What’s next after Yellowstone?

15 09 2013

My Yellowstone experience is coming to an end. I can now safely say it has been a wonderful summer, filled with adventure, achievement, learning, and, not to be forgotten — love. There are so many stories to tell, episodes to write and characters to develop, I don’t know where to begin.

We’ll start with the stars. They are incredible here. At 7,000 feet, the Milky Way is quite visible to the naked eye (with the help of glasses.) I’m still wearing Clark Kent style frames courtesy of that great American retailer, Sears. A few nights ago, I put on those glasses and joined my Canyon colleague Kirk for a late night ride into Hayden Valley. Initially we had planned to just blow off some steam after work, but it turned into an amazing evening of star gazing and elk listening. With no moonlight, the stars were spectacular and the constellations all there, although I’m still trying to figure out where Ursa Minor begins and ends. Kirk says it reminds him of a “planetarium” he went to in high school. Kirk, I’m finding out, had a privileged childhood.

The elk bulging made the night cooler. These beasts are in their mating period or “rut” as it is known in slang terms. The males are seeking to create harems and cry out in the darkness for new members. We are told to stay far away from the bull elk during this time as their behavior can get quite aggressive. Mammoth Hot Springs, where we stayed during training, is typically overrun by the elk this time of year.

Meanwhile, the fires that had been burning in nearly every section of the park have subsided, but it was scary for a while there. Dry and windy conditions coupled with lighting strikes had set Yellowstone ablaze once again. Apparently, this is quite a common occurrence with some years — 1988 comes to mind — being worse than others. During “Fire Season” this year we were greeted each morning by the smell of burning pine trees and sage brush and a sky colored in hazy pink. Some of us were lucky enough to have a front row seat. From my post inside the ticket office at the Canyon Corrals, I could see the Alum Fire raging across Hayden Valley. Tourists, rightfully so, were concerned.

“Why don’t they put it out?,” they kept asking me before saddling up for their one-hour horseback ride.

In Yellowstone, what happens naturally, stays naturally — including fires.

But the fires weren’t the only thing burning in Yellowstone. My relationship with Ann was heating up by the day. Our hitchhiking adventure led to more hikes into the backcountry and soon we were spending all of our free time together. This was not something I had expected nor pursued. It just happened, naturally and I find myself searching for ways to describe these feelings.

We met at a difficult time in both our lives. “I thought there was no love for me in this world,” Ann revealed.

I understood. On our hike to the Canyon’s brink of the lower falls, I shared with Ann my spectacular fall from grace in the summer of 2008. The story of greed, ignorance, betrayal and ultimately, ruin. Much to my surprise, with each devastating detail, Ann pulled me closer as we made our descent, hand in hand. The brink of the lower falls is an amazing sight to see and because of its steep drop, it is not a trail many visitors to the park take on. But I had become accustomed to crawling out of canyons and compared to last year’s hikes in Arizona, this was a piece of cake. At the brink, you witness the full fury of the Yellowstone River as it crashes 309 feet over the falls and into this deep and colorful canyon. This is where we kissed, passionately and so much so that a nearby tourist offered to take a picture of the, “love birds.”

As happy as I am for this blossoming relationship, I have no idea what the future holds.

Soon, Ann will return to Italy and continue her studies in hopes of one day becoming a teacher. As for me, I am unsure where life will take me next. I have a little money in my pocket again, a plane ticket to Seattle and a strong desire to return to journalism. Last year, my summer in Grand Canyon emboldened me for the campaign trail. Having survived six months in the desert, I was able to enter the hostile Florida panhandle with no fear and carry out a “boots on the ground” winning effort.

I wonder what a summer romance in Yellowstone will lead to?

Yellowstone Canyon Lower Falls

Yellowstone Canyon Lower Falls


Hitchhiking with Ann

22 08 2013

We hitchhiked around Yellowstone with a little angst, a lot of luck and ultimately much joy. It was Ann’s idea and I protested all the way. She had done this before with her girlfriends, but I had yet to try my hand at thumbing a ride. I’m cautious. It comes with age.

Ann hitching a ride.

Ann hitching a ride.

Ann, her 21-year-old spirit beaming, was intent on getting to Old Faithful for the first time. Maybe that was another reason why I was dragging my feet on this little outing. Having spent nearly two months at the location, you could say I was quite geysered out. Ann, however, had never seen Old Faithful erupt and thus her Yellowstone experience was incomplete. I proposed taking one of our bus tours to Old Faithful, but Ann rebuked the notion by stating those tours — those precious tours I sold — were for “families and old people.” She said we could get there faster by hitchhiking. And she was right.

No longer than five minutes after standing roadside holding a makeshift cardboard sign with the words, “Old Faithful Employee” scribbled across it, Ann got her ride. As the truck pulled over she raced ahead to greet it, yelling back at me: “In your face!”

People love to prove me wrong.

