Readying For Iowa

23 01 2016

One week before Iowa. I have worked a lifetime for this chapter. A U.S. Presidential election in full swing and the first votes to be cast.

“Do you really want to be disappointed?,” I remember Rich distinctly saying.

Rich was a red bus driver at Glacier National Park. He was a bizarre man in that he was almost child-like in his behaviors. He gave me the impression that he had never grown up. We shared the same room at Lake McDonald in one of the nicest dorms in all of the park — quite a long way from Grand Canyon’s shabby Victor (aka Victim) Hall. Yes sirre, at LMD, Rich and I were not roughing it.

Rich had worked some 30 years at Glacier, driving red buses and putting on an act for the tourists. There were times, though, when Rich would — how do I put this nicely — over act in dramatic scenes.

Despite his quirks, Rich was full of local knowledge and knew the hiking trails inside Glacier well. It was on one of our many hikes into the backcountry that Rich began to needle me about my politics. Rich, you see, was staunchly libertarian and believed very strongly that the government was watching his every move.

At night, in between episodes of The Simpsons and Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Rich would usually find some sort of conspiracy video to play and then launch into a vocal position of how wars and crises are usually inside jobs. This was his line of attack as we hiked to Hidden Lake that day with fresh snow melt, mountain goats and marmots all around.

Hiking with Rich

Hiking with Rich

“You know Obama is former CIA, right,” he said. “He’s just like all the rest.”

I had mentioned to Rich I would like to cover the next presidential campaign which had triggered a sour response and Rich’s questioning me if I was prepared for what he viewed as certain disappointment. Rich’s first instinct was to always reject my first proposal. It was the essence of our labor/management dynamic that I was oddly enough placed into that summer. In hindsight, I should have moved out of that room early on, but the entire ordeal at Lake McDonald was about proving to the masses that no matter how tough it got, I wasn’t going anywhere. Not even a few steps into a different room down the hall with a less antagonistic roommate.

So fast forward a year and here I am getting ready to head to Iowa and thinking about Rich and as weird as this sounds that asshole might just be right.

I’ve followed all the candidates closely up to this point and scoured their backgrounds like a fine tooth comb. I’ve paid attention to the electorate and trends across this great nation and concluded both parties are full of shit. In Florida, particularly, the bullshit runs knee-deep.

Maybe it has already been decided. Perhaps, as Rich believes, big brother is controlling every move in a pre-destined way that leaves only Mother Nature to chance. Maybe that’s why Rich loves Glacier so much and keeps coming back year after year to drive those antique red buses. He’s clinging to a past and a special place that is quickly vanishing from this planet.

I’ll soon find out the mood of America’s political power on the ground in the heart of the midwest, a region I am none too familiar with. It will be another adventure into the great unknown — that is if we are to believe our nation’s election results are a true reflection of the will of the people.

Are you ready to hit the ground…running?

If you are interested in helping me in this independent effort, please make a small donation to my GoFundMe account here: https://www.gofundme.com/6sd4nbjg

 

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Finishing Strong

21 09 2014

A long, hard and arduous summer has come to an end.

There were times when I felt that I had bitten off more than I could chew. The entire experience at Lake McDonald Lodge reminded me of the summer of 2010 and my ill-fated campaign for public office. Too many people were watching and depending on me and no matter how hard the going was, I simply could not quit.

I quit an important position before and vowed never to do that again.

So this summer was indeed a journey of perseverance, but I leave Montana with a new skill set and a hardened exterior.

St. Mary Lake

St. Mary Lake

Much like that race for the Florida House, I began this Glacier project cautiously, scared, intimidated at times and trying to please all while maintaining that “nice guy” image.

But some people take advantage of kindness. Others do not know the meaning of the word. This I have learned the hard way.

Saying “No” is hard. Getting people to accept “No” as your final answer is harder. And perhaps the hardest of all is understanding why we — as human beings — cannot do certain things.

There is no doubt I have changed because of my five months in Glacier National Park — enforcing federal regulations, interpreting nature’s wonders and, above all, keeping my cool during day-to-day operations at the lodge. As much as I would have enjoyed going out with guys and gals and drinking the night away, responsibility prevented that. Someone had to rise at 6 a.m. to get this show on the road.

