At height of Cold War, a July 4 Yellowstone tour — with Soviets

The summer of 1963 was the third season I was working as a park ranger in Yellowstone National Park, stationed at West Thumb Geyser Basin, at the northwest corner of Lake Yellowstone.
I was one of several ranger-naturalists whose job it was to help educate visitors about Yellowstone and especially about this colorful area.
One early morning after breakfast, I joined my ranger partners at the entrance to the geyser basin walk, overlooking the oozing claylike formations, commonly known as the “paint pots.”
There were no visitors yet, but surprisingly the chief ranger’s car pulled up. He informed us that there would be a special escorted tour of Soviet students who would arrive at West Thumb the next morning, Wednesday, to begin a tour of the park’s geologic features.
We were shocked to hear “Soviets” because we were supposed to be in a “Cold War,” which included neither of our citizens being allowed to visit the others’ country.
It had been less than a year since the Cuban Missile Crisis, when we had been at the brink of war with the Soviet Union.
The chief ranger explained that the U.S. State Department had approved this tour before relations had deteriorated and “they wanted to show good faith.”
Luckily, I was off the next day and I would not have to be around to have to deal with the pressure of having to perform for the Soviets.
On Wednesday, I had left the park and returned too late to check up on how things had worked out with the Russian group.
Thursday morning, I was shocked, “oy vey,” to find a yellow school bus waiting. The chief ranger explained that the group was running a day late.
The “students” were not high school kids, as I had imagined, but were actually graduate geology students. Supposedly, no one spoke English so I was told to speak to their leader, who was their interpreter.
The bus took us all a short way to where the tour normally ended. By going backward, we were trying to avoid any regular tourists from joining us. We would start at Abyss Pool (the deepest one in the park) and would end at the Paint Pots, where the bus was to wait for a quick departure.
The tour proceeded and what I found annoying was the manner in which the leader-interpreter treated the students. He was curt and gruff with them, always trying to get them to stay close together.
I began to think that he might be afraid of someone defecting, as he urged his charges to board the bus. Luckily, there had been no incidents with the regular tourists we met coming from the opposite direction.
All the students with the exception of one fellow had boarded the bus. He was next to me taking yet another photo of the bubbling, colorful paint pots. The leader was at the bus door yelling at him in Russian, “to hurry up!”
This student, while “taking a photo,” turned slightly toward me whispering in perfect English, “I wish more of my people could see this.” … Then off he went with the others.
I was shocked at what I had just heard. As the bus pulled away, I glanced at my watch. I noticed the date before I saw the time….It was July 4 …. It felt so good to be an American that Independence Day.

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