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.

 

 

 

 

 

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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.





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.

 





Chantel’s Story

16 02 2014

New Year. New Life. Much to be grateful for and humble.

I am working a lot. New York calls quite frequently now. I am living on a golf course where they host professional tournaments. Physically, I am in the best shape of my life. It almost feels like a dream.

But it’s not.

Chantel has yet to respond to my emails. We toured Art Basel together and dined on Lincoln Road where she granted me an interview. Balans, she insisted, would do. As we walked the outdoors mall in Miami Beach, I playfully teased her that the N.F.L. was looking to expand in the European market and I was not referring to soccer. She was having none of it.

Chantel turned into much more than I had bargined for. She was young — 29 as a matter of fact, but at first glance it would be easy for someone to mistake her for much younger. I had observed throughout the day that she was clearly a person who could get things done. She had such confidence when speaking with the gallery representatives at Art Basel. This, no doubt, instilled by her mother. Chantel spoke of her mother fondly, saying she was responsible for raising social justice awareness in the family, particularly those key issues on the continent of Africa.

“She told us which brands not to buy from,” Chantel said of her mother’s consumer advice.

We were in the convention center for hours. We talked about a lot of issues of importance in Britain and America. People stared at us. I was flattered to be in her company.

“I believe the human spirit is inherently good,” I said. Chantel was not as convinced. She seemed more interested in my taste of art and design than my philosophical views.

At Balans, Chantel proposed we dine inside so I could conduct the interview free of the hustle and bustle of Lincoln Road. She asked the manager if she could use her Balans card at this location. He said yes, but I took the the bill. Chantel told me she attended a prestigous university in London — a red brick school as I recall — and was on her way to Los Angeles in hopes of publishing a novella about sexuality. She also admited to having a girlfriend — confirming her bisexuality which she revealed during our walk through the convention center. She refused to give her name.

She then turned the tables as I hurried to jot down her words.

“John, have you ever written about human trafficing?” Chantel asked.

I was stunned. The burger I had woofed down just minutes before suddenly felt like coming up.

“Pardon me,” I said.

“In your writings, John, have you ever covered sex workers?” she asked again.

I had not. It was just not the kind of topic I was assigned while working the sports desk back in Dothan, Alabama. But I was not naive about the subject matter. Chantel, it turns out, had done the research, extensive research, in Britain, America, Thailand and Africa. She then asked me if I had ever been a “rent boy” ?!

I said no, of course. This conversation began to make me feel uncomfortable. I didn’t know what to say next. The interview was over.

We hugged as we parted ways outside of Balans.

“Be well,” she said.

I have yet to receive any e-mail from Chantel acknowledging our meeting.

Her story is now a mystery.

Ghosts

Ghosts





Art Basel Introductions

28 12 2013

Miami and I have battled to a stand still.

Some — actually probably most — thought I could not make it here. The traffic, the people, all the realities that come with living in a metropolitian market. It has been a different change of pace than sleepy Panama City and certainly worlds away from what I experienced in Yellowstone.

David is on the mend, recovering from an invasive procedure. His surgeon reminds me a little bit of Albert Einstein. He’s from the North and now practices at a Catholic medical center in Broward County, Florida. Needless to say, he is a busy man.

The doc has also been educating me on the realities of ObamaCare — the good, the bad and the ugly.

“They didn’t consult a physician when they passed this thing,” is his biggest complaint.

No matter how you slice it, whoever has the most money will always come out on top in capitalistic America, because the best drugs cost the most money. This we are painfully learning.

But alas, there have been good times here as well.

My work is getting published a lot. One of my Instagram photos even appeared in the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel. A few of my stories have gone national, including a fun little preview of the Gay Ski Week in Aspen, Colorado.

But it was Art Basel where I wanted to make my mark. I had my eye on this event for quite some time. It has a reputation in art circles for gathering elite galleries together from around the world to showcase groundbreaking modern art. I attended the first installation in Miami Beach years ago as a wide eyed young features writer for the Panama City News-Herald. I remember it being pretentious beyond belief. Little has changed in that regard.

David and I drove down to Miami Beach in the Beamer on a Saturday afternoon. Although just 24 miles away it took nearly two hours with the traffic. We chose to take U.S. 1 (or Federal Highway as it is also known) and I was pleasantly surprised with the gentrification taking place in North Miami. Once over the causeway and into Miami Beach, parking became the issue as we circled the streets looking for a spot to land. Parking was never an issue in the Panhandle. Here it is part of everyday living. I’m getting used to that.

