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COOKE CITY — There was a fire in Cooke City on Thursday evening. A chimney and roof at the Soda Butte Lodge on Main Street caught fire, but was extinguished by the local volunteer department relatively quickly.

“Thanks to all of our volunteers for extinguishing the fire — Nick H., Rob, Bill, Rick, Jeff, Nick L., and Monica,” the department’s Facebook post at 10:45 p.m. read. “Additional support by Don, Kay, Ben Z., and John Hahn and YNP.”

In a town of about 80 year-round residents, it’s easy to know everyone’s name, or at least recognize their face. 

During a pandemic, that can be helpful. The attendant at the Exxon next to the Soda Butte Lodge looks out the window all day. If he recognizes you, he’ll crack the glass door open, ask you what you need, and go grab it off the shelf. If not, he’ll wave you away and tell you “no.”

“This door is locked,” a sign reads. The sign explains that while the town normally welcomes visitors, residents don’t want any right now.

At the northeastern entrance of Yellowstone National Park, Cooke City is both isolated and reliant on the outside world. In the summer, motorcycles and minivans traversing the Beartooth Highway line the town’s main drag. In the winter, the town is accessible only via an hour-and-a-half drive from Gardiner through Yellowstone National Park, but every year thousands of people make the trip to ski or snowmobile in the area’s legendary snow, which accumulates to more than 200 inches annually.

That traffic, along with visitation to neighboring Silver Gate, supports a dozen hotels and dozens of vacation rentals, as well as 10 restaurants. So when Yellowstone National Park closed on March 24, Park County officials allowed visitors to continue to head to Cooke City. 

In the following days, the town still had visitors, but nowhere for them to eat or go to the restroom. With restaurants closed by Gov. Bullock’s statewide directive, the only place to buy food was the Exxon station. The Chamber of Commerce closed its public bathrooms. A hotel owner called the Park County Health Department asking how best to feed his guests while limiting exposure to COVID-19. When the statewide stay-at-home order was put in effect on March 28, Park County officials decided to limit travel to Cooke City to residents and people on essential business, as defined by the order.

Now a ranger works at the park’s northern entrance in Gardiner to turn non-essential travelers away. As the road toward Cooke City leaves Yellowstone’s headquarters in Mammoth, Wyoming, an electronic sign reads: “No stopping. Through traffic only.”

The mail still comes to Cooke City in a gray Honda CRV with a “US Mail” sticker on the side. On Friday, April 3, a FedEx driver cruised past a pack of wolves feeding on a roadside carcass in Lamar Valley. 

Logistics created another complication on March 30, when Bullock announced that anyone entering or returning to the state has to self-quarantine for 14 days. If Cooke City residents want to go to the nearest full-service grocery store in Gardiner, they have to go through Wyoming. Sure, they’ll be in Montana when they leave their house, and in Montana when they arrive at the grocery store, but the majority of the drive through Yellowstone is in Wyoming.

The Park County Health Department put out a clarification on March 31: If you live in Cooke City and pass through Wyoming for groceries, you do not have to quarantine. 

Johnathan Hettinger / MTFP

Credit: Johnathan Hettinger / MTFP

The streets of Cooke City were mostly empty around noon on Friday. A few people walked down the middle of the snow-covered road to the post office to pick up a package. A few dogs roamed the abandoned streets. The whine of a single snowmobile resonated in the air. 

A Park County sheriff’s deputy, whose car idled while he talked with the Exxon attendant, pulled up to a couple of people who had been turned away from the store and asked where they were from.

The deputy explained that Cooke City is scared. The town has an older population, and has seen a lot of outsiders lately. 

There’s been a rumor that some people have been traveling through Yellowstone while the northern entrance is unmanned, either early in the morning or later in the evening. Residents don’t want anyone bringing COVID-19 into the community. The closest hospital is in Livingston, a two-and-a-half hour drive. As of Tuesday, April 7, Park County has recorded six confirmed cases of COVID-19.

The deputy then drove back toward Gardiner, to patrol the more-populous half of a county larger than the state of Rhode Island. 

On his way, he passed the High Country Motel, where a neon-red “no vacancy” sign flickered, but the only vehicle outside was a four-wheeler covered in snow.  A sign on the office door, which doubles as a gift shop and limited grocery, read:

“Due to the current state of affairs, we will be closed for 3 weeks or until further notice. We feel it is our duty to deter people from travelling, and to help protect the residents of our very small, end-of-the-road community. Thank you so much for your understanding.”

A smaller note, meant for locals, was taped next to the larger one.

“If you do need groceries, please call ahead and make arrangements and we will help you if we have stock/are home.”

The note concluded with the owners’ phone number. As in many small towns, locals know the first six digits: 406-838. All they have to remember are the last four.

Johnathan Hettinger

Johnathan Hettinger is a journalist based in Livingston. Originally from Central Illinois and a graduate of the University of Illinois, he has worked at the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, the Livingston Enterprise and the (Champaign-Urbana) News-Gazette. Contact Johnathan at jhett93@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter.