Thanksgiving at Gordon House

18 01 2015

On our first night in London, JB took me to a Bombay Cafe in an emerging neighborhood near King’s Cross. It was good to catch up. I filled him in on the details of summer in Glacier and challenges of my first management gig. I was delighted to learn JB had been nominated for a teaching honor at his college. Being recognized for excelling at what you love is always a time for celebration.

Dinner was wonderful, the waitor made sure to explain how each sauce complimented our entree. I drank a lot of hot tea that night, hoping to unplug my sinuses. Preparing for this trip and finally getting across the pond was not easy. I was concerned about traveling alone into Europe and attending a Thanksgiving dinner party at the Gordon Square House where I would finally meet some of JB’s closer comrades.

There is a fine line in showing self confidence yet not arrogance. This would be my challenge in London.

As I got ready for the party, I recalled my departure from Glacier, driving across the country in an experience that made my world seem quite small. On the first night I slept in the Jeep at a reststop just outside the Little Bighorn Battlefield. The next morning I awoke and went to the National Monument, getting in just as the gates opened. I walked through the cemetaries and exhibits dedicated to this memorable moment in American history. Moved by such powerful historical moments, I called my father with a progress report.

Custer's Last Stand

Custer’s Last Stand

“I should be home in a week, Dad,” I told him. “We’re going to spend a few days in Denver.”

“Where are you now?,” he asked, the AT&T service coming in crystal clear on the southeast Montana plains.

“I’m at the Battle of Little Bighorn,” I responded, explaining to Dad how incredible a presentation the Park Service had put together at the Battlefield and how moved I was by the stories of Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer, the U.S. Army’s 7th Calvary, Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse and the warriors of Lakota Sioux and Northern Cheyenne.

Dad’s next words struck a nerve.

“Ego,” he said. “You see what happens.”

I did. Custer marched his men right into a massacre — unknowingly, blinded by his perceieved strength.

Back in London, as I prepared to meet JB’s best friends, I was conscious to present a confident young man new to this uppercrust world he had been invited into. Chris was my shepherd. There were 12 of us.

I wore my Kenneth Cole Reaction sports coat. The one from the ill-fated campaign for the Florida House. It fit much snugger now. Chris and I chatted before the other guests arrived. He owns the Gordon House with his husband David. They are a wealthy couple, both very handsome, distinguished and quite sucessful. Americans — raised in New England and now thriving in London.

JB would not attend the dinner as he would be accepting his teaching honor at the college down on the Strand. Eleven new men, I would be meeting and eating with. Nervous, you say? without a doubt … Yes.

Troels and his partner Peter were the first to arrive. A tall man from Denmark, Troels, I would find to be a fascinating person to converse with. He was quite stylish too, wearing plaid designed long trousers made of a tweedish material. Thanksgiving was irrelevent to Troels.

He peppered me with the fact that a majority of Americans were obese and stupid and when I asked him about our President he offered a skeptical remark, “He’s weak on foreign policy.”

This I took without mustering a defense, noticing the room was beginning to fill. I was introduced by David to Marco, a very handsome Italian, whose looks distracted me from Troels’ insults. Marco was with Evan, an American Jew, who like Chris and David, is a successful businessman living in London.

We all were served wine and champagne by a sweet young lady whose name I do not recall. After Marco and Evan, I met the Spanish representatives, Phillip and Javier, very friendly guys. There was laughter in the air and smiles all around. We would proceed downstairs to the dining room where our dinner awaited. There I met Stephen and Daryl, another incredibly handsome couple, Stephen, a New Jersey ex-pat and Daryl, his British boyfriend, a fellow politician from Cambridge. Joining me as a solo participant was Grant. JB warned me about this young Scotsman. His story later.

Gordon House

Gordon House

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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.





Beartooth Bob

29 07 2013

In the middle of our training, I met Bob. We were both assigned to Old Faithful and agreed to become roommates once we left “Camp Mammoth.” We instantly hit it off. Bob’s politics aligned with mine and actually made me look quite conservative. A Vietnam vet (there were three in our original group of 10) who could be gruff at times, Bob made a living through the lens of photography and was taking a break from his ranch in southwest Texas to explore Yellowstone.

Bob, right, with Terry and Don at the Mammoth Corrals.

Bob, right, with Terry and Don at the Mammoth Corrals.

Like a lot of folks out here, Bob had worked in Yellowstone before — during his youth before shipping off to fight communism. He vividly recalled fly fishing spots along the Madison River and bar brawls in West Yellowstone. He liked to smoke cigars and spoke fluent Mexican-Spanish. During our training, Bob would usually ask the questions most of us were thinking, but afraid to ask and, best of all, he never minced words.

He sized me up right away.

“You’re a poor boy, Johnny,” Bob said on one of our many drives through the park in his lime green Ford Escape, a vehicle he playfully called “Kermit.” I offered to pitch in for gas money, but Bob refused. I told him my story of leaving journalism to strike out on my own and the consequences of such a move during a perilous time economically.

On Memorial Day, Bob finally relented and let me buy him a cup of coffee at the West Yellowstone McDonald’s before we toured the gateway city as guests of the chamber of commerce. Later that day, Bob recalled the brawl which made national news in the summer of 1964 and resulted in the calling out of the National Guard to restore order. Sure enough, Bob was right in the middle of it.

“It was Yellowstone workers against the local hicks, cowboys and anybody punchable,” he recalled. “Me and my bloodied roommate, a burley guy who we nicknamed ‘Garbage,’ got out of town when the fighting took to the streets.”

About a month into our service, Bob decided it was time for him to get out of Yellowstone. I pleaded with him to stick it out a little while longer, but his mind was already made up. He had some friends he wanted to see in New Mexico and he missed the love of his lady friend back in Texas. Before he left we made one last trip into West Yellowstone where Bob practically opened one of the local eateries. It was a style I had grown accustomed to seeing from him and one that I admired greatly. Simply put, Bob had no fear of rejection.

He insisted on being customer ‘Numero Uno’ at the Slippery Otter Pub, buying us a pizza and himself a Slippery Otter ball cap which he had all the employees sign. Bob was in a really good mood that day. Looking back, I think he was happy to be calling in quits. I certainly wasn’t in a good mood that day and Bob could tell.

“You’re pissed off, Johnny,” he said.

Truth be told, my Yellowstone experience has not been this great life changing journey that so many people said it would be. I’m not a 21-year-old college student and I am not a baby boomer supplementing my retirement. I have very few, if any, contemporaries here and I yearn for the newsroom life of a journalist again. These sentiments are what I was brooding over when Bob and I shared our last meal together at the Slippery Otter. Would I ever work again as a professional journalist? It has been five years now… is my career over?

Before I could whine any more, Bob cut in with the required dose of reality. “Just be damn glad you’re not in your 50s and 60s and looking for a job because that, my friend, is no bueno.”

I learned so much from Bob during our short time together. He introduced me to the writing of the New Yorker’s John McPhee, taught me how to cast a fly fishing rod and demonstrated an assertiveness I can only hope to acquire one day.

Not long after he left Yellowstone, I received an email from Bob about his travels along the legendary Beartooth Highway, a stretch of road near the park’s northeast entrance that the late CBS correspondent Charles Kuralt deemed, “the most beautiful drive in America.”

Like Kuralt, Bob was mesmerized.

“One of the most stunning road trips I’ve ever taken,” he wrote. “If you can possibly scrounge a ride, do this memorable trip.”

I haven’t done the Beartooth yet, but have moved on from Old Faithful — working now out of the Canyon location with seven weeks left on my contract…. still hoping the forest will soon appear through all these trees.