Yellowstone is the world’s first national park that is now celebrating 150 years—its sesquicentennial—in 2022. Researcher and former Yellowstone tour guide David Galloway recently wrote about the expedition that led to Yellowstone’s founding in his book, Burning Ground, a brilliant, immersive story with an actual timeline of events and historical figures that imagines what it must have been like for the first white men to see a landscape the Crow Indians called “Land of Burning Ground.” Burning Ground is currently an Amazon bestseller in both Native American History and Western Science Fiction.
David Galloway grew up in rural Pennsylvania and worked in the paper industry before writing a bestselling nonfiction book titled “Safety WALK Safety TALK.” Then he decided to follow a once-dormant dream of writing a novel. David enjoys reading about adventurers and explorers, traveling internationally, riding a recumbent tandem bike, and spending time with his grandsons. Burning Ground was inspired by two memorable summers of his youth: one when he worked on a Pennsylvania fruit farm as a teenager and met Redfield, a Crow Indian who lived a simple life but had a profound effect on the way that David saw the world and people around him. Then, in the 1970s, David spent a summer in Yellowstone National Park and got to all corners of that magnificent land, often in the backcountry. He is currently working on the sequel to Burning Ground entitled Fatal Ground.
David is very excited about both his book and Yellowstone’s anniversary, and he recently discussed his career and experiences via an exclusive interview.
Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you get interested in Yellowstone? What did you most enjoy about the job?
D.A. Galloway (DAG): I was studying forestry at Penn State University in the late 1970’s. Yellowstone Park Company advertised summer employment opportunities working in the national park. Frankly, the jobs were not very glamorous or exciting. These were staff positions working in the various concessions throughout the park – hotels, cabins, restaurants, service stations, stores, etc. However, one opportunity caught my eye. It was “Dock Hand.” I applied, was accepted, and bought a one-way Greyhound bus ticket to Livingston Montana.
I arrived for work at Bridge Bay Marina, which is the only location on Yellowstone Lake that offers visitors an opportunity to charter a fishing boat & guide or take a tour on the lake. They did not have enough scenic cruise operators, so I was selected among the dozen or so dock hands to be trained to operate a 45-passenger tour boat. The rest of the summer I gave one-hour tours, providing commentary while navigating the boat around Stevenson Island.
On my scheduled days off, I hitch-hiked around the park and did a lot of backcountry hiking. One especially memorable event happened when I was hiking in a remote part of the lake and came across a grizzly bear. The bear “bluff-charged” me. He ran directly toward me. Then he suddenly stopped, turned, and loped away. It was one of the scariest moments of my life!
The bear incident was not my only encounter with wildlife that summer. One evening I was coming back from doing my laundry at dusk when a cow moose charged. I dropped my laundry and scrambled up a tree. She snorted and pawed at the base of the tree for a few minutes before sauntering away. It turns out she was simply protecting her calf. I had not seen either of them because it was nearly dark. In both cases, it was MY fault, not the bear or the moose. They were simply reacting instinctively and defending themselves or their young. Lesson learned!
MM: How did you decide to write a book and how long did it take to complete?
DAG: As a young tour guide, I had learned about the history of the park’s founding. I knew I wanted to write a story that incorporated my contemporary experiences in Yellowstone with the seminal events and people who contributed to its creation. I wanted to highlight how people can overcome handicaps and be successful. Some attributes and experiences of the protagonist Graham reflect my own. I am profoundly deaf in one ear. When he travels back in time to the nineteenth century, Graham is ‘blessed’ with perfect hearing – something I have never experienced, but I imagine would be wonderful.
I also wanted to realistically portray the ‘dark side’ of western expansion. You can’t gloss over the ill treatment of the US government on Native American tribes. All tribes were forced onto reservations. Their lives and livelihoods were destroyed by the slaughter of the bison herds. Sadly, the lieutenant who led the cavalry unit that escorted the Hayden Expedition through the Yellowstone wilderness had participated in the massacre of many Blackfeet women and children on the Marias River.
Life went on after that summer of ‘77. Decades passed. But I carried a love of Yellowstone with me. It only took forty-four years to start writing! I spent many months researching the early days of the Yellowstone region – before it was set aside as the world’s first national park in 1872. My goal was to tell a story that imagined what it must have been like to be among the first white men to see this wondrous land before there were any signs of civilization. I placed my protagonist (Graham Davidson) with the members of the 1871 Hayden Expedition. Once I put pen to paper, it took about 15 months to complete the novel.
MM: What were some of the coolest facts you came across as you completed your research?
DAG: While I relied heavily on my experience for the contemporary scenes, there was an enormous amount of research required to write about Yellowstone in 1871. Fortunately, several key members of The Hayden Expedition of that year kept diaries, which formed the basis for what happened to the protagonist Graham as the team traversed around the future park over thirty-eight days. My goal was to blend fact with fiction in a seamless way that would both inform and entertain the reader. I learned much about the culture of the Crow and grew to respect and admire these proud people. Perhaps the most surprising finding from my research was how close we had come to commercializing this magnificent region. Squatters had already filed land claims in the Mammoth Hot Springs area by the early 1870s and had planned to convert it into a spa! If Congress had not acted on setting aside Yellowstone in 1872, it would almost certainly look much different than the protected park we enjoy today.
MM: What’s your favorite thing about Yellowstone and why?
DAG: In a word: diversity. YNP is a land of extremes. Half of the world’s geysers are inside the park boundaries. The last time the Yellowstone supervolcano erupted was about 650,000 years ago. The Yellowstone eruption area collapsed upon itself, creating a sunken giant crater or caldera. The magmatic heat powering that eruption powers the park’s geysers, hot springs, fumaroles, and mud pots. All this thermal activity led the Crow Indians to name this region “Land of Burning Ground.” Thus, the name of my novel. There are hundreds of species of birds, fish, amphibians, reptiles, and mammals. Yellowstone is a land of grizzlies and geysers. It’s a land of wolves and waterfalls. It’s a land of hot springs and cold lakes! There is no place like it anywhere else in the world.
MM: Is there anything else that you would like to mention?
DAG: Burning Ground is the first book in the Frontier Time Traveler series, which will be a trilogy. My protagonist Graham Davidson will spend time in the same region during the years 1872 – 1876. His adventures will be centered on key historical events in the Montana and Wyoming territories during that time. It encompasses the first years of Yellowstone as a national park and includes the growing conflicts as Native Americans are forced onto reservations by the government.
Can Graham and Makawee (the Crow woman with whom he falls in love in Burning Ground) share a life even if they are from two different centuries and dramatically different cultures? Can Graham overcome the guilt he carries from being the lone surviving child in his family? Should Graham use his knowledge of the future to change the course of history – or should he knowingly allow hundreds to die? Only time will tell! Fatal Ground, the second book in the trilogy, will be released in late summer of 2022.