It’s not at all
neat and clean
black and white
this or that.
who want things neat
fear of ambiguity
It’s not at all
neat and clean
black and white
this or that.
who want things neat
fear of ambiguity
Somehow, I thought I’d have written this months ago. But the words never came. The thoughts came and went. By the hundreds. How do I talk about leaving, and how hard it was that final day in Gardiner in early October? I had the urge for going (thank you for those words, Joni. what a deep place they spoke to when you sang them.), and so I had to go. I had promises to keep. I make them very carefully these days; because I intend to keep them all, and we never know how much those promises mean to others or what change might lie ahead to make the promise-keeping impossible. I especially treasure the promises I make to myself, these days. As I drove out of Montana that day, I made one of those promises.
I’ll be back.
In the past several days, I’ve received word that I have a job. It’s not a glamorous job. It’s damned hard. And the pay is way south of some of the proposals for minimum wage. But I’ll have a camping spot in a place as close to heaven as I have ever been. And I can keep my promise.
Here are a few more reasons why:
It’s Monday. My ninth Monday in Yellowstone. Next Monday morning, the tenth Monday, I’ll be having breakfast with my friends and coworkers, turning in all of the company issued materials, and breaking camp. It’s really almost over for the year. I can hardly believe that the time has gone by so quickly, until I raise my arms with that 90º bend at the elbow and see the muscle-tone in my upper arms. Guns! I have GUNS! And only a little bit of wing left on the underside. In fact, the hard work of hauling the cleaning kit (known as a Biffy Box), scrubbing showers and hosing them down, swinging a mop, loading the ice freezer, and walking miles every day has put me in the best shape of my late adult life, and stripped off some of the excess weight I’ve been carrying around for close to 30 years. I even have ankles!
To be sure, I’m not a skinny little 20 year old, but something better, inside as well as outside. This summer has been transformative, in so many ways. I feel like I am becoming the person I always wanted to be. The truest me. No pretenses, no posturing, no excuses, and not as many fears. Except for bears.
In the beginning of this adventure, I realized that I was working excessively hard to prove to others, but mostly to myself, that I was capable and worthy. I’ve spent a lot of time in my life trying to prove myself, much to the discomfort of those around me. I am finishing this summer with the realization and confidence that I don’t have to prove myself with extreme actions. The best moments have come with words and actions that came easily and naturally.
The rewards have come in unexpected ways. Concern and care from fellow work campers when I sliced my head open (10 staples!) on the glide-out bedroom of the Hovel. A bottle of Czech beer and a heart drawn in soap bubbles on a shower room floor by two dear young people from the Czech Republic who worked with us in the evenings after their shift in housekeeping was over for the day. Working with strangers who have become dear friends and fellow survivors. Letters and emails (and CARE packages) from friends who have been with me most of my life, encouraging and lifting me up. Sunrises and sunsets, cool misty mornings, thunderstorms, star-filled nights and nights lit up by a full moons. Meadows and hillsides filled with wildflowers, Incredible, otherworldly landscapes. And critters, large and small. I have no choice but to return to Yellowstone. It’s magic has invaded my cells.
What comes between the now and the return are the unanswered questions. Where will I go? Who will I meet or be reunited with on my travels? What work will I do to keep fuel in Old Blue and keep the Hovel parked wherever that somewhere is? What experiences and adventures lie ahead? Whatever the answers are, I’m willing to be there. I want to see how this all turns out, don’t you?
(Note: In the days to come, I’ll be working on #21 — my last note from Yellowstone 2015. And then…on to the next!)
Friday. Autumn is knocking on the door here in Yellowstone. Yesterday a friend and I drove down to Leeks Marina in Grand Teton NP for pizza, beer, and conversation. The drive took us by Lewis Lake and Lewis Falls and along the Lewis River. Not only are the grasses changing from green to golden, the low shrubs are also changing into their fall reds, oranges and yellows. I love fall colors and fall weather. It’s my favorite season, even if it only lasts about a minute and a half.
I can recommend the pizza restaurant at Leeks Marina. Excellent pizza, cold beer, and a wonderful setting with the magnificent Tetons reflected in the still waters of the marina. Picturesque.
This morning a strange fog hung low in the trees around the Hovel, hiding the lake and the Absarokas from view. It hung around for several hours and didn’t completely lift until mid-morning.
I decided to stay close to home during this break and rest up. The pace has been intense with a short staff and another one bit the dust this week. We also gained one, and it appears he is worth two of the one we lost so we are almost back to normal. The problem with taking a break to rest up is that I start feeling guilty about not doing all the hikes and ranger talks and other activities. There are hundreds of hiking trails and ranger talks at every village every evening. Realistically, it probably isn’t possible to do it all, at least in one season. It seems like I have spent most of the summer adapting to the environment and my new life style, not to mention working like crazy.