The driver, as it turned out, worked security at Canyon and he and a buddy were on their way to Chico Hot Springs, Montana. They carried us to Norris, where we got off and started hitchhiking again. This time a young British couple came to our aid, picking us up quickly. Again, Ann rejoiced in my skepticism defeated. We would reach Old Faithful in just over an hour’s time. Surprised, I was.

Being back at Old Faithful wasn’t the most pleasant feeling. The crowds are still huge, by far the largest in the park. There must have been a couple thousand people huddled around the geyser, not a bleacher seat left. The boardwalks, likewise, were crowded and the kids were annoying. And yet Ann wanted the whole tour. We stopped at geysers, hot springs, steam vents and thermal pools. I also took Ann into the Old Faithful Inn so she could see where I once worked. It was near noon and the place was a madhouse as usual. Buses unloading, people scurrying in and out of the gift shop, artists selling paintings and photographs in the lobby while flashes from cameras flickered across the historic wooden structure. Ann was impressed, letting out a few “wows” as we walked around.

After lunch we hitched a ride to Lake Yellowstone, again getting picked up quickly, this time from some fellow Canyon employees. Two middle aged women, one from Minnesota, the other from Mississippi. The one from Mississippi gave us a good scolding about the dangers of hitchhiking. I can’t say that I disagreed with her, but in Yellowstone with so many international workers and those, like me, without wheels, hitchhiking is an accepted practice. And we were exceeding at it.

Now this wasn’t the first time I had hitchhiked, but it had been a while. I was about eight when I decided to ditch the summer camp I was attending in Central Florida and hitchhike home. Thankfully, a nice man and his teenage daughter picked me up and called my parents, who, understandably were shocked. They were angry at me, but also at the summer camp staff for allowing me out of their sights. All because I didn’t want to take swimming lessons. To this day, my mother loves to tell that story as an example of what a weird kid I was growing up.

Back in Yellowstone, the women dropped us off at Lake Hotel just as rain drops fell from the sky. We went inside and visited with Terry (aka Mr. Fantastic) at the concierge desk. Terry and I basked in the fact we were “survivors” of our original training group and, the good Lord willing, we were going to make it to the finish line. Ann wanted to relax in the lobby of the hotel so we found a comfy couch and enjoyed the beautiful view of Lake Yellowstone, the largest alpine lake in North America, its deep cobalt blue water mesmerizing to gaze upon. Lake Hotel altogether feels like something out of the Great Gatsby era, elegantly outfitted employees, fine fixtures and the soothing sounds of a string quartet in the evening hours.

Unfortunately, we wouldn’t be hanging around to hear the performance. Nightfall was just hours away and we did not want to get caught in Hayden Valley hitchhiking after dark. So we strapped on our backpacks and made our way through the sage brush along the trail to Fishing Bridge. The rain had subsided, but a new smell suddenly  filled the air the closer we got to Hayden Valley. It was the unmistakable odor of burning pine trees. Those clouds in the distance were not rainclouds at all, but rather large, puffy clouds of smoke.

Yellowstone was on fire. 

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.

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.

Fantastic Sky

17 07 2013
The boys of summer

The boys of summer

I tend to look at the sky a lot out here. There’s good reason why this part of the country is called “Big Sky.”  The cloud formations are incredible, especially those puffy cumulus clouds mixed with a blue atmosphere that goes on and on. I am grateful to awake each morning to a new adventure, new people and new stories.

I dutifully walk over a mile to work every morning and eat three square meals a day in the EDR (Employee Dining Room). The deal is, to work in a national park like Yellowstone, you have to live inside the park and so you are provided housing and meals. Those charges are taken out of your paycheck and usually there’s just enough money left over for gas.

“You are not here for the money,” we remind ourselves daily. Still, I’m wondering if I’ll have enough in the bank to get back to Florida. I did not bring my jeep out here which was a major miscalculation. Public transport is inept at best. Tales of people being left stranded throughout the park are quite common as is the sight of hitchhikers thumbing a ride.

During our training in Mammoth, I was lucky enough to bum a few rides from my colleagues. I rode to Bozeman one day with Jerry, a retired banker from the Orlando area, Terry, a school teacher from Nebraska and Joe, my roommate. Jerry and Terry, both Vietnam veterans in their 70s, were quite a pair. They played well off each other and kept the rest of us smiling. Terry is especially entertaining, with his storytelling and sincere love for Yellowstone. He first worked in the park in the early 1960s, returning five decades later, admittedly, to seek out lost youth.

“We used to feed the bears you see,” Terry would say, always emphasizing the “you see” part for dramatic effect. When Terry would enter the EDR, someone would invariably announce his arrival with the word, “Showtime!” Terry is well liked by many of his co-workers. “There was a dump out in West Yellowstone you see,” Terry continued. “And we would ride out there at night to watch the bears eat. They’d stand up on two legs and growl at each other. It was FANTASTIC!”

