Thursday, May 26, 2016

If this is Duluth, it must be October

Well, not quite. The Yellowstone summer didn’t exactly fail; it just didn’t last as long as I expected. Not that my expectations were high—I’d written that I considered myself a tourist this season instead of the resident I’d thought of myself as in the past, and even on the bus heading out there I was considering turning around. 

But it felt good to see the mountains from West Yellowstone and when I chatted with a former roommate there, I was even open to the idea that this might not be the single season goodbye I had planned. But when I rode into the park, I felt nothing. As we headed to Fishing Bridge to drop some people off, I told myself it was just because I wasn’t that familiar with that part of the park. We made a brief stop at Canyon so I could say hello to the woman who’d been the Mammoth store manager during my years there and we embraced as she asked with surprise what I was doing there. I pointed to my new company badge and had hoped I would be working for her when I applied.  After we headed north, the scenery still wasn’t feeling magical as it used to, but surely it would all change when I saw Mammoth again. 

Except it didn’t. Oh, it’s still beautiful, and it stirred plenty of memories—here on the boardwalk is where the raven flipped and flew upside down over me, there behind the hotel is where a coyote and I paused to check each other out, here on the hill above Mammoth is where I saw the white female wolf from the Canyon pack one winter day as her family howled in the background, that’s where the elk followed a step behind me, and the snow-capped mountains were still there in all directions. The many changes in the terraces were interesting to see.

The new trailer I was living in was nicer than my apartment, and the views from home were spectacular. I had new wildlife encounters on my morning mile walks to work—herds of bison with red dogs (I didn’t try to put one in a vehicle), a lone bull bison galloping at me down my dirt road (White Sulpher Street—everywhere has been labeled since I was last there) – he only wanted to get to the old road to Bunsen Peak but I stayed behind my neighbor’s car until he passed, and a big black bear across the road another morning. A couple evenings, a bison herd hung around our trailers, grunting and running a foot outside my window.

I ran into a few people I’d known over the years. Some were happy to see me, some couldn’t quite place me. There were others I would have been happy to see, but I didn’t seek anyone out in Mammoth because people weren’t my reason for being there. Interestingly, it was the ones who didn’t quite recognize me who gave me the most insight into the relationship I’d had with Yellowstone. In the years since I’d left, life in the park had moved on, while I’d continued feeling more of a connection with the park than I felt with the life I was actually living, partly because of a woman and partly because, damn, it’s one of the most spectacular areas on earth. It will continue to be important to me in memory and as a large relatively undamaged ecosystem, but now I plan to be focused on the Lake Superior area again for the rest of my life.

I didn’t have a problem with the job, but I’d been told by a former coworker that I’d be able to buy meals in the cafeteria of the company I used to work for. After I arrived I learned that wasn’t true, and then it was just a question of when I would leave. I hadn’t planned on eating there more than two or three times a week but I did expect it to be my main source of vegetables and full meals. I wasn’t interested in being dependent on rides outside the park for groceries, and even with a 30% discount I knew I wouldn’t last five months eating the limited variety of food we sold in the store. And my living location and work schedule meant I’d have very little, if any, opportunity to use the employee recreation program to get to other parts of the park or even attend evening events in Mammoth. I’d known a friend of mine who lives in Bozeman was doing a Yellowstone Association program in the park in late May, so I jumped at that opportunity to get a ride back to my bus home and gave my notice.

I wasn’t desperate to leave and I wouldn’t have minded if her program had been in June instead of May so that I might have made a little profit instead of losing money on this adventure. I worked with some people who might have become friends. And I could have used another month of losing weight—I lost almost 20 pounds during the time I was away from Duluth, so I might have been thin again if I’d lasted the summer on the Yellowstone diet. But considering how busy the store had already become, and that hours were about to expand so that I would either start at 7:15 AM or work until 9:45 PM with a half hour walk added on, it’s just as well I left when I did. 

I have no regrets, other than what is happening to Yellowstone as hordes of disrespectful and ecologically ignorant tourists continue to damage the place. I called 911 one evening because of a group too close to bison, and I hated the thought of sticking around to see months more of it. I saw plenty of justified anger on white faces in the store directed at the behavior of Asian (read Chinese, occasionally Indian) visitors, and heard a Chinese woman screaming obscenities in English at an American man in a parking lot. Many people are complaining about this culture clash online, and they’re not all Trump supporters. Not that some of the white folks couldn’t be just as rude. Let’s face it—one way or another, I would have snapped at someone if I had stayed the full summer. And I think it’s just a question of time before some cultural physical violence happens in the overcrowded park. The parking lots in Mammoth were already full in mid-May—I can’t imagine what the place will look like in July.

I may have become like one of the local people who like the area more than the park. I felt happier when I was in West Yellowstone, Gardiner (great breakfast at Yellowstone Grill which was under construction when I was last in town), Bozeman, and riding through the surrounding countryside than I did in the park itself. I don’t think there’s much chance I’ll ever see the area again, so it will join Boston and New England as a treasured part of my past, but at least my most recent memories of the place are now much better than those from the last two years I worked for Xanterra. I’ve learned my lessons, become very grateful for National Public Radio again, and it’s time to move on.

Postscript -- I wrote most of the above while I was still in the park. The day before I left, a woman I used to work with in Reservations came into the store and spoke to me about the volunteer position she now has with Yellowstone Association as a park host, and I later spoke about it with my YA friend as she gave me a ride to my bus stop. Essentially, the position involves talking about the park in exchange for room and board and a small stipend. It used to be a winter only position and I met the friend who gave me the ride when she had the position, but has now been expanded to multiple positions throughout the park in summer as well. That would be much more interesting to me than any of the jobs I had in the park, and would be with an organization which reflects my values much more than my park employers did. So maybe I will see Yellowstone again someday, but I’ll probably have to either win the lottery or give up my apartment first for it to make sense financially. 

Photos to come in time on the other blog. I don’t have internet at home yet, and have other priorities such as finding a job.

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