Chantal at the Co-Op

Chantal at the Co-Op

Once on foot we strolled through several exhibits, including the “public” portion of Art Basel erected on the lawn outside of the Bass Museum. There were interesting pieces, but rarely did I find something I would display proudly in my home. It was a lot of message and shock art. Eventually, we found our way into a Lincoln Road co-op … and that is where I met Chantal.

She was volunteering at the co-op, visiting Miami from Great Britain, a tall slender young lady of mixed features with a delicate British accent. I informed her I was a journalist looking for a story. And, oh boy, did she have one for me.

Not long into our discussion, Chantal revealed she too was a writer and her subject matter focused on sexuality. I took her picture and she introduced me to a few of her newfound friends. All was quite cordial. “Have you been to the convention center?,” she asked.

I had, but refused to pay the high dollar entrance fee. My press request had been denied two weeks eariler. The Swiss, I was told, were being quite stringent with access.

“I have two VIP passes for Sunday, would you care to go with me?,” Chantal asked.

The offer surprised me. I glanced quickly at David, emersed in conversation across the room, but realizing I didn’t need his approval, I accepted Chantal’s offer and quickly made arrangements to call her tomorrow. I would be returning to Art Basel for one more day with a lot to prove and a story to tell.





Going under in South Florida

2 12 2013

Two months in South Florida and already I’m dreaming of Yellowstone. I came here to see David and relax in a tropical climate. It has been anything but relaxing.

Challenging is the word. I have returned to journalism, currently writing for the South Florida Gay News, an alternative weekly publication with legitimate press ties. This week we put out a 96-page print edition. They only do that kind of stuff in Canada anymore. Thus, there is potential here.

And there are people here. Lots of them. Miami-Dade County alone has 2.5 million of Florida’s 19 million people. You must travel by car here because the buses and trains seem inadequate and traffic is thick. I’ve dropped anchor in Broward County where Fort Lauderdale seems more navigable. The locals, the vast majority transplants from the Northeast (New York and Boston), have been friendly and welcoming. David and I have joined a gym, attend civic meetings and regularly monitor our health. South Florida is home to a wonderful medical community. NFL stars have all their sporting operations here — and so do the Cougars for facelifts.

I am writing just enough to support myself and, thank God, the Jeep is running well. I have yet to travel by train or bus — save a one way ticket to Panama City on the ol’ dirty dog herself. The Tallahassee station is still the worst on the route. Filthy.

Down this way, the landscaping and planning are first class and the condominiums quite towering. My articles are serious and typically cover health. I have written about cancer, HIV/AIDS, substance abuse and poverty. The subject can be depressing, but I am learning a great deal, getting a paycheck and coming to understand this region of the country.

Yellowstone seems so far away in so many ways.

The wealth here in South Florida is staggering. People are showy with their toys, especially the sports cars. Coming from Subaru country, it was surprising to see so many Ferraris, Porsche, Rolls Royces and Maseratis on the roads. When I first arrived, David secured a loaner car from the BMW dealership and we motored around in style, making our first excursion into Miami’s South Beach where models, aspiring and oblivious, stroll the outdoors Lincoln Road mall by the dozens. A few blocks away from Lincoln Road, where the tourists feel safe to shop is where you will find the real story of Miami Beach.

The island is going under.

Miami Beach is a 7.5-mile barrier island. It’s a densely populated playground for the rich and famous and it has a flooding problem.

David and I discovered this first hand — or more appropriately first foot — as we hiked the back streets from Lincoln Road to Espanola Way. It was my birthday. A time to celebrate. I do not recall a heavy rain that day but soon the sidewalks were under water and the streets were disappearing as well. I mistakenly thought you could pass with a little tippy toe dance through the water. I was wrong and my toes plunged deeper than thought to find firm footing. The water was ankle deep. I would be dining with wet shoes. Not a pleasant situation.

David was able to get around the standing water easier. He has longer legs. The experience, nevertheless, prompted me to pause and contemplate climate change. There is no doubt the situation is changing in Miami Beach. Waters are rising, but not everyone appears concerned. The young girl working as a hostess at the Espanola Way restaurant we came to brushed off my report of flooding conditions as if it were no big deal.

“Oh it’s Miami Beach,” she said with just the right amount of arrogance to indicate this sort of thing happens all the time. The rest of the restaurant staff spoke Spanish as a first language. This is a language I must improve in. We dined on a mediocre, overpriced meal that night — just as thousands of tourists had done before — fooling ourselves to think we were paying for the ambience.

