Summer of 1993
Chapter 6--Average Days in Wonderland
Old Faithful erupts erupts about once every seventy
minutes. The Yellowstone River has flowed through the Grand Canyon
beyond recorded history. The bison have roamed through the valleys
almost forever. There are things in Yellowstone that find their own
norm. That one can expect changes in the thermal landscape every
year, or earthquakes, or any of the other amazing changes that occur every
year, this too is a norm. In Yellowstone National Park, however,
what is normal and average is exciting and wonderful. While I cannot
hope to compete with a geyser eruption or with a sunrise over Yellowstone
Lake, there was something more exciting and wonderful in even my most average
days in Yellowstone.
I had two sorts of average days depending upon
whether I worked the early split shift or the late split shift. I
also had average Sundays volunteering for ACMNP. The only day which
never was average was a day off. Even in over two months full of
adventures, there was a routine. There were things one came
to expect. Let us look at an average day on an early work day and
on a late work day.
The early shift began far too early for me and
even earlier for a sleepyhead like Price. We had to be at work by
seven in the morning. If we wanted breakfast, we had to be at the
EDR by 6:45 at the latest. At 6:15 in the morning, my alarm would
sound. I would arise ready to start a new day! Yeah, right.
I woke up with a groan, stumbling out of bed and into the bathroom.
That is, I would stumble into the bathroom if Jay Clayton was not using
it. He was who we shared the bathroom with, and he was lucky enough
to have a room to himself. Usually, however, Jay was already out
of the bathroom and ready for breakfast by the time I woke up. While
I went to the bathroom, Price lay passed out on the bed. Some days,
he had to get to work before me, but he was still passed out on the bed.
On other days, when we did not work on the same shift, Price slept through
as I bumped into furniture or whatever trying to get dressed in the dark
so as not to wake him. I doubt he would have woken up, but that is
just how I am.
Most of the summer, Price and I worked on the
same shift. His bed was closest to the window; mine, to the door.
Inbetween, I had my stereo set up. Once in awhile, I would wake up
in a good mood. On those rare occasions, I might stick in a CD with
the appropriate wake up message. Once, I put in a CD by the Spin
Doctors. The song begins with a clock alarm going off, a few jazzy
guitar notes, followed by a loud, "What time is it?! 4:30...It's
not late...it's early, early." Another time, I put in REM's "Get
Up." It chimes in suddenly, "Sleep delays my life...Get up!, Get
up!, Get up!...where does time go sleep, sleep, sleepy head...Get up!,
Get up!, Get up!.." That last song pissed him off in a humorous way.
He begged for mercy, but I had won. He was soon awake.
After Price showered, (I showered at night
before bed) we would head for work. The walk along the boardwalk
is only a quarter-mile. Sometimes, the walk was unpleasant.
The nights at Grant Village got so cold that summer that it was not uncommon
to wake up to temperatures in the lower twenties. Sometimes, in June,
snow was on the ground from an evening snow shower. Frost was the
norm all summer long. It was supposed to be summer! This was
a cold summer, even by Yellowstone standards. Nevertheless, the morning
norm was to bundle up in winter clothes and parade our lifeless bodies
to the EDR for a quick breakfast before work.
Sometimes, the normal morning walk was special.
On one particular morning, I walked to work by myself. Frankly, I
was tired. Imagine a zombie, only not nearly as animated, walking
around in jeans and winter coat, head down, lost in thought--or dreams--moving
thoughtlessly through a parking lot of a campground. All of the sudden,
I find myself just five feet from a mule deer! (Were you hoping that
it was a bear?) The deer was grazing on the grass in front of the
small wooded area through which the boardwalk passed. The deer, startled
just as I was, lifted up his head to stare at me. After two seconds
pause, the deer ignored me and continued eating. In few places other
than Yellowstone is such a moment possible. Was this how the Garden
of Eden was like? Could Adam and Eve walk around in a world of creation
without the one intimidating the other? In reality, it was not a
good thing for the deer. If that deer ever left Yellowstone, it would
have been an easy target for hunters not nearly as kind as myself.
If the deer never left Yellowstone, however, I can only think that such
a fearlessness was ideal. We were all pedestrians in this world.
I went my way, tipped my head to the deer, the deer did the same to me,
and we both went on as equals in this paradise. It felt good to be
trusted by a wild animal. In turn, it felt good to trust. I
had never had that sort of relationship in my life. Even, Spike,
the cat we had in our house growing up was more scared of me than that
animal. I did not betray the trust, and I walked on. I gave
the young mule deer his space.
Not only was the average walk to work sometimes
special, the glimpse of the sunrise we would get before entering the store
was usually special. On sunny days, and there were more sunny mornings
than not, that time of morning was one where the sun was just rising over
the mountains in the east. Although our store was not right on the
water, we could see it from the store. On sunny mornings, I always
took a glance to my right at the scene to my east. Never could that
average walk be so un-average as any other average morning anywhere else
I was on the globe. I never had to do another thing in Yellowstone
so long as I could see that sunrise over the lake as I went to work in
the morning. It was a work of art. I cannot wait to see it
again in the future.
