Could You Go Camping With President Roosevelt?

If you have liked How To Camp Out on Facebook recently, you might have seen a sister post to Camping With President Roosevelt in the past couple of weeks highlighting an article from Slate Magazine called When Thomas Edison and Henry Ford Went Car Camping. The photographer of these photos was an American Writer and Photographer by the name of John Burroughs.

Mr. Burroughs was a man with a lot of connections. Not only was he able to document a car camping trip consisting of two of the greatest minds of his age, but he was also able to go on a private camping trip with the then president of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt. So needless to say, he was a pretty legit dude.

Camping With Theodore Roosevelt(John Burroughs is center left with the long beard)


John Burroughs got a personal invite from President Theodore Roosevelt to go camping with him…..just stop for a second and imagine this….the inventor father of the national park invites you to go camping with him. How freaking cool would that be to go camping with President Roosevelt! Well luckily for us, Mr. Burroughs was not only an expert of his day with the camera, but he was also quite skilled in penmanship and wrote about his experience camping with Theodore Roosevelt.

If you want to read the whole piece John Burroughs wrote about his experience camping with Theodore Roosevelt, here is a direct link to download the PDF file.

Here is the best attempt at a Cliffs Notes version of the experience. It is highly recommended that you read the full story, which you can download here, but here are the highlights.

Camping With President Roosevelt

When the story first starts John Burroughs accepts Theodore Roosevelt’s invitation to go camping with him in Yellowstone. He accepts the invitation (that’s a given) and tells his experience of traveling across the West on rail. When he finally meets up with President Roosevelt Mr. Burroughs tells the story of his experience with riding in an “ambulance” which would be what we now call a Stagecoach of sorts.

“The President and his escort, with a cloud of cowboys hovering in the rear, were soon off at a lively pace, and my ambulance followed close, and at a lively pace, too; so lively that I soon found myself gripping the seat with my hands. “Well,” I said to myself, “they are giving me a regular Western send-off;” and I thought, as the ambulance swayed from side to side, that it would suit me just as well if my driver did not try to keep up with the presidential procession. The driver and his mules were shut off from me by a curtain, but, looking ahead out of the sides of the vehicle, I saw two good-sized logs lying across our course. Surely, I thought (and barely had time to think), he will avoid these. But he did not, and as we passed over them I was nearly thrown through the top of the ambulance. “This is a lively send-off,” I said, rubbing my bruises with one hand, while I clung to the seat with the other. Presently I saw the cowboys scrambling up the bank as if to get out of our way; then the President on his fine gray stallion scrambling up the bank with his escort, and looking ominously in my direction, as we thundered by.

“Well,” I said, “this is indeed a novel ride; for once in my life I have sidetracked the President of the United States! I am given the right of way over all.” On we tore, along the smooth, hard road, and did not slacken our pace till, at the end of a mile or two, we began to mount the hill toward Fort Yellowstone. And not till we reached the fort did I learn that our mules had run away. They had been excited beyond control by the presidential cavalcade, and the driver, finding he could not hold them, had aimed only to keep them in the road, and we very soon had the road all to ourselves.”

So here Mr. Burroughs is, riding along in an “ambulance” and has already had a trip….and they’re not even in the heart of Yellowstone yet. This trip would make the modern day camper run for the hills….or back to their cars! Not John Burroughs and Theodore Roosevelt though, they trekked on!

One of the strange things that has since seemed to have dramatically changed since these times is the docility of the animals in Yellowstone park.Take for instance this story of President Roosevelt eating lunch with the Elk.

Camping With President Roosevelt

“The situation was delightful,—no snow, scattered pine trees, a secluded valley, rocky heights, and the clear, ample, trouty waters of the Yellowstone. The President was not in camp. In the morning he had stated his wish to go alone into the wilderness. Major Pitcher very naturally did not quite like the idea, and wished to send an orderly with him.

“No,” said the President. “Put me up a lunch, and let me go alone. I will surely come back.”

