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. 


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.