The next morning, Nathan was anxious to find out about the cell phone call, but reluctant to bring it up. He didn’t have to wait long, though, before Nanette discussed the attempted robbery at The Alpaca at breakfast the next morning.
“Maybe the police will get them this time,” Frank suggested, but without conviction.
More Yellowstone sight-seeing was on the agenda for the morning, but as they drove into the park, traffic was at a crawl.
“What’s taking so long?” Peter complained.
“There’s a bald eagle nest with eaglets in a tree a little ways up ahead. Cars aren’t allowed to stop, so everyone’s just going slow to get a glimpse,” Frank said, relaying information the ranger told him when they entered the park.
Peter sighed loudly.
“It could be worse,” Nanette said. “Remember yesterday when the cars in the other lane were stuck behind a bison ambling down the road?”
After they passed the eagle’s nest, traffic returned to normal. They stopped to see the colors at the of steam rising from the Grand Prismatic Spring. They saw fountain paint pots, firehole falls, elk, and some small geysers.
“Yellowstone is like a place where tall tales are true!” Ashley observed. “Those hot springs and geysers are pretty scary! Imagine coming across them when all you expect are normal lakes and stuff.”
“What’s up with the trees?” Nathan asked. “It looks like a toothpick forest over there, and I noticed it yesterday too. Why are so many of them dead?”
“I asked a ranger and he said they are the result of the fires in Yellowstone in 1988,” Frank said. “ I remember that happening, but not much about it. I think most were caused by lightning and were considered part of the natural ecology of the park, but 1988 was drier than many years and a lot of the fires got out of control. It might be an interesting thing to look up when we get home.”
“Uh huh,” said Nathan, without enthusiasm. He was already watching some bison in a clearing up ahead.
They arrived at Old Faithful shortly before it was scheduled to erupt at 11:53 am.
While waiting for the geyser they struck up a conversation with some people around them. One of them, a man named Guy who was there with his wife Anita, heard the Hale’s say they were from Apex, NC, and he chimed in that he had a brother who lived in Cary, NC, not far from where the Hale’s lived.
“Wow! That’s an amazing coincidence!” Nanette exclaimed.
“Almost a miracle!” Nathan said.
“I wouldn’t go so far as to say it was a miracle,” Guy chuckled. “Although it is a coincidence.”
“But what are the chances?!” Nathan said.
Guy turned to Anita, “Do you want to tell him?”
“Let’s see,” Anita said.
“I should warn you, I’m a math teacher and she’s a statistics professor,” Guy said.
Anita continued, “What would you consider a miracle? If we had a relative anywhere in Apex or Cary, or anywhere in Wake County or anywhere in North Carolina?”
“Wake County, I guess,” Nathan said.
“Let’s say there’s about 1 million people in Wake County. I think I remember that from the last time we visited. There are 300 million people in the US. If you assume the tourists here are evenly distributed among the US population, there would be a 1 in 300 chance that someone here was from Wake County. Or a 299 in 300 chance of not being from Wake County.”
“That seems pretty small.”
“But, each person has family members who aren’t here. Say the average person here has, oh, about 10 immediate family members—siblings, parents, in-laws, kids, and such. And–how many people would you say were here? Let’s say 200. The chance that no one here has an immediate family member in Wake County would be 299 divided by 300—about .1 raised to the 2000 power, which would be .001, or .1% chance. So there’s a 99.9% chance that someone else here either is from Wake County or has a close relative who lives in Wake County.”
“Of course, that’s making a lot of assumptions,” Guy said. “And she skipped some steps.”
“But we didn’t talk to everybody here…” Nathan said.
“No, but I bet you talk to lots of people in your travels. And I bet ‘where are you from?’ is one of the first questions you talk about. Eventually you would meet someone with a relative from Wake County and you would think it was a miracle.”
“I had a teacher once who said that statistics were a fancy way of lying,” Nathan said.
“There’s a famous quote about that, yes,” Anita said. “It’s because people don’t understand statistics very well that others get away with using them deceptively. I recommend you learn as much as you can about probability and statistics so you won’t be the one deceived.”
“Of course you would say that. You’re a professor!” Nathan said, half joking.
“Why isn’t the geyser erupting yet? It’s 11:54!” Peter interrupted.
“Maybe this will be the first time in recorded history that Old Faithful doesn’t go off,” Nathan said. “That would be an unlikely coincidence.”
Nathan, Peter and Ashley moved closer to the geyser as it started to make some fitful spits. It even appeared to erupt, but fell after rising a disappointing few feet. Nanette and Frank talked with Guy and Anita a little longer until Old Faithful finally erupted in a suitably spectacular way at 11:56 am.
“See, it was faithful after all!” Nathan said.
“The perfect climax of our Yellowstone adventure!” Ashley added.
“Let’s go,” Peter said as soon as the geyser showed signs of settling down. “We need to get Nathan’s photos.”
“Ok, Ok, we’re on our way,” Frank said and the family left Yellowstone to pick up Nathan’s developed film and head south to their next stop in Utah.