Living here has opened my eyes to realities of the urban world, realities not found around the Old Faithful geyser basin. Practicing journalism again has reminded me of the discoveries that sometimes you wish had remained buried. Tides change on every new moon in Miami Beach. Billion dollar fortunes are just one hurricane away from disaster. Could there be such a storm on the horizon?





Canyon Cures

11 08 2013

My Yellowstone experience has definitely picked up since transferring to Canyon. I’m now working at the corrals which are 12-hour days that go fast because I’m so busy. I enjoy being around the horses and wranglers. It can get a little hectic, trying to get our guests on a scale to be weighed, but I manage without too much protest. For a fleeting moment, I considered doing this again next year. Another year in the park would be much different, provided I had a vehicle.

Surprisingly, I’ve been given a company car since the corrals are a mile up the road. It’s an old, white Chevy Cavalier. So old it still has a cassette player. Nevertheless, it gets me from point A to B just as my very own Cavalier did not too long ago. At one time in my life, I drove a 1999 silver Cavalier. It was the first car I ever purchased on my own and it was a damn good one. I bought it in Dothan, Alabama while working as a sports writer for the Dothan Eagle. I remember my dad coming to town to help me with the process, but refusing to co-sign despite prodding from my mother. I also remember being slightly aggravated with this decision. Still, I bought the car with help from a local bank and, years later after I paid off the loan, dad’s decision made perfect sense. He wanted me to establish my own line of credit.

And then greed crept in.

Not satisfied with a car that ran fine and was paid off, I sold the Cavalier and used the money to make a payment on a brand spanking new Honda Element. Along with greed it was an obvious overcompensation for something and I wish I knew what. I was in a problematic relationship at the time and trying to play the “Big Daddy” role — ultimately failing miserably. About a year and half after foolishly parting with the Cavalier, the Repo Man came calling for the Element, taking it in the middle of the night. It was early 2009. I had not quite hit rock bottom yet. But I was falling fast.

Four years later and I’m in Yellowstone — driving an older model Cavalier than the one I once owned — to a corral where I sell horse rides by the hour. Much poorer, much wiser, much happier.

Canyon life has been much better than Old Faithful for several reasons, none of which pertain to lodging or food. Old Faithful has the amenities, but Canyon has the charm. It’s a closer knit group here, far away from the over-regulated geyser basins. At Canyon, the atmosphere is laid back and easy going. We’re thick in the woods here. On my first night, I heard howling wolves in the distance. I’ve seen bear, bison and moose while hiking on nearby trails and we’re so deep into the wilderness, the news of the day (USA Today) doesn’t arrive until noon. Two of my colleagues from training are also here — Ashly and Kirk. Ashly is a quiet girl from Indiana who recently graduated college. We split the hours at the corrals. Kirk is from Georgia, in his 50s and comes from a distinguished Atlanta family. He’s a Tea Party supporter so we do not discuss politics much. Thankfully, Kirk gave me a crash course on the Canyon when I arrived. The area is incredibly diverse with towering waterfalls, a huge canyon with yellow stone walls, hidden lakes, scattered thermal features and wildlife abounds.

I’m rooming with another Asian, a nice kid from Taiwan. My previous roommate in Old Faithful was a gay 22-year-old Singaporean graphic artist with an obsession for Pokemon. He left without saying a word. I transferred to Canyon the following day.

I was definitely wounded when I arrived in Canyon. The summer has been challenging, at times it has been downright cruel.

And then I met Ann.

It was a difficult time for both of us, one might even say we were brought together by depression. I had signed up for the recreation center’s trip to Gardiner to see the Montana Shakespeare Company perform “Theater in the Park.” I did this not so much out of a strong desire to see theater, but more of along the lines of enjoying the drive to Gardiner and the incredible scenery of Dunraven Pass. There were nine of us on the trip. I was the only male. I noticed Ann’s accent right away and for a second presumed she could be French. Even better, as it turned out, she hails from Italy, a beautiful country which I visited for the first time this past January.

Theater Goers in Gardiner, Montana

Theater Goers in Gardiner, Montana

We talked the entire way to Gardiner. Once there we learned that thunderstorms had forced the outside performance to be moved into a nearby school cafeteria. The play was “The Recruiting Officer,” a peculiar work by Irish writer George Farquhar. Ann said she did not understand much of what was said. The accents were “Old English” and much of the theatrics were over the top with the obligatory gender bending roles that one comes to expect from a Shakespeare troupe.  All and all, it was a pleasant evening. Ann and I talked all the way back to the Canyon. Two days later we would go on our first hike together — learning more about each other. Step by step.