It began snowing sideways after midnight, and by dawn, the world was even whiter than the day before. Two inches of new snow lay on the ground, slopped upon the roofs and trees and mailboxes—even the dogs in the street shook their snowy dreadlocked fur and then playfully tumbled back into the drifts.

My own car had disappeared under a pile of pillowy feathers and I brushed it all away like an archaeologist unearthing important treasure. The engine sputtered alive and my wheels crunched and squeaked through all two blocks of snow—OK, I guess I could have walked, but something about the horizontal snowfall made me want to rumble through town in my car, where I felt like Jacques Cousteau exploring the underworld in a submarine.

West Yellowstone is a very small town. One guy told me as few as 600 residents live here year round—by numbers, it might officially qualify as a village. Within a day, I had traveled every ice-covered street in town and begun recognizing the dogs and their owners.

New snow brings out the child in me, and this very white morning felt like a snow day when school gets cancelled and you get to stay in your pajamas, eat pancakes and watch cartoons.

I had no TV and I wore snowpants over my long underwear, but pancakes was something I could manage—I parked outside the Running Bear Pancake House and shook off my snowy boots before entering the lively diner, complete with a taxidermied black bear hanging over the cash register. (I guess that bear didn’t run fast enough.)

Running Bear Pancake House, warming breakfast refuge of West Yellowstone, Montana (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler)

 

A pack of burly snowmobilers huddled around one table, sipping steins of coffee and having a man’s conversation that covered the topics of insurance, and the many different ways to wreck snowmobiles.

I ordered a tall stack of buckwheat pancakes, added a deluge of real maple syrup, then stared at the raging snow outside.

“How’s the road to Big Sky?” I asked the woman next to me. She was young and fair, with a dark bob, eating breakfast alone—like me.

“It’ll be clear about 15 miles north of here,” she replied, telling me that snow like this was perfectly normal. The roads were coated in white but people still got around just fine—they were already plowing the highway.

“Where I come from, this would be a snow day. The whole city would be shut down,” I laughed. When it comes to snow, Washington, D.C. turns histrionic.

The two of us chatted, passing ships at the breakfast table. Annica had moved back here from Washington State in order to run the family business. Which? I wondered.

Eagle’s Store,” she answered, “on Canyon Street.”

I’d passed it the night before—an actual general store that sells everything under the sun and still runs an old-time soda fountain.

“So your last name is Eagle?” I asked. She smiled and nodded.

“Annica Eagle,” she introduced herself.

“Are you Native American?” I was excited to meet an original Montanan—and she didn’t deny it.

“Not officially, but yeah, we have some Indian blood.” I can say the same about my own family—I think some Americans are a bit more native than we may think.

“But ‘Eagle’ isn’t our original name—they changed it at Ellis Island. My ancestors were German—Eckel.”

Annica told me she was the 4th generation to work the family store, founded way back in 1908. Like so many western towns, Eagle’s general store was the seed from which sprung the town of West Yellowstone.

“Back in 1908, they called it Yellowstone River—and then later they changed it to just plain Yellowstone,” she explained. “But then all the other towns around Yellowstone National Park made a fuss about that, so eventually the town was renamed West Yellowstone because it’s the west entrance to the park.”

We talked family businesses—the ups and downs. I reminded her how rare it is to find a century-old family retail business in this country, but out in West Yellowstone there was no competing Walmart or Target.

“Last year a million people passed through this town, but less than a thousand actually live here—so we do ok,” said Annica.

“So, what’s your best selling item in the whole shop?” I was suddenly curious.

“Right now, in winter?” she qualified my question.

“Sure.”

“Well, that’s easy: Columbia baselayers,” she thought for another second and then confirmed, “Yeah, that’s it.”

“Wait—like long underwear?” I checked.

“Yeah. Long underwear.” Annica smiled.

“Well, that makes sense,” I replied. “It sure gets cold here. I mean, just look at it!”

Outside the snow swirled down. My car was already reburied in white–the second time this morning—but Annica shrugged it off.

“Ah, this isn’t so bad.”

And she was right. Given that temperatures near West Yellowstone have dipped to sixty below—a snowy day in the upper teens was practically cozy. In fact, the coldest temperature in the contiguous United States was recorded in Montana (-70º F; −57 °C), so it makes perfect sense that long underwear is in high demand at Eagle’s Store. Although I already had a suitcase full of long underwear, I suddenly needed one more pair.

“Is your store open today?” I asked Annica and she laughed a little.

“Well, that depends. I’m eating breakfast right now and I’m the only employee. But I can open it up if you want something,” she offered.

