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.”

 

 

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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.





Smoke them if you got’em

5 02 2013

After the hike to the river, the rest of my time in Grand Canyon seemed rather trivial. I promised to work for six months and intended to fully meet those obligations. I had been promoted to a leadership position and given keys to the shop, rising every morning at 6 a.m. to greet the tourists and fellow co-workers needing their cigarette fix.

The Bulgarians and Turks smoked like chimneys. I was amazed how they would go through a pack, sometimes two, a day and wondered if they were saving any of the money they were making, not to mention having any left over to spend on food. Cigarette prices, like everything else in the Canyon, were ridiculously high and halfway through the summer, they raised the prices even higher. And yet, the workers still bought them. They were, after all, trapped by their isolated surroundings and strong addiction. And I was their enabler.

“Mah-bah-row,” they would utter, one by one, striding into the shop to begin another day of work. The Native American women I worked with would always get a good chuckle at my ability to master the exact foreign pronunciation of Marlboro. The laughs were a welcome diversion from the everyday drudgery of dusting pottery and folding t-shirts.

Away from work, my friendship with the Singaporeans was strong and we began planning a trip to Los Angeles. My roommate, Brian, the sports fanatic, was still battling depression and a turbulent relationship, but managed to eek out a smile when I would report on the day’s proceedings at the gift shop.

“Did ya dust today, John?,” Brian would ask, adding just the right amount of comedic touch. “Because, I was in there today and I think you missed a spot.”

I was glad Brian was able to find joy in my situation. There is something comically humbling about underemployment, if you can bring yourself to overlook the negative. Here I was, a college educated, award-winning professional journalist who had just run for the Florida House of Representatives on my hands and knees dusting Grand Canyon coffee mugs made in China.

The fact that half of our merchandise was made in China really struck a nerve with some guests. Many times a guest would have their gift in hand ready to buy only to discover the tiny words “Made in China” inscribed somewhere and this would immediately change their mind. I was also impressed with how Cheng Yew, my Singaporean colleague, would handle this blatant contempt. To the average observer, he looked quite Chinese and with Cheng Yew displayed on his name tag, he was obviously not a Native American.

Cheng Yew working hard

But Cheng Yew’s salesmanship was anything but foreign. It was, rather, quite remarkable. Polite and helpful at all times, Cheng Yew never got mad. He never protested. And he never called in sick. Time and time again, he was able to send the rudest customer on their way with a smile. I was amazed at this ability and so too was upper management. In just 10 weeks of service, Cheng Yew racked up more accolades and special recognition than people who had worked there for years. When selling memories, attitude is everything and Cheng Yew certainly had the right one.

I was, undoubtedly, going to miss my Singaporean friends. Our trip to LA would be the culmination of cultures coming together and living in harmony. I had learned much from our short time together and I’m sure they had too. I managed to request just enough time off to make a quick dash to Southern California and back. I would travel the train, experiencing a new part of America via an old mode of transportation.

California here we come.





Reaching the River

24 09 2012

We dipped our feet in the river and the cold water was a welcome relief. Having hiked downhill nearly seven miles to the bottom of the Grand Canyon this was the payoff… the reward and hypothermia be damned.

When you first set eyes on the Colorado River, it gives you pause. Desmond and I made it to the river just before high noon and we immediately started to snap pictures. This was an accomplishment to take note of. Before reaching the river, there is a small tunnel drilled out of a huge boulder just before you cross a narrow suspension bridge. The tunnel was dark, but the midday sun kept it from being too scary. I also felt safe with Desmond.

We walked through the tunnel, across the bridge and down to the river bank, which was guarded by a maze of prickly pear and Beavertail cactus. And it was hot. Mid May at the bottom of the Canyon brought near 100 degree temperature with not much of a breeze. But we weren’t the only ones at the river bank, gazing up at the Kaibab Bridge and the mountains all around. There were about a half a dozen college aged kids soaking their feet in the river and just as we joined them, a large rafting group floated up to the beach-esque bank and unloaded for lunch.