And, make no mistake, this show was a profitable one.

The park experienced record numbers in visitation, prompting our superintendent to remark how “intense” a summer season it was. At the lodge, revenue exceeded projections and as I type tourists are still streaming in to see the changing colors of autumn.

The change in me is obvious. My first foray into project management has led to a great deal of personal growth. In September, I commanded our bus fleet with an authority that was no where to be found when I stepped off the plane last May in Missoula. I came here in search of answers to my station in life. What I found was a mountain’s worth of confidence.

“What happened to that cheerful guy?,” one of our drivers commented after he observed me forcefully explaining, once again, the Going-To-The-Sun Road was closed due to a snow and ice storm.

“He adapted,” I replied.

I certainly realize what I am capable of after this summer. I am on another level career-wise and, perhaps, future employers will recognize such as I return to my home state in hopes of putting these new skills to good use. We’ll see what offers come my way, but already I am feeling nostaglic for what I went through.

All of the drivers and their quirks, demanding and often dehumanizing tourists, the isolation, the shitty food — it all makes me laugh now even though, privately, in July, I would drive across the park and suddenly burst into tears of stress for what the day had brought.

Above all, it is important to remember the majestic beauty of our national parks. It is, first and foremost, why I am here. And to that end, I think I did a damn good job of preserving and protecting Glacier National Park.

Check that … I know I did.

 

 

 

 

 





Climate Change Clarity

16 08 2014

One of my intentions in coming to Glacier National Park was to study climate change. That all went out the window when I recognized the extent of my job description. To this end, I have not been able to explore as much of the park as my previous experiences in Grand Canyon and Yellowstone.

One of the first things we were told in orientation was to not “lecture” the guests and visitors on the subject of climate change. It is a hot topic — pardon the pun. So, off duty, I decided to take an informal poll.

“It shouldn’t be a political issue, it’s a human issue,” said one of my younger co-workers.

The kid is earnest. Twentysomething. Tall, gangly with long hair and a mustache. Works maintenance around Lake McDonald Lodge. It would be fair to call him a hippie.

Human or Political, whatever your view, “Climate Change” had come to Glacier — many times. For there is one thing that is absolutely certain … climate does indeed change.

Intrigued by the company’s line of evasion, I attended several of the Park Service’s environmental programs, where I found more dodgy rhetoric. One of the park’s artists in residence — a songwriter from Texas (surprise) — even refused to reveal his thoughts on climate change, prompting a snarking tourist to ask if he would return to the park once all the glaciers are gone to write a song about it.

Nerd humor at its finest hour.

While the Park Service tries to walk the tightrope, the affects of climate change are obvious here. As our superindendent puts it, “It’s staring at you in the face.”

The glaciers are receeding rapidly. When the park opened in 1910, there were roughly 150 documented glaciers. Presently, there are 25. Call it global warming if you want, but the moving rivers of ice are leaving and what they are leaving behind is quite spectacular.

My ranger friend Christian was the first to truly open my eyes to this whole climate change thing.

“The park wasn’t named for the glaciers, John,” he told me. “It was named for how the park was created by the glaciers.”

Wow.

Christain continued, “This is the biggest misconception we hear from tourists. People come here expecting to see  a lot of glaciers. What they are seeing here, instead, is what the glaciers left behind.”

He was right. These jagged alpine mountains got their rugged good looks from centuries of glacial carving and receeding.

And the Ice Age doesn’t appear to be coming back anytime soon, folks. This summer has been hot. Very hot. In the swealtering Lake McDonald Valley, temperatures have climbed into the 90s quite regularly. Tourists from sun states such as Florida and California, seeking a break from the heat, have surprising found themselves baking aboard one of our red buses.

Sexton Glacier

Sexton Glacier

Meanwhile, seeking a break from the crowds, I embarked on my first challenging hike of the summer — a 10-mile trek on Siyeh Pass. It was a near 4,000 foot elevation gain during the heat of the day. I did it alone — and without bear spray. Fear be damned.

