It had been coming for years, but last autumn I lost almost everything--the apartment I'd lived in for over eight years, my cat, most of my stuff, the town I thought of as home, my credit rating. I was left with my life and a few boxes of memories. By the time February rolled around, I'd spent the last couple months of his life with my grandfather until discovering his body, also discovered a betrayal by my father, and lost the second of the two women who had been the lights and oases of my life for decades. I'd passed most of a human lifetime in a civilization which had always disgusted me and left me feeling despair and isolation. I was deeper than ever in the hole of depression I'd been digging for years and as I wandered aimlessly through cold white fields and woods with eyes turning icy, the temptation was strong to walk deep into those woods and lie down forever. I had made plans to return to Duluth within the week and I weakly tried to convince myself to at least wait until I got home so I could die in a place where I had once loved living.
The thought at least temporarily got me out of the woods and back to my grandfather's gutted home where I'd been sleeping on the floor. There I found a job offer from Yellowstone, not the good job I'd interviewed for, only low paid kitchen help but low paid kitchen help in Yellowstone, a place I'd never seen and never expected to. I didn't actually want the job, but it gave me an escape route and I wanted to see the place so I bit through my tongue, grabbed the lifeline, and held on tightly for the long three months until the job began.
I began the trip as early as I could afford to, spending days back in old favorite Duluth with the Lake and the cat and friends and oft-visited restaurants, and then enjoying days in the new town of Bozeman which would be the pickup point for the last leg of the journey to Yellowstone.
On that ride away from collapsing civilization I was one among two busloads of new and returning employees, a 75 mile trip to the check-in point where after an hour in line, I made it to the counter and was given a note to immediately call the person I'd previously interviewed with for the much better job. This could only be good news and in fact I was offered the job I wanted, and my life was greatly improved for a second time by a Yellowstone job offer.
I had to go to my original location for a couple days which provided the opportunity to realize when I finally made it to Mammoth that my living conditions and coworkers would be much better as well as the job being much better. It wasn't long before I realized that, much like people in the other world, I'd lucked into being part of the upper class in this world, far removed from most of the employees dealing with lousy jobs and overcrowded places to live. I tried to remember them while giving thanks for my good fortune, but I never would have changed places with them.
Continuing a streak of positives, I found myself unexpectedly falling for a woman I had very little in common with in terms of values and lifestyles in that other world. That falling feeling had become unfamiliar to me and was a welcome surprise at first but the exploration came to a predictable ending before really beginning, and led to some uncomfortable moments. The air cleared a bit in the final days, and I'll miss her despite it all.
All the days of these 4 1/2 months run together in my mind--the high desert sun and the rain and the snow, the sight and the smell of 4000 acres of grass and lodgepole pines burning forty miles away, the black bears and grizzly bears, the ravens and magpies, the eagles and ospreys and peregrine falcons and great horned owls, the bluebirds and tree swallows and barn swallows, the chipmunks and ground squirrels, the wolves and coyotes, the snakes, the bison and elk, the bighorn sheep and mountain goats, the forests and mountains and lakes and rivers and sagebrush meadows, the geysers and pools, the grasshoppers, the marmots and weasels, the pronghorns and mule deer, the climbs and descents, the van and car and bus rides, the obsidian and rhyolite and travertine, the group hikes and the solo walks, the silence and deep breaths inhaling peace, the tourists' phone calls of exhilarated memory and envy, the coworkers' reflections in the final days.
But though in many ways it was paradise and a great opportunity, it also could be a very difficult place for me as a vegetarian and a non-driver. When the employee cafeteria offered nothing tempting, I gained weight eating meals of junk food and beer from the only available store's very limited groceries. In the final week, I lost the vegetarian label I'd worn for years--not because I craved meat, but because I wanted anything other than the same damn junk food. And being on the edge of a scenic hiking heaven with no way to get to most of the trails was a difficult experience to say the least--it's the closest I've ever come to wishing I was a car owner. Weekends without group hikes or other planned events could be very long as could Monday mornings hearing of others' weekends.
I'd been here for months before I saw the highlights of a tourist's one day tour--Old Faithful, Yellowstone Lake, the Canyon. But I saw many places most of those tourists never see, and I lived here, watching the terraces change, and letting the place become a part of me. I had the time to stand by the flowing water, letting the sound bring a smile. I saw the mountains cloud-covered, snow-covered, smoke-covered, and sunlit. I had the opportunity to wander outside to take in the evening air and observe an elk herd, or to simply watch them just outside my window; to look in any direction, morning, noon, or night, and feel stunned and blessed; to sense the power of a bison in his stoic stare, to see the joy and curiosity of romping grizzly cubs and the waiting for death of an elk; the intelligence of magpies and the playfulness of ravens; the real real world, the one that matters and will remain in some form long after all the stock markets have crashed and the highways disintegrated.
I'm leaving only because I'm forced to; I know how Adam felt. I'd gladly stay if they kept offering me places to work and eat and sleep. But though that means I'd like to come back, I can't know positively that I will--I have to survive months back out there among you first. I guess the only thing that will stop me from returning is if my life gets either much better or much worse in that time. I'm hoping to return in late winter for a different job which would carry me through two or three months until this year's job resumes when the spring tourist migration begins again. If the first job doesn't happen, I may return early in May and camp until the job begins and I'm allowed in the dorm.
And then after a second year . . . well, maybe there will be a third. But one of the reasons I picked Yellowstone was because it was the only park which claimed to offer vegetarian choices at every meal. If that is no longer a nonnegotiable requirement for me (and it's still by far my first choice, what I consider the moral choice, and the way I'll dine when in real restaurants or any future kitchens of my own--it's just not practical or healthy for me in this cafeteria lifestyle where I have no control), that opens up the possibility of many other places to work, some with public transit within the parks once I manage to get to them.
I see a hope of piecing together a new pattern as a result of seeing no way to return to the old one. And though I'm really not a travel fan, but rather at heart just a homebody without a home, a felinophile without a cat, who would gladly have never seen Yellowstone if I could still be living in my old Duluth apartment with my cat, there is a lot of beauty out there to see. Like these places for starters.
It's a new world. Time for a new life.