Phantom Ranch was nearby and that’s where we would have lunch and, more importantly, shelter. Sitting on the river bank, we didn’t say much to each other, instead basking in the fact that we had reached the halfway point. The water was extremely cold. You could put your feet in for a couple minutes but then they started to get hard and hurt. And no one dared go more than ankle deep, except for one of the rafting hands who had to jump in and tie up the raft.

From the river we wet our shirts for the first time, a tip Desmond picked up from reading some travel guide, and headed towards Phantom Ranch. It’s a short hike up the North Kaibab Trail and one that is teeming with life, from deer resting by the stream, ravens flying overhead and campers singing songs and playing music. As we approached the ranger station, a large American flag welcomed us to Phantom Ranch, prompting Desmond to remark how much we as a nation loved to wave the stars and stripes.

“There is not a lot of this in my country,” he said.

Americans, Desmond had quickly learned, are very patriotic in addition to their love affair with fried foods and beer.

We went inside the canteen, unloaded our packs and chowed down. My sub sandwich was pretty disgusting. It had damn near deteriorated on the hike down, but I ate it anyway. The canteen was about half full. It’s a simple setup with long cafeteria type tables and a cash register near the door. They had some souvenir T-shirts and hats for sale, but we just bought postcards. I told the clerk I worked at Maswik Lodge up on the rim and he immediately tried to recruit me to come down and work on the ranch.

“We work hard and we play hard,” he said. I had kind of gotten that vibe earlier when I was eating my sandwich and one of the employees came out of the kitchen to reload the napkin dispenser. He was a young, hipster type with a full beard and tight jeans. He looked me straight in the eyes and smiled.

“It’s a great place to work if you like to hike,” the clerk continued, making his best sales pitch. “We make good tips here too.”

This I did not dispute, but the reality of living in a place that was a hard 8-hour hike from civilization, and a partial one at that, was too daunting to consider. Being nice, I told him I would think about it.

We refilled our water bottles and soon were on our way again, this time hiking up. As we departed the canteen, the clerk reminded us to wet our shirts before crossing the river. We had not yet experienced the day’s full heat.





Trailblazing

26 04 2012

It was a Wednesday morning and I awoke ready to tackle the day. I had renewed energy, knowing a trip to Phoenix — and civilization — was on the horizon. I also had caught the hiking bug.

Intent on making progress into the Canyon, I resumed my descent along the Bright Angel Trail, making it to the mile-and-half reststop much quicker than I had before. I carried more water with me this time and less clothes. The weather was getting warmer and the sun was out and the deeper I went into the Canyon the hotter it would get.

The trail was packed with tourists, some coming up and others going down. At the three-mile reststop, shade was in high demand. The covered benches were full of people swigging electrolyte water and lathering themselves in sunscreen. With no room to spare under the reststop roof, I found a nearby tree, plopped down under its shade and quinched my thirst. It didn’t take long for the squirrels to notice. Grand Canyon squirrels are an aggressive breed and from what the rangers say, the squirrels have become one of the biggest threats to man.

As cute as these little critters look, they will bite and their bite has sent many to the Canyon clinic. Watching the squirrels pander to each passing hiker was amusing and their total lack of fear in humans was equally suprising. With the squirrels dancing around for crumbs, I could hear the discussions from inside the reststop as to how much further should we go. It was the thought on everyone’s mind.

It was just a few minutes after noon and the sun was beating down on the Bright Angel Trail. I decided to shed my long pants and thanks to the Northface brand, all I had to do was unzip the lower end and my legs were free to breathe. As I continued my descent from the three-mile reststop, the number of hikers coming up began to greatly outnumber the ones going my direction. I probably should have gotten an earlier start, I thought.

Indian Garden was the next stop and from the rim, it truly did appear to be like an oasis along the trail. The hike began to level out as I approached this oasis and the Canyon also began to open up and display more of its beauty. I was now almost completely alone on the trail and a subtle pain began to emerge from my right foot. I ignored the pain and pressed on, heading straight for the lush greenery of Indian Garden.