It was a beautiful, mild day once the fog lifted, so I took a bike ride around Grant Village: down to the Lake House and Pavilion, the amphitheater, post office, campgrounds…The traffic has calmed down significantly from July’s peak. I had a lot of the road and trail to myself, making the uphill walking of the bicycle less embarrassing, and giving me a chance to look closely, listen ?-ly, and breath deeply of the pines and humus. A clear day after so many smoke-filled ones, made the colors appear more brilliant than ever.
After the bike ride, a nap of course, followed by a lazy afternoon of reflection and daydreaming. That’s what summer afternoons are for, aren’t they?
Saturday. A gorgeous start to the day and some excitement this morning. An actual helicopter landed on the helipad at the end of Workcamp Yellowstone. All this time, it’s been no more than a great spot to walk the dogs and look at the lake.
There is a fire in the park, on the Promontory peninsula of the Lake, between the two southern arms of the lake. It’s been burning since Monday, following a lightening strike.
From all appearances, this was a relief crew coming in to replace some of the firefighters who are keeping the fire from spreading to other areas while it burns itself out. One group was clean and fresh and the other was covered in soot. The really interesting thing was that of the two crews (about six or seven people) there was only one male in the group. The rest were young women firefighters.
I’m glad I lived long enough to see women following their dreams to become firefighters, Army Rangers, and fighter pilots. As I get older I realize the only thing that limits me is my imagination, or lack thereof. If you can see yourself doing it, you can do it! You may have to convince the imagination-challenged folks around you, sometimes the hardest barrier of all; and, if that group is too difficult to win over, you may need to start hanging with a different crowd.
Back to work this afternoon for three swings and two day shifts. Just a little over three weeks left before Grant Village closes for the year, and those of us left head out for the next destination. Some will be going directly home, some to other parks (Death Valley is a popular spot for the “migrant” park workers), and some (like me) a a little trip planned before we head to the permanent or next address.
I’ll be visiting friends and relatives in Idaho, Oregon, California, and Nevada before I get back to Denver in October. From there, I’m looking for something in south Texas to get me through the winter (National Park, State Park, or RV Park). The requirements: a place to park the Hovel, a beautiful view, and some time to enjoy it. I’m looking for something in or within an hour or so of San Antonio. WiFi would also be nice. Let me know if you hear something!
Another swing shift today: 1:30-10. I hate swing shifts. I have always hated swing shifts. It’s not because they are boring. When I was working in an Air Force Surveillance and Warning Center, swing shifts could be when the most exciting stuff happened. The swing shift perforates the day, poking holes in time leaving the worker with little time for any other productivity.
I find myself in a constant state of re-orientation. When I finish with work, it takes some time to quiet the mind and relax the body. Going to bed with either of them firing makes sleep impossible. I have to spend some time listening to music, doing some stretching to keep the leg cramps away, a shower, perhaps a beer and nuts or warm honeyed milk with graham crackers. Then, ideally, a good night’s sleep of +/- 7 hours. With no leg cramp dancing.
In the morning, we all have our rituals for orienting ourselves to the day. As I get older, I take more time with these ablutions, affirmation that I made it through another night. I won’t go into detail, but it takes a while, leaving about three hours for ensuring I have food and plans for lunch and dinner, walking the dogs a couple of times, straightening up the hovel, and writing a little. Then it’s time to get ready for work.
I hate swing shifts.
The work itself is physical and something always needs to be done, so the shifts go by quickly. My body has adjusted (mostly) so doesn’t get as sore and crampy as it did in the first week or so. I also haven’t banged myself up in almost two weeks, either, so the bruises are fading.
Speaking of fading…so are the wildflowers in our alpine meadow. We’ve had several frosty mornings now, and while some of the yarrow and lupine are hanging in there, they are looking tired (as tired as the whores on 7th Ave) and ready for the season to be over. There’s an occasional dandelion or clover, and lots of browning grasses of various types. The rest of the flowers have been eaten by elk and chipmunk and other critters at that point when the plants were the most fecund. bearing the seeds of next year’s meadow in protein-rich seed.
Critters. Yesterday, when I was back at the Hovel for dinner break (and to feed/walk the dogs), I saw my first Bald Eagle of the summer. It flew, or rather glided, just above the spruce over Workcamp Yellowstone from end to end, flying right over my head as I walked the dogs. Maybe one day that kind of thing won’t take my breath away, but I don’t think so.
