Have you ever wondered what it was like to travel through the U.S. when railroad trains had newly opened up the whole country? Do you enjoy travelogues by fluent observers in the graceful cadences of the nineteenth century? Would you be curious as to what you could see and do when you rode horseback along crude trails before smooth asphalt roads opened the park to automobiles?
The intrepid Belgian travel writer Jules Leclercq wrote a book about his 1883 trip that answered those questions and many more: La Terre des Merveilles: Promenade au parc national de l’Amérique du Nord. Unfortunately, this delightful travel account was never published in English until now. The University of Nebraska Press is bringing out the annotated translation that my colleague Suzanne Cane and I have made of Leclercq’s book, calling it Yellowstone, Land of Wonders. We have just learned that the publication date will be May 1, 2013, and, of course, we’re excited to be able to see our work of six or seven years come to fruition.
Here’s a passage that’s a favorite of mine, about the first camping spot Leclercq’s party made after glimpsing Norris Geyser Basin:
Upon our return to the camp, night was falling. As we had eaten nothing since eight o’clock in the morning, I will let you wonder whether we did justice to the elk roast we were served in the tent, by the light of a candle stuck in the neck of a bottle. If, in Clarke’s opinion, the coffee was not as good as that which we had so often happily savored in Iceland, to compensate, the icy water drawn from the nearby river was excellent.
After this copious repast we fraternized with a caravan of American travelers who had just arrived from the south; among them was an intrepid horsewoman. We made a circle in the open air around a large campfire fed by whole pine trees.
While we were conversing around the merry flames, our friend Alexander sent us distant echoes of Mendelssohn’s Wedding March from deep in the woods, played on a perfectly portable little concertina that is the companion of all his travels. It was doubtless the first time that these lonely wilds had resounded with such harmonious chords.
This music in the bosom of the wilderness plunged me into a delicious reverie. No other evening has engraved itself more profoundly on my memory. Never had stars seemed to me to shine with such vivid brilliance: one might have said countless golden lamps dispersed in infinity.
I have always been vividly impressed by the beauty of the nights in these high northern regions of the Rocky Mountains. The brilliance of the stars is due to the great clarity of the air at these elevations; the atmosphere is so dry that all you need do is pass your hand rapidly over a bison pelt to make electric sparks fly. Nights are cold, and in the month of August, frosty nights regularly follow blazingly hot days. . .