On the road again, Nathan and Peter eagerly pulled out the photos looking for the ones of the BGs car. They had a fuzzy one of the license plate, although the letters and numbers were still visible. “This proves it was the BGs car, but I guess it’s not any more,” Nathan said.
They had three pictures of the car’s interior. One of them was of the floor and showed the corner of Ashley’s fanny pack. The second had a lot of glare from the window so it was hard to see anything. The third was the best and was a good view of a US map spread out on the seat. The boys squinted and stared trying to make out every marking as best they could. “I can see why detectives need magnifying glasses!” Nathan said.
“Mom, could we use your glasses as magnifying lenses?” Peter asked.
“No,” Nanette answered. “I’m nearsighted. My lenses make things smaller, not bigger.”
“It wouldn’t matter anyway,” Nathan said. “The problem is that the picture is too fuzzy. We can read the western half of the map pretty well because it’s closest to the camera, but the eastern half is fuzzy.”
Nanette produced their own travel atlas, and the boys then compared the locations to figure out their best guesses for the locations marked in the east.
They were passing the grandeur of the Tetons when Nathan and Peter were ready to give their report on the photo.
There were stars on the map at six spots: Chicago near Lake Michigan; Salt Lake City near the Great Salt Lake; Bass Lake, California (which had two stars); Lake Mead in Nevada; a location on the Florida panhandle that they thought was Pensacola or Fort Walton Beach; and a location in the middle of Virginia that seemed to be near Richmond.
Three locations were circled in black pen: Buffalo, Wyoming; the north part of Lake Tahoe; and a location in the northwest corner of Indiana that they were sure must be Merrillville.
Other places were circled in pencil: Mitchell, South Dakota; Mt. Rushmore; Yellowstone; Randolph ,Utah; Reno, Nevada; and Bass Lake California.
“The two jewelry stores are at two of the three starred locations,” Nathan said. “I wonder if there’s another one near Lake Tahoe? Could these be the locations of jewelry stores?”
Peter said, “Maybe they’re places that they sell their old money and stuff to make modern money?”
“Or places they plan to rob?” Nathan suggested.
“The second set of circled locations—the ones circled in pencil—I think those are the ones I put on our itinerary for Liz and Jorge so they’d have an idea of where we were going each day.” Nanette said. “I planned to call them from Bass Lake to update them on the mystery and give them the rest of our itinerary.”
“Ah ha!” Peter said. “So I was right! Rob did call ahead to give our locations to Mo and Bear!”
“Don’t jump to conclusions too quickly,” Frank said.
“I think even those professors at Yellowstone would agree that the odds of Peter being right are pretty high!” Nathan said. “They just happened to put the exact same locations on their map that Mom wrote on a piece of paper that was stolen a couple days ago?”
“Yes, you’re probably right,” Frank admitted. “Force of habit. ‘Don’t jump to conclusions’ was sort of my catchphrase when I was young and solving mysteries with my friends.”
“And don’t forget solving mysteries with me!” Nanette said.
“You were one of my friends!” Frank responded with a smile. “And then we became better friends.”
“Gag,” said Peter.
“What about the starred locations?” Ashley asked.
“Well, I don’t want to ‘jump to conclusions,’” Nathan said pointedly. “But one of those locations—the one by Lake Michigan—was a spot they had hidden treasure. Maybe that’s true of them all?”
“The places are so far apart!” Peter said. “Why don’t they stay in one place?”
“The time machine can travel in space and time,” Nanette said. “Tim said it’s normally set to stay in the same location on earth as it travels through time. There is a way to get it to change locations as well as time, but it has limited range.”
The family talked some more about the mystery until their theories were all used up. Finally the kids settled down to watch another movie. They had a break in Afton, Wyoming, as they drove under the “World’s Biggest Elk Antler Arch.” Nathan then started telling a story about “Charlie-ville” that had the “World’s Biggest Lego Arch.”
By dinnertime they reached Cokeville, Wyoming and stopped at the the Flying J truck stop, which had a diner inside. When Peter said he planned to order a Coca-Cola with dinner, Nanette discouraged him and said they should drink water.
“But Mom!” Peter said. “We’re in Cokeville—I have to get a coke!”
Nanette rolled her eyes, “Ok, but no way are you getting a beer in Beerville!”
A waiter came over to their table and introduced himself. “Hi, I’m Tim, what can I get you to drink?”
Six pairs of Hale eyes looked up at the waiter. He looked to be in his thirties, had red hair and freckles and looked a little like a grown-up Huck Finn. He had a paper nametag, that indicated he might be a new employee who hadn’t received an engraved nametag yet.
Charlie was the only family member who answered. “Coke in Cokeville!” he said cheerfully.
Nanette said what the rest of them were thinking. “Your real name wouldn’t be Curt by any chance? Curt Hopewell?”
The waiter stared at her for a moment, pencil hand poised above the order pad. For a fraction of a second he seemed to be considering what to do. For another fraction of a second, he realized he must have given himself away. Then he turned away from the table and ran.
End of Chapter 20
Chapter 21 can be found here: Chapter 21: Cross-Country Mystery (Long Fiction for Middle Graders)