Sunday. The smoke was better this morning. The rising sun was a deep orange, instead of red, contrasting brilliantly against a sky that was still gray and the still darker gray of the calm lake waters. This morning The Lake was dressed in patches of white and gray lake fog gathered on the eastern and western shores of the Thumb.
It was a brisk morning, with frost lacing the leaves of the lupine, turning them into white stars, and glazing the grasses with glitter. Even the fresh mounds of the burrowing critters were frosted like a sugar-dusted cake.
Yesterday, for the first time since I arrived, the campground was not completely filled. The FULL sign wasn’t posted. The season is winding down. American families are heading back to school. Many of our customers are now European and Asian visitors. Even the big groups of bikers are gone, the sacred Sturgis pilgrimage over the year.
One of the things I learned this week is that some people leaving Yellowstone leave behind stuff, all kinds of stuff. Visitors supply themselves for a camping, biking, hiking, fishing experience; and once they’ve had it, they leave the stuff here (ostensibly for the next person?). Bicycles, tents, tarps, sleeping bags, coolers, folding chairs…It becomes something of a disposal problem. The bicycles get pressed into service for the young people living in the dorms, providing transportation that most don’t have while here. The other stuff?
We see something similar in the laundry and shower. Last night we emptied a dryer full of someone’s towels that had been unclaimed for two days. At least they washed and dried them for us! We have a large box of single sox, another box with various articles of clothing, towels, hair bands, mated sox, and a third box with shampoos, conditioners, face cleansers, feminine cleansers, shaving cream, and various airline approved containers. These boxes get emptied regularly and fill back up just as regularly. It’s not bad enough that we fill our houses and garages with stuff, we have to do it to our national parks?
Leave No Trace
Some of you older folks may remember a song from 1966 about the morning sun rising like a red rubber ball? This morning’s sunrise was just like that, accompanied by the acrid smell and taste of smoke from forest fires. I took my coffee down to the rock where I can sit and look at the lake, except you can’t even see much of the lake this morning. The cold front that came through yesterday, about 2 pm, blew lawn furniture around the campsites and took down some dead lodge poles — one came down across our access road — but didn’t seem to do much about the smoke except perhaps fan more of it in.
Since a hike was out yesterday, due to the smoke, I had to do something else so as not to waste a day of break in Yellowstone. The dogs begged me for a ride in the truck, and Old Blue need to be let out a bit after two weeks of <25 mph. We headed toward the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.
There are two drives at the Canyon, one for the south rim and one for the north, with several short trails leading to amazing overlooks. The one at Artist Point, overlooking Lower Falls, was especially inspiring, even in a crowd. In spite of the smoky haze, the colors and shapes of canyon walls are compelling. Reds splashing down the sides of chalky white crags, capped by deep greens. Lower Falls is over 300 feet and was flowing mightily. I promised myself a trip back before I leave to hike Uncle Tom’s Trail when the smoke isn’t so heavy in the air. The trail is described as a series of paved inclines and more than 300 steps [which] lead you about 500 feet…down into the canyon. Your destination is a platform from which you can see, hear, and feel the power of Lower Falls. The trail is not recommended for people with heart, lung, or other health conditions. And, of course, no dogs allowed.
Another trail, to Red Rock Point, on the Northern Rim takes the hardy visitor close enough to feel the spray. Again, an adventure for another day. Since the dogs were in the truck, I did the shorter walks to the viewpoints and overlooks. I’ll spend more time here in the coming weeks.
The drive alone is worth the trip. I love the drive past West Thumb Geysers and along the lakeside. There is a part of the forest, north of West Thumb, that burned so hotly that it is taking more time for life to return. I always feel like I’m passing a cemetery when I drive by the spot. Dead gray lodge poles like giant tombstones in the tall grass for miles overlooking the lake. It makes me want to whisper. From there back into healthy forest and past the mud volcanoes and sulphur caldrons, through the Hayden Valley with its herds of bison and an occasional bear for the delight of the tourists, who stop their vehicles where ever they are and pull out without looking anywhere but at the animals. This is why my friend, John, never comes here during the summer season. I actually had to use my horn yesterday as one fella tried to drive right into my driver side door from one of the lookout points on the other side of the road!
Back to work this afternoon. Woo! Hoo! Right now, I have four swings and a daywatch, but who knows? Last week’s schedule had four versions before the week was over. It’s a good thing I’m so flexible, or at least somewhat so.
The most excellent news is that the hours for the showers/laundry will be changing in a couple of days. We will close one hour earlier and open one hour later. That means that my coffee break between Tuesday’s swing and Wednesday’s daywatch gets extended by two hours! That’s almost a full night’s sleep!