And back he surely came. It was about five o’clock when he came briskly down the path from the east to the camp. It came out that he had tramped about eighteen miles through a very rough country. The day before, he and the major had located a band of several hundred elk on a broad, treeless hillside, and his purpose was to find those elk, and creep up on them, and eat his lunch under their very noses. And this he did, spending an hour or more within fifty yards of them. He came back looking as fresh as when he started, and at night, sitting before the big camp fire, related his adventure, and talked with his usual emphasis and copiousness of many things.”

As you can see, President Roosevelt knew more than just a thing or two about big game. He was a true outdoors-man with a passion for nature. It would be fair to say that while not every thing he did was always good for the country, his love for the outdoors benefited us greatly for generations to come.

In another story related by John Burroughs in Camping With President Roosevelt, he recounts a tale of when him and Teddy did some bird watching. Now while this may not sound as the most adventurous thing, keep in mind that these two had no trails, or GPS to guide them if they got off course. Just imagine the shear thrill of finding a new species!

“Very soon my attention was attracted by a strange note, or call, in the spruce woods. The President had also noticed it, and, with me, wondered what made it. Was it bird or beast? Billy Hofer said he thought it was an owl, but it in no way suggested an owl, and the sun was shining brightly. It was a sound such as a boy might make by blowing in the neck of an empty bottle. Presently we heard it beyond us on the other side of the creek, which was pretty good proof that the creature had wings.

“Let’s go run that bird down,” said the President to me.

So off we started across a small, open, snow-streaked plain, toward the woods beyond it. We soon decided that the bird was on the top of one of a group of tall spruces. After much skipping about over logs and rocks, and much craning of our necks, we made him out on the peak of a spruce. I imitated his call, when he turned his head down toward us, but we could not make out what he was.

“Why did we not think to bring the glasses?” said the President.

“I will run and get them,” I replied.

“No,” said he, “you stay here and keep that bird treed, and I will fetch them.”

So off he went like a boy, and was very soon back with the glasses. We quickly made out that it was indeed an owl,—the pigmy owl, as it turned out,—not much larger than a bluebird. I think the President was as pleased as if we had bagged some big game. He had never seen the bird before.”

One of the reasons you need to read the full PDF is this story. The heart of it is that Mr. Burroughs and Mr. Roosevelt while on their camping trip once tired out a group of about 3000 Elk. Now Elk are hearty creatures and if you’ve ever stalked an Elk before, or watched one run, you will know just how big of a feat this truly is!

“Presently, as I broke over a hill, I saw the President pressing the elk up the opposite slope. At the brow of the hill he stopped, and I soon joined him. There on the top, not fifty yards away, stood the elk in a mass, their heads toward us and their tongues hanging out. They could run no farther. The President laughed like a boy. The spectacle meant much more to him than it did to me. I had never seen a wild elk till on this trip, but they had been among the notable game that he had hunted. He had traveled hundreds of miles, and undergone great hardships, to get within rifle range of these creatures. Now here stood scores of them, with lolling tongues, begging for mercy.”

Not only did the two men experience the marvelous wonders of the wildlife, they also got to experience first hand the miraculous power of nature. Water, Wind, these are two awesome sources of life and energy. They can also be a massively destructive and geographically altering force as well. Mr. Burroughs describes their beauty and their force as exact as anybody has ever said.

Camping With President Roosevelt

“Nature shows you what an enormous furrow her plough can open through the strata when mowing horizontally, at the same time that she shows you what delicate and graceful columns her slower and gentler aerial forces can carve out of the piled strata. At the Falls there were two or three of these columns, like the picket-pins of the elder gods.”

There was no National Geographic or Discovery Channel back in those days to show what nature was like. If you wanted to see something, you’d have to go out and experience it for yourself! This shows why the things that we’ve all seen a hundred times now was so impressive to these men back then…..even impressive enough to leave your face half shaven to experience it!

“The President, with coat off and a towel around his neck, was shaving. One side of his face was half shaved, and the other side lathered. Hofer and I started for a point on the brink of the cañon where we could have a better view.

“By Jove,” said the President, “I must see that. The shaving can wait, and the sheep won’t.”

