The Perilous (but Good) Life in Yellowstone

This was originally written 2 years ago in August, 2014. 

4 years of purchased self-expansion, revelry, and general education classes go by fast. Suddenly it's senior year, second semester, and all that remains is faded memories of enlightenment, which now elude me when I need it most. I look back, and I know those moments of clarity existed once: the life-time friends made at 5 in the morning; that one comment, "You're fucking good at this," from a professor; the girl I loved for a few weeks. Those were the times when the path ahead was known. But the clarity is gone from them now, and they're just memories, blurs from nights before. I suppose that's what I paid for, but it's the morning after now; I'm hungover, and I need to go to work.

Yeah, right.

Instead, I apply for a job in Yellowstone over the summer. I'll have time to find a 9 to 5 while I’m there. I condense the long drudgery of the post grad job search into a single 30 minute online application, and one month later I get a phone call from a nice woman from HR who pretends to interview me and then offers me a seasonal position. It's easy. I'm not sure if it'll be good, but it's easy, so I take it.

As it turns out, it’s not so easy. The company is understaffed and we’re all underpaid. My first job involves standing in a forest of t-shirts and coffee mugs all day, listening to the 50s on 5 satellite radio non-stop and having people tell me about the bison they saw while I scan a 3 dollar magnet they picked out for their whiny niece. And the people are all the same. From the busloads of Asian tourists to the pods of bicyclists clad in spandex to the pissy father with a “Haywood Jablowme” t-shirt and 3 sons all with mohawks, they’re all the same—people I have to pretend to be nice to so that they give me money.

After an old Vietnam vet quits out of righteous disgust at this job, I’m moved over to his position as a grill cook. It’s better in that I don’t have the vanilla 50s songs with their outdated gender roles slogging through my brain all day. But now it’s hot, and busy, and I need to wear a stupid hat. Buses come in with dozens of people at a time without warning. One unprepared tour guide orders 52 chicken sandwiches at once for his collection of Chinese students and then doesn’t leave a tip. In fact, most people don’t leave tips. Grease gets everywhere, soaks into my pores. I have to wipe down a still scalding, deep fat fryer on a nightly basis. I’ve traded customer service for sweaty undershirts and endless meal tickets.

Why am I doing this? I ask myself. Why is this where I am?

On my off days I disappear. 20, 23, 25 miles hiking through the Yellowstone/Grand Teton back country. Sometimes it’s with friends—the jolly Kentuckian or the dirtbag cook—but often I’m by myself. Exploring Yellowstone is walking on another planet. Bright, burning pools and cauldrons of mud squat everywhere, throwing off steam and sulfur. Long green plains sit in between snowy mountains. Lakes and rivers run through the park like a circuit board. No mile is the same as the last one.

I come across elk with 10 point racks, who just stare as I walk past. Buffalo are the same, maybe they roll in the dirt for a bit. I’ve seen glimpses of grizzlies barging through the forest, terrified of me for some unbeknownst reason. I am just as terrified of them. Once I hear wolves howling at the top of a mountain.

One weekend, after a night of, maybe but probably not, too much whiskey, I drive off much too late in the morning with a determined escapist mindset. I head south towards the Tetons, only an hour away. I’ve heard of this hike down there—around Jenny Lake, up Cascade Canyon, over Paintbrush Pass, down Paintbrush Canyon, around the other side of Jenny Lake—that is long, hard, and definitely worth it. I push my pace that day like I never have before, half goaded on by the two speed-walking women who keep passing me (I don’t like being passed), and half because I don’t want to be hiking all night. I finally leave those two women behind at the top of stunning Cascade Canyon—mountain stream pouring down the middle of snowy ridge lines, smoke from far away forest fires adding a gentle haze, and a mountain all the way at the other end of the canyon posing like a runway model—and head up the steep trail to the pass.

Hikes, at least the ones I go on, seem to have a way of crushing expectations. I reach the top of the pass, and I’m tired. But the rest of the way is all downhill, I tell myself, a cinch.

Of course, downhill at 10,000 feet turns out to be sliding horizontally across a steep snowfield that's melting in my too-late-in-the-day sun. It’s not the easy, second half of the hike I was hoping for. Falling, or slipping, would mean a 200 foot slide down the slope before crunching into a boulder field.

I shove my feet into the already made tracks of previous hikers and hope they hold. At the end of the snow field is the top of the same boulder field underneath me, still treacherous, but less so. My bare hands are numb from grasping the snow. My boots fill with snow. I make it 5/6th of the way across, almost to the first solid, dry, boulder, and then my feet start sliding. For a brief second, I feel like my life is in peril. It probably isn’t, maybe just my legs, but I feel like it is. “I’m gonna die,” I think to myself. “This is it.” Then, I take one final jump forward, let myself slide, and land on a rock about 5 feet beneath me. I’m unharmed.

I hear a whoop from one of the speed walking women who’s up on the pass that’s now behind me. I whoop back. For the rest of the hike, I recklessly slide down less steep snowfields, jump from rocks onto other rocks, and grin for about an hour straight.

This moment, and all of my other explorations, blend with my long, hot moments as a grill cook.

I have found something out here that I didn't expect to find: clarity. Mix one insufferable job with exquisite beauty, stir in some reflection, solitude and a little life-in-peril, and then bake. Empathy is easier now. Shit, even just caring about things other than myself is easier. I’m more confident. I laugh quicker. Things are just simpler, and that frees up time for being a good person. It’s not easy, but it’s good and clear.

I have not found a 9 to 5 job to run to once my contract ends. I haven't really even looked for one, don’t think I’d like it too much. Instead, other seasonal jobs in other national parks call for me louder. Moving from place to place, working, living. I’m a better person for it, I think. Somewhere along the road, I’ll have to move on to a more complex, grittier life. But, right now, nah, I’ll pass.