It was an incredible adventure, taking me back to those Grand Canyon hikes with Desmond as the sun beat down and yet I kept climbing, switchback after switchback. A day later, my knee would not forgive me. At the hike’s summit, 10,000-ft Mt. Siyeh, I stopped to eat my sack lunch and gaze across the park. I was indeed on top of the world again.

There was a lot on my mind as I made my descent into Sunrift Gorge. My summer in the International Peace Park had been anything but boring. I was learning a great deal about management and transportation logistics, while beginning to understand the science of climate. And while the experience had left me frustrated and exhausted at times, I am quite certain now I will leave here with new and vitally important skills.

The unkown at this time is just exactly where I will apply those skills next. It may be peaceful in the park, but outside, in places such as Iraq, Gaza and the Ukraine, it has been the summer of war. There is conflict along the Mexican border and civil unrest in Missouri. And on top of all of that, there’s a campaign heating up in Florida.

Stay tuned. 





Seeing Red

28 07 2014

No matter how hard I try, I cannot escape politics.

This summer I stepped right into it, unaware of just how delicate a situation I was entering. For the first time in decades, a new concessonaire contract was awarded at Glacier National Park. This contract includes the park’s historic fleet of red buses, which have been masterfully rebuilt from the frames of the original 1930s White Motor Company models. The red buses have come to represent Glacier, providing an iconic symbol associated with the park’s renowned Going-To-The-Sun Road.

The buses were previously operated out of East Glacier, their hub being the Glacier Park Lodge, located on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. That all changed last year when the National Park Service, much to the locals’ surprise, awarded Glacier’s concessionaire contract to Xanterra Parks & Resorts. Xanterra, in turn, pitched its tent on the west side of the park near the rapidly developing tourist towns of Whitefish and Kalispell.

Red Ride

Red Ride

Losing the contract and its red buses has left East Glacier isolated and angry, its community suffering from a dramatic drop in revenue. There are hard feelings in the park. I experience them every day.

I lost count of how many times locals, posing as tourists, came in to question me about Xanterra’s operations. I found the questions odd at first, but then began to notice a trend and with it an unpleasant demeanor. I was a target no doubt, the new guy with the 10 gallon hat, riding in to represent the big corporate outfit from Denver — unaware of just how many roots had been ripped out in this move.

Early on, I tried to keep a positive attitude, but the constant attacks have worn me down. There are incredible logistical challenges here — it is a remote area drawing affluent visitors who expect every modern luxury while experiencing a true backwoods wilderness adventure. Delivering this total package is the challenge that gets me out of bed at 6 a.m. every morning.

Through all the complaints, raised voices and temper tantrums, I have managed to keep my cool. I am determined to leave here with my dignity intact. Again, I think of my father often now and what it must have been like to go through those hurricanes back in Florida — as he did many times — and manage to keep emotions in checks while restoring power to the masses.

Here in Glacier, appeasing tourists is just part of the equation. A big chunk of my time is devoted to our red bus drivers. Keeping them happy is as vital — if not more — than our guests. Affectionally known as “Jammers” for their gear shifting driving style, red bus drivers do require a certain skill set to succeed. The Going-To-The-Sun Road is no piece of cake with its twists and turns, falling water, ice and rock and God knows what else lurking in the other lane just behind the bend.

Jammers provide commentary along the way, each with their own unique personality. Some have been doing this upwards of 40 years, others like me, thrown into the fire for the first time. In the old days, it was college aged men driving the red buses across the Continental Divide. This year, in another first for the park, we have an equal number of women Jammers, including several college aged girls.

Evelyn, one of our veteran Jammers, is quick to cite statistics showing women to be much safer drivers than men. I’m not sure where she gets her data, but Evelyn is not one to pick a fight with. She’s a motherly hen type, her beautiful white hair braided in a long ponytail and her knowledge of wildflowers is unmatched. Evelyn recognized early on that I was in for a rocky ride this summer.

“Hang in there, John McDonald,” she said during a recent stop by my concierge desk at the Lake McDonald Lodge. “You are halfway there.”

 

 





On the Road to Recovery

14 07 2014

July is here. For seasonal park employees these are challenging times. We’ve been in our new surroundings for almost two months and the novelty of living in a national park is wearing off and reality starts to set in.

