal entertainment, starting usually with singing and other musical entertainment, and then resolving into the evening discussions with the rangers. The rangers talk of the natural wonders, or of the wild life, or sometimes tell tales on the Dudes and Sagebrushers themselves, to their evident enjoyment. The evening fireside gathering has become so popular in some of the parks that the rangers have built open-air assemblies with logs for seats and bonfires for the stage lights. While not as comfortable as the lobbies of the hotels, the campfires lend more enchantment and atmosphere to the gatherings. Many times the campfire under the stars lures the guests away from the hotel for the evening. The firelight flickering on the trees, the odor of burning pine, the witchery of the starry sky overhead, the comradery of the camp, combine to cast the spell of the wilderness over the visitor.

From every corner of the land they gather, swapping ideas, talking over road conditions, telling their adventures and listening to those of their new-found neighbors, or enjoying the impromptu entertainment of a band of informal musicians. There is always somebody who can do something around a campfire.

"I have met people here from every state in the union," exclaimed President Harding after he had visited a number of these camps. "This is a cross section of America. There are no finer playgrounds in the world." Like many another observer, he was enraptured by the spirit, the fraternity, of the campfire "town meetings."

The Sagebrusher has the advantage over the Dude in one respect, at least. Having his own outfit, he can make camp wherever he chooses, and linger as long as he chooses. He can take time to enjoy the mountains—this life about the campfires, so colorful, so rich in song and tradition, the chance to shake off the years and be young once more for a few days or a few weeks. Most of the Sagebrushers do travel leisurely, but now and then one comes "High-balling" it through the Parks, as did the motorist who drove up to the entrance to Rocky Mountain Park and demanded of the ranger, without getting out of his car:

"How long does it take to see this park?"

"You could do a good part of it in two days," said the ranger.

"Too long. Gimme a sticker, will you, so I can prove I've been here."

This happens occasionally at all of the parks. Why such visitors come, no one knows. Where they are going, no one knows—least of all they themselves. But these are the exceptions to the rule among the Sagebrushers, who, having no schedules to keep, make the side trips, explore for fishing streams and lakes, stop over longer, as a rule, than visitors who travel more formally. The Sagebrushers have always been the nomads of the parks.

Sagebrushers derive their nickname from the early days when their forerunners arrived at Yellowstone, Yosemite, and other older national parks in covered wagons. Days on end they drove their horses or mules across the plains, en route to the parks, camping each night in the sagebrush. Roads were bad, stores were few, and the early camper was obliged to bring with him such comforts of home as he expected to enjoy in the park. The trip was sufficiently strenuous and hazardous that he stayed some time in the park, often a month or more. It took the old-time Sagebrusher eight days to make the loop in Yellowstone, which any motorist can do in a day nowadays.

The first Sagebrushers to forsake their covered wagons for the noisy early automobiles were not very hospitably received at the gates of the national parks. They were told to park their cars outside the boundary lines, until in 1913 the first autos were permitted to enter Yosemite Valley as an experiment. Even then the authorities there were suspicious of the little juggernauts. Motorists were instructed to drive their cars to the parking area in the center of the Valley, where the gas buggies were chained to great logs. By heck, they were not going to have any of those new fangled vehicles starting up and running away!

These stern restrictions quite naturally met with much protest on the part of motorists, particularly in California where the automobile clubs were growing rapidly. The concern of the park authorities was mainly for the safety of Dudes riding in stages whose horses might become frightened at the noisy automobiles. For a time, it was thought that special roads must be built for automobiles. This plan was abandoned because of the expense, but in most of the parks certain hours were set aside when automobiles could use the roads. During these hours, the horse drawn vehicles were ordered off the roads. Many people who opposed the admission of autos insisted that the use of a machine in the mountains was but a fad which would pass. Now the national park Service is wondering what to do about the airplane!


Oh, Ranger!
©1928, 1929, 1934, 1972, Horace M. Albright and Frank J. Taylor
albright-taylor/chap2.htm — 06-Sep-2004