“No, don’t open it up just for me,” I replied. Annica explained how in the dead of winter, they tended to only open the shop on weekends. Like me, she was holed up in the Running Bear Pancake House due to the heavy snow. We continued to chat over breakfast and shared bits of our lives with one another—I felt like I was conversing with a piece of Yellowstone history, even if she was younger than me.

“Do you ever feel some responsibility?” I asked, “ . . . you know, to keep up the store, since it’s been in your family so long?”

“Yes, I do,” she answered honestly. “My family founded this town—and today I’m the only one of my generation who’s taken any real interest in the store.”

I wondered what that was like to be born into this kind of American legacy—a family general store at the edge of America’s first national park—and though she offered again to open her store for me, I decided to let Annica have the day off.

I hope to return one day to this village of West Yellowstone (formerly known as just plain Yellowstone)—perhaps in summer. Maybe it will be one of those hellishly warm Yellowstone days, when the geysers and mudpots seem cooler than the western sun in the sky. Tired and sweaty I will seek refuge—not at the Running Bear Pancake House—but instead, at the cool soda fountain of Eagle’s Store.

I imagine Annica will be working there behind the counter, as her father and all of her great-uncles and older ancestors all have—and I imagine it will be so hot outside that an ice-cold old-fashioned chocolate soda will be just the thing.

Montana is one of three states to share Yellowstone National Park. (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler)

Comments

  1. Becky
    January 30, 2013, 9:31 am

    Absolutely fantastic writing. I’d love to be at that pancake house right now.

  2. Susan Jones
    Ohio
    January 30, 2013, 12:15 pm

    Glad you wrote about the “Running Bear” – it is a “can’t miss…drive a hundred miles” place for breakfast. Only open for breakfast and lunch no matter what the season – at least that’s what I encountered. Spotlessly clean and reasonably priced. We would come down from Chico Hot Springs just to eat there. Incidently, if you haven’t been to Chico…go! And don’t miss dinner – it’s a gourmet feast.

  3. Erma Loveland
    Abilene, Texas
    January 30, 2013, 11:16 pm

    Yes, you caught the essence of West Yellowstone on the computer screen. I’ve been through there in every season of the year and would go again — even in the wintertime, preferably when it is warmer than 60 below. We taught school in Saskatchewan and our parents lived in Idaho; so Yellowstone was the most direct, scenic route between the two. We learned that the animals had the right of way on the highway, that we were not to feed the bears nor drink the water near the geysers. Enjoy!

  4. [...] Buckwheat pancakes, Running Bear Pancake House, West Yellowstone, Montana (Read here) [...]

  5. Carter Bouslaugh
    Montana
    February 7, 2013, 11:33 am

    Too bad you didn’t stick around for a trip inside the park, its wonderful in the wintertime.

  6. Travel Is Free
    United States
    February 11, 2013, 4:26 pm

    As a southerner too (charlottesville, VA), I can’t imagine the roads being clear. I’d love to get out there in winter.

  7. Hanna vdW
    April 8, 2013, 11:47 am

    I am absolutely beaming. Annica is the single most perfect person to interview about this topic. (And what a tremendous bit of writing, too.)

  8. Annica Eagle
    West Yellowstone, Montana
    April 8, 2013, 12:36 pm

    Great article! I’m very flattered that you chose to write about the history of our little town and my family. I should clarify that there are only suspicions of Native influences in our family tree; nothing more substantiated than that.

  9. Annica Eagle
    West Yellowstone, Montana
    April 8, 2013, 12:42 pm

    Also, after our breakfast, I went and checked on the permutations of the town’s name: started as Boundary, then Terminus, then Riverside, then Yellowstone, and finally West Yellowstone (made official in 1920). It seemed I had some incorrect information.

    As for this coming summer season, there will be another Eagle working in the store, and there is a board of directors (all Eagles) that still keep the place afloat, even from afar.

    And please, come in for a chocolate soda this summer. On the house!

  10. Susan Eagle Reynolds
    Wynnewood. PA
    April 8, 2013, 3:56 pm

    The Eckel family immigrated to the United State through Philadelphia first settling in Bucks County, not Ellis Island.

    You should have talked to Annica longer. As I understand, her great grandfather on her mother’s side, Everton Judson Conger (April 25, 1834 – July 12, 1918), was an American Civil War officer who was instrumental in the capture of John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of President Abraham Lincoln, in a Virginia barn twelve days after Lincoln was shot. There is a display which mentions Conger in the Ford Theatre Museum. He was later was appointed as a United States District Court judge in the Montana Territory.