So on he came, accoutred as he was,—coatless, hatless, but not latherless, nor towelless. Like the rest of us, his only thought was to see those sheep do their “stunt.” With glasses in hand, we watched them descend those perilous heights, leaping from point to point, finding a foothold where none appeared to our eyes, loosening fragments of the crumbling rocks as they came, now poised upon some narrow shelf and preparing for the next leap, zigzagging or plunging straight down till the bottom was reached, and not one accident or misstep amid all that insecure footing. I think the President was the most pleased of us all; he laughed with the delight of it, and quite forgot his need of a hat and coat till I sent for them.”

It’s definitely hard to imagine in this day and age of a President of the United States going out and doing something so rugged and perilous. That was just the kind of man Theodore Roosevelt was though. You would of had a better chance trying to rope a Mountain Lion than to keep him on a leash.

Even in those days though, they kept a keen eye on the President’s safety….not too many years before had a President been assassinated in Ford’s theater and even just the President before Roosevelt succumbed to an infection following an assassination attempt. Mr. Burroughs tells the story of one night towards the end of their journey while they were back at Fort Yellowstone of the president sleeping with open windows and no security on guard.

“At Norris’s the big room that the President and I occupied was on the ground floor, and was heated by a huge box stove. As we entered it to go to bed, the President said, “Oom John, don’t you think it is too hot here?”

“I certainly do,” I replied.

“Shall I open the window?”
“That will just suit me.” And he threw the sash, which came down to the floor, all the way up, making an opening like a doorway. The night was cold, but neither of us suffered from the abundance of fresh air.

The caretaker of the building was a big Swede called Andy. In the morning Andy said that beat him: “There was the President of the United States sleeping in that room, with the window open to the floor, and not so much as one soldier outside on guard.””

One of the more mind blowing stories of this whole piece is the story Mr. Burroughs recounts of an experience while on their camping trips when one of the horsemen suddenly died from a heart attack. Did this stop them, no. After all, what could they really do about it but carry on. It’s just crazy to think about what would happen in today’s world if the President was camping out and one of his drivers or guides died…..undoubtedly it would make front page news and the trip would be over. To President Roosevelt and his camping party though, it was a minor side-note to the greater adventure.

“The second morning at Norris’s, one of our teamsters, George Marvin, suddenly dropped dead from some heart affection, just as he had finished caring for his team. It was a great shock to us all. I never saw a better man with a team than he was. I had ridden on the seat beside him all the day previous. On one of the “formations” our teams had got mired in the soft, putty-like mud, and at one time it looked as if they could never extricate themselves, and I doubt if they could have, had it not been for the skill with which Marvin managed them. We started for the Grand Cañon up the Yellowstone that morning, and, in order to give myself a walk over the crisp snow in the clear, frosty air, I set out a little while in advance of the teams. As I did so, I saw the President, accompanied by one of the teamsters, walking hurriedly toward the barn to pay his last respects to the body of Marvin. After we had returned to Mammoth Hot Springs, he made inquiries for the young woman to whom he had been told that Marvin was engaged to be married. He looked her up, and sat a long time with her in her home, offering his sympathy, and speaking words of consolation. The act shows the depth and breadth of his humanity.”

Camping With President Roosevelt is truly a insight into how people of that time lived. They were adventurers, explorers, true pioneers of their times. It is mind boggling to think of how far removed we are from the people of these times. The modern day luxuries of our time has undoubtedly softened our souls and made us weaker and our world smaller.

This is why we yearn to get outdoors, it’s in our blood! This great country we live in was founded by men and women like this. True pioneers. We yearn for the experiences that these people had, to be the first to experience something, to get out and live in the wild.

Go out and let your wilderness loving soul experience true ruggedness! While our rugged terrain is slowly escaping us, there are still plenty of opportunities to get out there and try your hand at living a rugged lifestyle….if only for a weekend.

What do you think about John Burroughs’ Camping With President Roosevelt? Has it inspired you to go out and pursue your own camping adventure? Sound off in the comments below!

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