Everything in Yellowstone is fantastic to Terry and he loves hearing other people share their experiences. On our trip to Bozeman, the four of us piled into Jerry’s full size king cab pickup truck. We stopped in Livingston and paid a visit to Dan Bailey’s fly fishing shop. Across the street sat the train station where Terry was quick to reminisce about passenger service which had long been discontinued.
Once in Bozeman, I got the guys to agree on trying a hippie co-op downtown that Joe and I discovered on our first night in Montana. All the food is fresh from local farms, grown organically and many of the dishes even I could not pronounce. There were several flavors of protein shakes, entrees of tofu and kale and plenty of gluten free grub to go around.

“I wonder if people eating this will get a whole new set of medical conditions,” Jerry mused. Hanging out with such a senior set, health and wellness issues were always on the tip of a nearby tongue. There were obvious risks at play. Since arriving in the high altitude of Yellowstone, Joe had struggled with his balance and took to walking with a stick. He was also having trouble grasping the company’s computer system, although he wasn’t the only one, still privately there was talk that Joe might not be cut out for Yellowstone living. I hoped this would not be the case. Joe is a kind hearted person, quick to share his pistachios or crack a joke to lighten the mood. When I had come down with a sore throat a few days after settling into Mammoth, it was Joe who dug through his medicine bags and found just the right remedy.

On the drive back to Mammoth, Terry regaled us with code words from his Vietnam days. As we drove through the stunning Gallatin and Absaroka mountain ranges, I learned for the first time what — or rather who — a “Mackerel Snapper” is. Raised Catholic, I found this outdated slur to be amusing. The day itself was a blast. One of the better ones I’ve had here. Sadly, Joe and Jerry are gone now. Both have returned to Florida for different reasons. Terry, at last count, is working at the Lake Yellowstone location, while I’m still predicting eruption times at Old Faithful and looking to the sky — cherishing every minute.

Big Sky over Mallard Lake

Big Sky over Mallard Lake

Flying into the Future

7 07 2013
The Roosevelt Arch welcomes visitors to the northern gate of Yellowstone National Park.

The Roosevelt Arch welcomes visitors to the northern gate of Yellowstone National Park.

Greetings from Yellowstone National Park!

I have decided to fast forward this blog into the present. A lot has happened since my last post chronicling events in September of 2012. I lost my grandmother, helped re-elect a President, traveled to Russia and Italy, made a pilgrimage to the Vatican, lobbied for equality at the Florida Capital and now find myself back in the wilderness.

I have been here for almost two months now. It is quite different from the Grand Canyon. For starters, there is much more life, the park is huge and teaming with an abundance of animals, birds, plants, trees and flowers. The mountains are gorgeous and the rivers and waterfalls almost too picturesque for words. Wary of working retail again, I applied for and got a job as an activity sales agent. Basically, this is a concierge position and, much to my surprise, I received a coveted post inside the historic Old Faithful Inn. Not a bad place to be at all. The Inn, built in 1904 out of rustic lodgepole pine logs, is a vibrant place during the summer months and time goes by quickly.

I’m the youngest guy in our department which is rather surprising considering the number of college students employed at the park. As I write this, only six of our original 10 sales agents remain. We trained for three weeks at Mammoth Hot Springs, getting to know the park, each other and the computer system we would be operating. Mammoth is where the park service top brass live and is the only location in Yellowstone open year round.

I have gone through several roommates already. Currently, I share a room with Keyon, a university student from Singapore. For some reason I have become a magnet for intelligent Asians. Keyon works in the Old Faithful Inn Gift Shop and is studying art and graphic design. He watches Pokémon, the Japanese animation, religiously and claims to be a “free thinker.” Keyon says he is in Yellowstone on a trip of self discovery and to get closer to nature.

Self discovery was my mission last year in the Grand Canyon. I’m in Yellowstone because it was the only job I could get and the thought of spending the summer unemployed in Panama City was unbearable and so here I am in the heart of bear country. My job has more dignity this year although the pay is still minuscule. There are days when I answer more than 300 questions, half of which being: “When’s the next Old Faithful eruption?” I wear a uniform that resembles a dairy man ready to deliver the day’s fresh load of milk only with a grizzly bear logo sewn across my left chest.

My first roommate was a nice fella named Joe from Naples, Fla. We had been introduced via email by our manager and arranged to share a hotel room in Bozeman, Montana before reporting for duty. We met at the airport in Minneapolis having both taken the flight up from Atlanta. I was surprised to find that Joe was slightly slow — the result of a motorcycle accident, he said, that nearly claimed his life and left him with a metal plate in his head. Disability be damned, Joe was eager for a new adventure.

“I’m headed to Yellowstone,” Joe would tell anybody in the airport willing to listen. “Goin’ sell pony rides.”

As we prepared for take off, I caught myself reminiscing about my first flight into Montana as a recent graduate of Troy State University and Sports Editor of the Troy (Ala.) Messenger on assignment to cover the football team’s playoff game against the University of Montana Grizzlies. That game will forever be known as the “Missoula Massacre” for the Trojans fell by a score of 70-7. Those were the days before the internet and the instant world of Twitter and Facebook. I remember having to take pictures and FedEx the roll of film back to Alabama. It was my first year as a professional journalist. My how time flies.