And so do the crowds.

Fourth of July weekend ushers in the masses — screaming infants, spoiled brat teenagers and impatient parents. The height of summer is indeed “family time” for better or worse.

The good news is Going-To-The-Sun Road is open — two weeks late – but open nevertheless. The frustration, disappointment and anger I absorbed from tourists in the days leading up to the road’s opening more than justified my salary. A late season snow storm delayed the road’s projected opening, leaving our tour bus operations in a mad scramble to find alternative routing, while appeasing those who were expecting a magnificent ride over the pass. The snow storm came just when David — God bless him — had completed his nearly 3,000-mile trek to deliver me my Jeep.

David’s devotion continues to amaze me. This latest act clearly demonstrates his commitment to our partnership. During his visit we hiked to Avalanche Lake, one of the more popular trails on the west side of Glacier National Park. The trail was very muddy that day, it pretty much rains the entire month of June here and the park’s Lake McDonald Valley is considered a Pacific Northwest rain forest. But we persevered, sloshing through the trees while marveling at the size and beauty of the cedars, black cottonwoods and western hemlocks.

We discussed many subjects on the hike. That’s one of the great things about hiking with a friend. You really get to know each other better as you both march toward an end goal. I told David how surprised I was at my ability to manage the stress of this new job, particularly with the amount of patience I was exhibiting.

Things or situations in the past that were frustrating or caused anger did not seem to have the same affect on me now. Could it be, I wondered aloud, that life’s experiences coupled with the hardships and trauma of the last six years had instilled a coping mechanism that is enabling me to deal with all of the daily troubles and problems.

A lost purse, a blown tire, a missed reservation — all in a day’s work behind the concierge desk. A train running late, an allergic reaction to a bug bite, directions to the nearest location with cell phone service ??? … No problem, I have the answers.

One of our drivers has said I have “nerves of steel” while another declared I have the biblical “patience of Job.” Flattering comments I will more than accept after the harsh reactions to our no refund policy when the road was closed.

Avalanche Lake

Avalanche Lake

Meanwhile, the hike to Avalanche Lake was certainly the bright spot of David’s visit. He’s back in South Florida now and I, for the first time in my National Park tenure, have my own transportation. I usually load up the Jeep after work most days and escape into the park, looking for that quiet spot to rest my mind and write.

Glacier is indeed beautiful, snow capped peaks atop rugged Matterhorn-like mountain ranges surround you with the Going-To-The-Sun Road cutting a path through the heart of the park. The scenary along the road is breathtaking and I understand now why the demand to open it was so great. It is an engineering achievement of the highest order. Man’s crowning conquest atop God’s spectacular creation.

As I look to build upon my experience here I must acknowledge the last two months have been incredibly hard and the next hard choice I make is whether I should stick it out with no promises that it will get any easier. Perhaps this is where my road to recovery ends. Knowing when to make the right decision.

 





Closing one door, opening another

23 06 2014

Greetings from the far reaches of North America. I am corresponding from Glacier National Park in northwest Montana. The rivers are flowing fast and hard here as the snow continues to melt atop these spectacular mountains.

Together with Waterton Park in Canada, this area of wilderness was declared in 1932 to be the world’s first International Peace Park. At this point in my life it is the perfect place for me.

I have recently made peace with Panama City. The sale of our house is final and a decade long culture war has come to an end. I fought authority and challenged convention in one of the most conservative sections of the country and while I no doubt have battle scars to prove it, closure is vitally important.

And now we move on.

I find myself in Glacier hoping for nature’s healing hand to guide me again. The job is, quite frankly, the most responsibility ever bestowed upon me and I eagerly look forward to the challenge. I am managing a fleet of 27 vehicles and more than 50 drivers — each with their own unique personality.

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From my concierge desk inside historic Lake McDonald Lodge, I also oversee a staff of four concierges whose job it is to see that our guests and visitors not only enjoy their stay to the fullest, but also find their way onto one of the red buses, Glacier’s iconic touring cars. This is the centennial season for Lake McDonald Lodge and events are planned for throughout the summer.

No pressure for the guy named John McDonald.