Price and I would walk down the stairs, take
a left into the basement, take a quick right and another one into the EDR.
Inside, the older contingent had already been eating a long time.
The younger workers all came late, with sleepy tired looks. The older
workers loved the morning, however, and took great liberties in making
fun of how tired we were. I have heard that people in their teens
and early twenties should get about ten hours of sleep a night while an
older person may need as little as four. In reality, a young person
averaged about five or six hours of sleep in Yellowstone while an older
person was in bed by nine or ten o'clock. So, the reality it would
seem is that the older people were extra-rested, and we were under-rested.
It makes me sleepy just thinking about it.
Maria made sure we were well fed on whatever
it was that they served. Instead of "tuna fish," it was "cream of
wheat!" The food was good at breakfast. Her husband, Jim, made
the eggs to order on the grill. When the other cook, Bud, worked
breakfast, it was not so spectacular but still good enough. As Price
and I sat down groggily at a table, we were usually soon joined by other
young people. Usually, Lynn and Leigh Ann would stumble in.
Sometimes, the nondescript looks on people's faces would make me laugh.
It really would have been a funny scene in an absurdist movie. Usually,
little was said at breakfast. Chirpiness is not a quality that promotes
We would proceed to work. Without going
into the details of work, there were moments in a work morning which were
very average. At Hamilton Stores, we received a fifteen minute break
for every four hour shift that we worked. The way the shifts were
split, however, meant that our only break on the early shift was in the
morning. Generally, people who worked at the Grill were so busy that
they did not take their breaks. During my days as cashier, I only
took a break once or twice. When I moved to another job later in
the summer, I took regular breaks. I looked forward to break because
it meant that I could get something to drink at the Grill for twenty-five
cents plus tax. Almost always, I got for myself a hot chocolate with
whip cream. Then, I would sit in the Grill with other co-workers
who were on break. This is one way I got to know people. As
time wore on, I found my co-workers less and less intimidating. I
looked forward to sitting down with them to talk. When I cashiered
at the Grill, I often spoke to them while they were on break. They
sat at tables right behind my register. Soon I knew who almost everyone
was, who was married and related to who, where people were from, what job
they had in the store, and a sense for the attitudes people brought with
them to the park.
So, what was my average co-worker? We already
know that my average co-worker was over the age of 55. I have already
spoken about the energy and vivaciousness of my average colleague.
My average colleague, however, also tended to be Republican in politics,
and believe that the national parks should be a land for recreation.
Many of them remembered how the park looked before the fires of 1988.
They howled that the Park Service should have stopped the blaze.
Even when I tried to explain to them why they did not, they tended not
to care. What was important to them was not the longterm health of
the ecosystem but its natural beauty. To them, the green trees of
the past were more beautiful than the mix of green and burnt mosaics of
the present. Older colleagues were angry with the condition of the
roads, wanted more recreational comforts added to the park, and only grudgingly
accepted the strict regulations in the park regarding bear management.
However, much more than the average Yellowstone tourist, the average co-worker
defended the National Park Service's policies toward bears. Nevertheless,
my average co-worker at Hamilton Stores believed that the higher values
are economic ones much more so than the atypical younger co-worker.
A sociologist might say that that is because they were products of the
Great Depression. Whatever the reason, that was the case.
Even though I found myself at odds with the essential
conservatism of my average co-worker, it did not prevent me from befriending
them. For, in lumping this group as an "average co-worker," we must
not forget that we had unique individuals. They came from all walks
of life and had stories and lives of their own. Furthermore, almost
all of them were just so gosh-darned-nice. For instance, whenever
I would see Ralph, he would say to me in the nicest of ways, "What do you
say there, Jim?" Where I am from, that translates to, "What's up?"
Yet, it was not what he said so much as how he said it. These people
were nice. They wondered how you were. They told jokes, smiled,
treated you as one of their own. I have never come close to knowing
as many nice people as I knew at my time at Hamilton's Stores. I
think the reason for that was that these people wanted, for the most part,
to be there. They were working in a place they wanted to be.
How rare is that? In Yellowstone, it was the exception to find a
person who did not want to be there. It was an exception to find
a person who was not enjoying even the most average of days.
The people at work had an effect upon my fear
of people in no small part, either. Oh, that fear did not necessarily
diminish. My average colleague thought of me as a quiet boy.
I did not simply go up to my colleagues out of the blue and start conversation,
usually. Yet, I had no fear of going to work. I have no fear
of returning to work to meet a new set of co-workers. I have faith
that nothing unpleasant will happen to me, at least on the whole, in the
world of Hamilton Stores at Grant Village. When I walk through those
doors and see those warm and friendly faces, I know that I am at home.
