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The Story of Black George, Death Canyon and Root Beer Floats

Question of the day: Where can a hiker go to find a decent root beer float in the backcountry?

The little-known answer: Black George's cabin at the mouth of beautiful (despite its name) Death Canyon in Grand Teton National Park.

And here's a hint: When you approach the cabin, know the secret password. You can find it stenciled on the canopy of George's pickup truck, and you'll spot it on his license plates, too: "Yee-ha."

Black George Simmons is a New Orleans native and an 87-year-old national park volunteer who has spent the past 15 summers in the Tetons, while also devoting time to Canyonlands and Big Bend. In the Tetons he keeps meticulous records of trail usage (Death Canyon hikers actually trip a motion-detecting electronic beam near the trailhead that documents their passage) and daily temperature extremes, plus less critical data such as mice trapped at his cabin and, of course, root beer floats distributed. His single-season record: 575.

What's up with the root beer floats, George?REI's T.D. Wood shares a yee-hah with Black George

Just a throwback, he says, to fond memories of a family tradition. "My 3 boys loved root beer floats," George says. "So I made a deal with them: When we went on trips, any time we spotted an A&W stand we would stop. Unless one of them said they had had enough. The youngest one used to get a black-and-blue arm from his brothers punching him whenever he said he didn't want any more."

George dishes out floats to all comers for 3 reasons. "One," he says, "I want people to be sold on the National Park Service. Two, I want them to like the Tetons. Three, I want them to be my personal friend, and sharing a root beer float is a good way to make friends."

Black George seems to have no shortage of friends, or stories. He spent 31 years as a geologist for the U.S. Geological Survey, figures he has visited 55 or 60 countries and has gathered a working knowledge of several languages along the way. His latest challenge: Working up a dialogue with a raven that has become a cabin regular. "Caw. Caw-caw!" George barked in one avian-human give-and-take.

Among some of the yarns he trotted out during my visit:

• While in Nairobi, he learned to SCUBA dive from a master diver from Sweden.
• While in Brazil, he collected orchids as a member of the Brazilian Orchid Society, monitored a local election and now sleeps beneath a Brazilian flag given to him by a waitress he befriended in Moab. Utah.
• After riding Russia's Trans-Siberian Railway in the 1980s, a conversation with a local evolved into something more like a Cold War interrogation, making George uneasy. The solution? Bluff his way out by dropping a fake name when asked to identify himself: "John Elway," he told the inquisitive Russian. The man suddenly beamed. "Yon El-way?!" The man hugged George and walked away smiling. George still has an autographed photo of Elway, the Hall of Fame pro football quarterback, which he received after writing to the Denver Broncos with the story.

What about that name -- Black George? "That harkens back to several dark chapters in my life" he says, not tipping his hand to whether he's serious or not, then begins singing the French national anthem in French. At other times George trots out phrases in Portuguese, Spanish, German and Aramaic. He also knows Morse code.

George concedes age is taking a physical toll ("I'm down to 17 teeth") and he mocks his lucidity when a familiar acquaintance drops in ("Senility is doing to me what religion could not accomplish," he bellows). Yet George, who raises both arms and greets all visitors with a "Yee-ha," appears to still be on his game mentally. He points out the only warm-blooded mammals whose blood contains no cholesterol are Antarctic penguins, and that 4 U.S. states still refer to themselves as commonwealths: Massachusetts, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

Computer-savvy George (he was playing computer chess on the morning of my first visit) regularly publishes a 4-page newsletter: The White Grass Morning Report. (The name comes from a nearby historic ranch.) In one early-August issue he railed against a park decision to send out a work team wielding axes and shovels to rid the Death Canyon trailhead of nonnative purple thistles.

His commentary: "The White Grass Sheriff (that would be George), long a defender of the cockroach, which has survived 55,000,000 years, and the coyote, which has resisted hunting, poison and traps, advised the assailants that the Purple Thistle, too, was a survivor and that its manifest destiny might reside in Teton Park." He also dished out root beer floats to the entire work crew -- 1 scoop of vanilla ice cream stirred into a tall plastic glass filled with root beer. A&W root beer, of course.

"They were neat young kids," he says. "They liked the floats. Everybody likes root beer floats." Yee-ha to that, George.

Posted on at 3:13 PM

Tagged: Grand Teton National Park, Hiking, black george, death canyon, john elway, national parks, root beer floats and white grass ranch

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emcbabe

T.D. -thanks for the wonderful story of a fascinating man who has really LIVED. makes me so want to get some time of from my job and get out somewhere somehow sometime soon!

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Jamilla

Thanks for writing this story about Black George. He is truly a remarkable man. He is my mentor and a joy to be with. He is also an outstanding photographer. As far as I know, he is loved by everyone who knows him. Yeeha!

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BinaryPretzel

Great story. I love Root Beer!

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