Critters. One of the things I haven’t told you about is the bats. They are all around, and very often in, our laundry building. Little brown bats. They don’t harass anyone, but some people get freaked out about little brown bats flying over their heads and then attaching to and creeping along the rafters above them. I personally love bats. They eat mosquitos by the thousands.
Dennis used to rescue the bats by netting them inside the building and then taking them outside to release them behind the building. One day he discovered that the loud gathering of ravens outside was a group of the raucous black demons calling each other for dinner. He was devastated to discover that he’d been unwittingly feeding the ravens with rescued bats. You might be interested to know that a group of ravens is called an unkindness.
This morning, I opened a cupboard to get a cup and the door didn’t swing back and hit me in the head. I placed an egg on the counter and it didn’t roll away from me. [I’m not a complete idiot. I first wrote that I’d “laid an egg” and then changed it to “layed” and then made a note that I needed to look it up; and then I realized that either one was going to get me in trouble because if I couldn’t remember the difference, I was sure to hear from somebody else who couldn’t either.]
The Hovel is level. It’s kind of heavenly. I should have done this weeks ago. I was off by one inch. The one inch I put under the wheels on the right side when I parked it on July 13 because of that poorly installed level on the front cap of the 5th Wheel. Installed by an idiot. But not a complete idiot.
The smoke is still pretty bad here in West Yellowstone from the fires out west. It burns in the nose and has made my throat scratchy. It’s given me a voice I imagine to be a lot like Lauren Bacall and is probably more like Bobcat Goldwaithe.
We’re supposed to get some weather that will sweep the smoke away, according to my weatherman. I hope so. Before it does, I hope it drops enough rain on those fires to stop them. That’s the good thought of the day. The supplication. The prayer. Can I get an Amen?
One month from today is my last day in Yellowstone…for this year.
44 days TV-free. I brought a few DVDs with me. Then I found out I don’t have a DVD player onboard the Hovel, but I do have a VHS player. For all the VHS tapes I no longer have.
Oh. By the way. I’m going to be a Grandma! Woo! Hoo! Yay! Yay! Yay! Huzzah! O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!
Tuesday. Unsettled. The feeling has dominated the day. Tomorrow is my last day of the work week. I’m glad for that, but melancholic over the passage of time and the distance between me and the people I love the most. There is a storm building here. The lake is choppy with white caps, and I could hear the waves hitting the shore below the helipad. I don’t remember hearing that sound before, in all my walks down here — and the dogs and I do a lot of walks. There is smoke on the water from the fires in Idaho and other western states. The haze is heavy along the shoreline, and the Absarokas are completely hidden from view.
Geese are beginning to gather for the journey south. The grasses are turning brown, the green disappearing as the color of the wildflowers has also faded. The summer is more than halfway over. I want it all back. I want a do-over.
Tonight I am unsettled because I can’t control space and time. You’d have thought I would have gotten over that sort of irrationality at my age, but I’m not feeling at all rational right now. I’m feeling strangely weepy and sad. And unsettled.
Thursday. Have you ever met one of those big old unpeturbable dogs that tolerates all manner of abuse from children riding him, using him for a pillow, pulling his hair? One of those dogs that never gets grouchy about it, unless the kid is the jerk from down the street who just doesn’t know when to quit and keeps poking and pushing and pulling. Then he might bark or growl a bit. It’s the kind of dog that takes a lot to piss off — like a real threat. Some danger to himself or his family. Only then are the teeth bared and the old dog barks and growls. I’ve met only a few of these dogs, and they were real treasures that I remember decades later.
I’m losing two of my friends/neighbors/coworkers from Workcamp Yellowstone today. Dennis (not his real name) worked with me on many shifts these past few weeks. He was one of those folks who was always a pleasure to work with. He knew what had to be done and did it with no complaints and very little ceremony, beyond letting a co-worker know where he’d be and what he would be doing if needed. He was crazy reliable. You knew you didn’t have to check supply levels of anything when Dennis was working. He had it covered.
Dennis is one of us over 60-types who came to Yellowstone to work for the summer and live in the campground. He is a giant of a man, well over 6 feet tall and not willowy. He is gentle and kind and considerate to a fault. He and his wife, Julie (also not her real name) had found the Yellowstone work experience to be a little different than what they had imagined, but they were willing to stick it out to the end. And then…
One day last week, a customer came in and demanded a service. It was not an unreasonable demand, and it is a service we provide, but most customers ask nicely and are quite courteous about it. This one chose to be not so much. As Dennis complied with the demand, the customer became increasingly demanding and asked for other services and Dennis questioned the appropriateness of one of these demands. The customer became threatening as well as demanding and in the process violated Dennis’ personal space.