Admittedly, the first month here was challenging. With a new company taking over the park’s lead concessionnaire contract, there was some confusion as we prepared to open our summer season. This was expected. There are obviously skeptical locals and those loyal to the former company whose grumbling I have experienced first hand.

For me, the transition from a labor activist to a middle manager is conflicting to say the least. I am beginning to see things from the other side. I am doing quite a lot of pausing and reflecting.

My father built a 30-year career in management — with one company, no less. I am hoping some of those skills are hereditary.

Lake McDonald is a nine-mile long glacial lake over a mile wide and 472 feet deep. When calm its royal blue waters reflect the neighboring mountain range in an amazing  mirror-like display that draws thousands to this remote location every year. It was named after Duncan McDonald, a fur trapper, trader and important negotiator with the natives. Duncan McDonald is described by one former red bus driver as a “Métis.”

“He was a half breed,” said Robert Lucke, a longtime employee at the lodge. “You can’t say that now because it is politically incorrect, but that’s what he was. He was half Scots-Irish and half Indian. He traveled this area in the 1870s and carved his name on a lakeside tree.”

Lucke, who at the age of 71 is retired from the Glacier Park lifestyle and now resides in Havre, Montana, has been a wealth of information for me as I continue my on-the-job training. He is a colorful character in his own right, who writes for several local papers around Havre and the lounge in the lodge bears his name.

At last week’s centennial celebration, Lucke entertained a large audience that had gathered inside the lodge’s auditorium on a wet and cold day with stories from his time driving those red buses. The stories clearly eased much tension associated with the new company in town, but could not overcome the question on everyone’s mind.

The Going-to-the-Sun Road and when will it open?

That, my friends, is the million dollar question here.





Getting ready for Glacier

14 05 2014

Hi Ho Hi Ho it’s back to the wilderness I go.

Soon I embark on another summer of duty in America’s National Parks. This year I am headed to Glacier National Park in northwest Montana on the border with Canada. This was a late decision as I had planned to return to Yellowstone and negotiated, what I thought, was a better contract. And then in early April, out of the blue, I got the call from the human resources director for Xanterra Parks & Resorts, the new concessionaire at Glacier.

“We would like to steal you away from Yellowstone, John,” the nice lady on the other end of the phone said.

I was flattered. For the first time in a long time I was a hot commodity in the workplace.

I explained to Glacier’s recruiter that I was committed to Yellowstone and had just signed a new contract. I was excited to be moving to a new location — Lake Hotel — the park’s oldest hotel and by far the swankiest facility in hundreds of miles. The Glacier recruiter, however, was relentless.

“John, Lake McDonald Lodge is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year and we sure would like you to be a part of that,” she said.

Wow. A Lodge with my family name. How could I not listen to the offer.

I agreed to hear her out and she then proceded to ask me a few general management questions. She was interested in how I would handle certain situations of dispute and what not. They were also aware of my certification by the National Association for Interpretation and all those years of studying French seemed to be finally paying off.

Satisfied with my answers the recruiter said she would call back later with an offer. I returned to writing my gay stories, still planning to return to Yellowstone, yet intrigued by this new development.

I kept David apprised of the situation. The move to South Florida had certainly been a struggle and finding a steady paycheck that offered a fair wage was the goal. We were both still dealing with closing the door up in Panama City, trying to sell a house that was draining us of the proper resources required to make the transition to South Florida a success.

I tried to remain chipper, but my freelancing barely kept gas in the tank and food on the table. I began to lose weight from the stress of it all. Living in poverty is truly awful no matter how hard you try to look to the bright side. I could write a book just on my demoralizing experiences at the food pantry.

So when the recruiter from Glacier called back with her offer I was stunned. They wanted me in management at a salary I had not received in what seemed like forever. I accepted immediately and called Yellowstone with the news. They understood.

If there is one thing I have learned — and learned well — through the last six years of my walk through poverty, it is grace. I know, deeply, what it is like to have nothing and to be invisible to society. I know the hurt of shame, the yearning of hope and the compassion of community. While soul crushing as this journey has been at times, I believe it has made me a better person. Stronger and much wiser.

I now leave for a summer to work in my fortress of solitude. Eager to see what life throws at me next.