The tall waving Cottonwood trees were a sight for sore eyes indeed and as I entered the Garden their fuzzy white blooms were floating everywhere in the air. It was almost, dare I say, magical.

With its ideal location halfway between the river and the rim, many hikers use Indian Garden as a camping site. It has an ample supply of water, campgrounds and a ranger station. As I wandered into one of the covered rest areas, I encountered two female hikers sunburnt and exhausted, one laying across a picnic table and the other hovered over a water spicket. We exchanged pleasantries and I asked them how they were doing.

“Hot, very hot,” said one of the ladies. They had just hiked up from the river, a narrow stretch of the trail with not much air flow.

I asked them what it was like down there. They said the river was very cold, that there were some idiots who jumped in and were swimming around, but it did feel good on their bare feet. This made me think about my foot and the pain that I was too afraid to confront. I also began to think long and hard about how much further I should go. At the beginning of my hike, Indian Garden had been my destination, but now that I was here and not nearly as tired as I thought I would be, I desired to go deeper into the Canyon.

Just before you leave Indian Garden and cross over its trickling creek, there comes a fork in the trail. You can hike west to Plateau Point and Tonto Trail or head east and down to the Colorado River and Phantom Ranch. For a brief moment, I thought of the Robert Frost poem about the road less traveled, a piece of work which could be used to characterize my travels. This next decision, would indeed, make all the difference.





The Initial Descent

7 04 2012

Starting to get settled in here with the initial shock of moving across country and into a completely different climate now fading away. I got a couple of paychecks under my belt too which helps in the confidence department.

And I finally descended into the Canyon, bringing clarity and perspective to the big picture. I have always enjoyed hiking, whether it be the backcountry of Arizona or the concrete jungle of Manhattan. Hiking — which is walking essentially — can tell you a lot about yourself.

As I hiked down the Bright Angel Trail, my mind raced with thoughts dominated by fear. Had I brought enough water? Were my shoes appropriate?? Would I go too far down and not be able to make it back up???

All indeed valid questions. The Park Service does not supply the trail with water until the summer months, but it is in the spring — if the wind cooperates — when conditions are best to descend into the Canyon. The difference in temperature between the bottom, where the Colorado River flows, and the top of the South Rim is usually between 25-30 degrees. The deeper you go the hotter it gets.

On this day the trail was full of hikers and tourists disguised as hikers. I have been surprised by the large numbers of foreign tourists that come here. I have engaged in more conversational French in one month than I had in 10 years in Panama City. This substantial presence of not only Europeans, but Asians has made me realize how foolish I was to believe that I was living in an international tourist destination in Panama City. That was a lie floated by the power brokers to build a new airport. Panama City may get a handful of international tourists, but it is far from an international tourist destination. It is a regional tourist destination at best and will remain that way until a better strategy of attracting visitors is implemented.

Back on the trail, hikers had to make sure they not only avoided mule droppings, but also watched their step for loose gravel and leftover snow and ice. I wore my trusty adidas running shoes, the same pair I bought at the Ross discount store back in Panama City a couple years back. I have a habit about wearing shoes for a long time and this pair of adidas felt good on my feet. They may not look hiking professional, but they were light and comfortable and I was able to make my way down the trail without any missteps.

There were a few tense moments like when the wind would gust up as I approached a narrow overlook with oncoming hikers headed my way. Fortunately, most of the people who hike are considerate and will always ask how you’re doing. I was relieved to make it to the first rest station, one and half miles down. Coming back was much tougher and required a couple stops to catch my breath and hydrate.

What I learned about myself on this foray into the Canyon was I’m in better shape than I thought, but still have a ways to go to make it to the river. That is the goal during my time here — To hike to the bottom and back. It will take more than an afternoon to do it and I will have to be well prepared for the trip.

And I probably shouldn’t go it alone.