After a week of investigation by the company and the park service authorities, Dennis was offered a demotion and a pay cut and a job with no customer contact of any kind. It was one indignity too many. Dennis and Julie are packing up and leaving today. This is not a memory of Yellowstone that I will treasure.
The smoke from the western fires is so thick here now that you can smell it and feel it in your throat. I can’t even see the other side of West Thumb this morning, and we haven’t seen the Absaroka Mountains in days. I guess I’ll skip the hike today for my lungs’ sake.
It may be time to level the Hovel.
It’s been quite a week. We’ve had exciting weather. A couple of those mountain thunderstorms that are so dangerously beautiful. You know you should stay away from the windows, but you just can’t help yourself. Flashes and spider-webs across an angry sky cracking with fury. Fortunately, it all came with lots of rain, so any ground strikes were extinguished quickly.
This was followed by breezy, sunny, partly cloudy blue sky days that never got quite hot enough to need more than an open window or vent — as long as there was no rain in the forecast! I came back to quite a mess the other day, after waiting out a storm in the employee dorm day room. I had left a couple of vents open in the Hovel. Only a little. It was enough.
I finally got out for hike before my work break ended. A little 2.2 mile loop from the parking lot at West Thumb Geyser basin, up to a point overlooking the West Thumb of Yellowstone Lake and the Absarokas, where The Park ends. The trail passes by some steam pots and hot springs and spitting sizzling holes in the ground that aren’t cordoned off or boardwalked around. This is where the warnings about the instability of the ground around these things are relevant. I stayed on the trail!
Getting up to the overlook and back, the trail goes through meadow and forest and I forgot how close I was to a very well-traveled road. I’d picked the route on purpose. You may have heard or read that we had a bear incident a week or so ago here in The Park. Only about 30 miles or so north of me. A tragic end for both human and bear [see footnote].
The road, the eastern part of the Grand Loop, had been my excuse not to strap on the bear spray when I put the binoculars on my belt. I won’t do it again. It was stupid. I was spooked for most of the walk. I had assumed that such a short trail, so close to the Grand Loop Rd, would be heavily traveled and that I would have plent of company. That was a bad assumption. I never saw another person except for the first/last 500 yards of the trail. Several groups started and got as far as the road they had to cross to the trailhead, and the sign listing bear precautions…
So, there I was, alone in the woods with no bear spray or even the whistle my friend, Lissa, gave me. Only my bravado and my voice to keep the bears away (Yo! Bears! I’m coming through here!) And my antler tipped walking stick. Perhaps I could go all kung-fu on a bear and send it packing?
On the way back in from the lookout, I saw evidence of downed logs freshly torn apart by a probable bear or bears in search of grubs and insects. (Yo! Bears! I’ll be outta here shortly! Y’all have a good day!)
I saw no bears. I saw no other critters either, except for a raven or two and the chipmunks. A dear friend of mine has noted how many times I’ve talked about the chipmunks, suggesting that it would even make for an impressive word count. I promise you, in terms of numbers, the chipmunks are impressive. If I had this many elk or bear or bison scampering around the Hovel, I would be writing about that, too!
Next time, bear spray. I’ll enjoy the walk a lot more, I think.
Both yesterday and today. the Absarokas have been partially to completely obscurred by smoke from the fires out west. Without mountains to provide perspective, the lake seems to go east forever, disappearing into a smoky haze. No nearly as beautiful and definitely not as inviting as when the air is clean and there are only mists disguising the shores.
Critters. Yesterday morning we had an elk and her young calf visit the campground. The calf was very curious about the people walking with noisy little 4-legged animals, but stayed close to mom. Yesterday afternoon, on my way back to work after dinner break, a magnificent red fox was standing in the road, staring at my truck, before he ran off into the woods.
What a place. As I told a friend: I am besotted. I don’t want to leave. But as sure as rain turns to snow up here (and piles up 70-90 inches) and the lake turns to ice, I’ll have to face reality and the end of the summer. Until then, I’ll be giving her long, adoring glances and breathing deeply of her scent during those moments she hasn’t taken my breath completely away from me.
Footnote: I spoke with the folks in the Backcountry Office at Grant and it appears the genetleman who was killed had violated several guidelines. He was hiking alone, offtrail by 1/2 mile, carried no bear spray, and was wearing headphones. He may have felt safe because he was so close to a well–traveled road and a populated area. The mama bear was euthanized — for being a bear. The cubs will live the rest of their lives in a zoo. There are no happy endings to this story.