Yellowstone: The Place

            People die in Yellowstone. Of course people die everywhere, but the causes aren’t nearly as interesting or horrifying in my hometown. People don’t fall through the crust of the earth and into an acid pit in Fairhaven, MA. They aren’t mauled by bears or falling off cliffs either. Maybe that was the allure or maybe we just needed jobs. Whatever brought us there, Yellowstone challenged us, scared us, and showed us a glimpse of the people we thought we could be when we left Massachusetts.

            Yellowstone National Park is mainly located in Northwest Wyoming while brushing into Montana and against Idaho. It is America’s and the world’s first National Park, predating the National Park Service by nearly fifty years. State Parks had existed first, managed and overseen by the states they lay in, but the patch of land that Yellowstone encompasses was in the then Wyoming Territory. No such designation was possible and what has been called the best American idea, the National Park, was created as a quick answer to a territorial technicality.

Sara and I arrived in early May to Canyon Village which welcomed us with crisp air and snow on the ground. It is one of the several grocery/refueling/park services centers within the park. Named for its location, next to The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, this would be our home for the next five months. Our days became full of tour busses pulling into our store, spilling their passengers through the doors. The mix of people was incredible to see. Hikers who reeked of body odor shopped shoulder to shoulder with glampers in high heels and make up. People flooded in, while protein bars, marshmallows, and cheesy souvenirs cascaded out. It was all an endless blur, at least until our shifts came to a close.

It was nice to be working again, but we quickly began working for our off hours. We came to the park with high expectations of becoming rugged outdoorsy folk, though we almost didn’t make it past our first hike. We started the summer with me at my largest, 240 lbs., and Sara with a recently discovered fear of heights. The weather, at first, was wet and cold causing us to spend our first few weeks in the park huddled inside our camper. By the end of May I was wondering if we would get out at all when Sara and I were invited on a hike after work. We jumped at the chance to get out and so, rather unprepared, we excitedly embarked on our first adventure. We should have asked more questions, or maybe just one, “Where are we going?”

The Mount Washburn trail isn’t a difficult one. It’s a three mile hike up to the peak of a mid-sized mountain near Canyon Village. It isn’t too steep and is listed as “moderate” in “Hiking Yellowstone National Park: A Guide to More than 100 Great Hikes,” a book that would become our summer’s Bible. But, for us at that point it was an intense challenge that almost kept us inside the rest of the season. After setting out it didn’t take long for the hike to become a seemingly endless trudge up the mountain. Our new friends patiently waited for us to catch up every half mile or so. As we neared the top, the trail became a ridgeline made narrower by massive snow drifts. Sara crawled along, looking down steep drop offs on either side, panicky with every step, me huffing and puffing behind her. We reached the summit wet, cold, and dreadful of the climb back down, now in the dark. After changing into dry socks and a quick rest we began our way back. The hike down was like the hike up, slow, cold, and soggy. When we finally got home, we were beat up both physically and mentally.

When I imagined our time in Yellowstone I saw us hiking, backpacking, and really getting out there. After that first hike I saw how unprepared and out of shape I was. It was just a poor choice. The snow was still on the mountain and we started too late. We took the time to choose our hikes more cautiously after that. Mile by mile we adapted and began to love getting out. We were able to go into some places that not many people go to, still not lost in the wilderness material, but hikes that continually challenged us. Washburn became a memory and a milestone. Halfway through the summer I hiked it again, alone, and then Sara did with some other friends from work. We climbed Washburn four times after that and often talked about it when we were hiking throughout the park. It held that first taste of challenge accepted and a special place in our hearts all season.

            The physical challenge wasn’t the only one we found in Yellowstone though. Working for a park concessionaire is a strange thing. It is clear from the start that you are working for a corporation capitalizing on the fact that they can offer something you can’t get elsewhere: five uninterrupted months living in a National Park. Because of this the wages are often low, balanced with room and board and opportunity.

For over one hundred years the National Parks have worked to find the balance between preservation of nature for its own sake and the idea that the parks exist, as Teddy Roosevelt said, “For the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” This tension is something we witnessed firsthand and wrestled with ourselves. Getting people to care about the parks means getting people into the parks, but once the people are there the genie is out of the bottle.

One night after work I went for a short walk along the canyon rim. It had become one of my favorite places to be, every time of day looked different as sunlight shone down on the yellow sides of the canyon walls. I never got tired of any of the trails around there. This night, as I walked along the trail, a car squealed to a stop in a parking spot near me. There was a fine mist in the air and a women dove from the passenger door, extra shirt pulled up over her head, shielding herself from the rain. She ran to the fence along the rim, looked down over the side then turned to me, “This is the canyon?” she said.


“Ok, I’ve seen it.” She turned, dove back into the car, and drove away.

But she hadn’t seen it. Not the upper or lower falls. Not the river along the southern edge. Not the elk, deer, or marmot in the tree line. She didn’t get the chance to see the canyon sneak up around a corner after walking through the woods, through the steaming grey ground of the thermal areas back near Clear Lake. In that moment I was grateful for my strange job with bad pay. I saw how great it was to be in this place for months rather than days. Seeing a place takes time or maybe just a different perspective of it.

We saw firsthand that in the parks alongside of conservation there was capitalization, for every naturalist; a tourist. But these are symbiotic and if these places were purely natural, purely isolated, sadly, no one would care when they were paved over, damned up, or chopped down.

That is the conflict that the parks present. It may be one that cannot be completely resolved, but it is one that we learned to chew on throughout this summer and still do. National Parks represent some of the most majestic parts of this country and they are there for all of us, democratic in the purest sense.