It was a lazy afternoon on the portico balcony of the Old Faithful Inn, where there’s no Wi-Fi or TV. A crowd had gathered to wait for the geyser to blow, and the rustic benches and chairs were lined up and filled like pews at church. But there was no eruption yet.
So Mark du Mas, a solo traveler from Smyrna, Ga., who had come here to celebrate his 65th birthday, pulled out his harmonica. While clouds floated by and kids dripped ice cream from their just-bought cones, Du Mas, his inhibitions loosened by a beer, started in on “Oh! Susanna.”
It was not an expert version, but in this most American of settings, it was the right sound at the right time. When Du Mas was done, the balcony gang was ready to applaud. Then came “Red River Valley.” Then “Shenandoah.”
Du Mas, who has a day job running the Paces Foundation, a nonprofit affordable-housing agency, is quick to call himself an amateur at the harmonica. He picked up the instrument “maybe 10 or 15 years ago,” when a nearby Presbyterian church offered night classes.
“I thought: ‘I’ve got 10 holes I can blow out of. How hard can that be?’”
As Du Mas learned, it can be plenty hard. By the time he had completed several sessions, he was campfire-ready. Now he has 10 harmonicas, which he likes to play on visits to his mother in the hospital.
“They love it in the memory ward,” Du Mas said.
He got plenty of use out of it on the Yellowstone trip. A few nights after the Old Faithful Inn gig, he made his way down to Bechler, a remote campground in the southwest corner of the park, for some fishing. As he played in the evening, three guys from Charleston, S.C., ambled up to join him around the campfire. And then?
“We all sat around drinking whiskey like cowboys.”
But not every time is right for a harmonica. Near the end of his trip, Du Mas found himself at the Madison Hotel/Motel/Hostel in West Yellowstone, Mont., on a rainy morning.
After bunking for the night in a dorm room, he slipped into the lobby about 9 a.m. It seemed like a good moment for music, Du Mas said, until the manager appeared.
“Look,” he told Du Mas. “That’s just a little too early to play the harmonica in our lobby.”