The early part of the split shift ended at noon.
From there, I raced to lunch. I raced to lunch not so much because
I was so hungry and eager to eat the food as I was to finish the food to
get as much nap time as I could before returning. After getting pushed
for some "tuna fish" and whatever else was on the day's menu, I got my
drink and sat down at a table. Soon, Price and Jay and maybe Jim
and Sandy, or maybe Lynn or whomever would sit down with us. We would
eat and talk about our days. It was always interesting to eat with
Jim and Sandy.
Jim and Sandy Savstrom were one of those rare
class of people who were neither young nor old. Their personalities
were so easy-going that they fit in well with anyone. In actuality,
their ideas and way of living were more radical than anyone young or old.
Without getting into too much of it now, the simplistic way of putting
it is to say that they were ex-hippies with some hippy left in them.
Jim was our dorm manager while Sandy worked in the Grocery. They
lived in Washington State, seemed to be well off, but found themselves
yearning for more.
Sandy was a fascinating person. Most often,
you would find her laughing as if she was drunk on life. She reminded
many of us of a flower child who had not wilted with age. She was
also strongly opinionated on things whether it be history or spirituality.
I doubt she was overly fond of my Christianity, but I knew that she could
respect that I was not the sort of person to lord it over anyone.
What was important was love, and this was thing that Sandy believed in.
She was refreshing. There was always so much of her that I wished
to know but never had the opportunity to find out.
Jim was not nearly so ethereal as Sandy.
He was no less charismatic, however. His pleasant personality was
characterized by the way he encouraged us to follow our heart's desire,
the way he listened, the way he gave advice. You never saw Jim passing
judgment on another person in a malicious way, even though he clearly had
his own very strong ways of looking at things.
Furthermore, like so many of the couples, they
loved each other. They were a happy couple among happy couples.
Not every couple was so obviously happy. Some were notorious for
fighting in public. Jim and Maria would often argue in the middle
of lunch! Yet, that is not to say that even they were not happy.
The truth is, however, that the outward signs in a relationship that we
identify with happy couples were in these couples much more than the American
mainstream. To see Ernie and Ruthlee hold hands, or Bill and Peggy,
or on and on, was romantic. It was romantic to see couples who had
been through decades of the struggle of marriage, the pains and sufferings,
could still look into each other's eyes and smile. Jim and Sandy,
however they are doing now, were definitely a happy couple. On their
days off, they went fishing almost every weekend in the northern end of
the park. Lunch or dinner was often listening to Jim talk about how
many fish he caught, or about the feelings they had out along Pebble or
Slough Creek. In fact, Jim and Sandy planned to work in Tower Fall
the following year just to be closer to their own paradise within paradise.
Lunch was usually completed in about twenty minutes.
At that time, I went home on the boardwalk to bed. At the dormitory,
bed awaited me, and usually Price. Sometimes, Price went over to
the Visitor's Center during lunch. There he would work as a volunteer
ranger. He even had his own Park Service uniform. I learned
much about the park from all the information they gave him to study for
his job at the Visitor's Center.
Without fail, with only a handful of exceptions,
I would sleep my break away until about 3:10 pm. While others used
their break to jog, or bike, or go on short day hikes, Price and I usually
slept. Waking up so early in the morning would not leave me with
any energy for the evening if I did not sleep. I preferred to be
up at night, even in a place with so much to see as Yellowstone.
Besides, most of the summer, there was daylight in the park well past nine
o'clock. Anyhow, dreams were made at night, and I was most certainly
After napping, I would appear at work looking
more tired than I had for breakfast. In truth, it took me the two
and one-half hours left of work to fully wake up. The time at work
would go very slowly. When there was fifty minutes left in work,
I started singing to myself the song, "The Final Countdown." A class
at college was fifty minutes, and I knew I could sit through that.
So, when fifty minutes at work were left, it became cause for celebration.
In times of boredom, I would translate how many seconds were left in my
shift. Then, I would tick off a co-worker by announcing how many
were left. "When you put it that way, it seems so long?" "Yes,"
I replied, "But, seconds move a heck of a lot faster than minutes.
Look thirty have gone by since I last told you how many seconds were left."
Oh, the games we invent to amuse ourselves. Songs were often running
through my head, and I would often invent parodies of them to keep me occupied.
I would then imagine that the store before me was a music video for my
song. As my eyes moved from person to person, it would be like a
different camera shot in the song. Sometimes, I wondered if I was
the only person in the world who did strange things like that. Maybe,
that is why I never minded being bored. It never took much to amuse
The work day ended with the changing of the shifts
and the trip down to the EDR for dinner. Unlike lunch, I was never
in a hurry to be done with dinner. At dinner, besides eating, we
would usually sit down and talk about our plans for the evening.
Often, adventures that I shall relate in this autobiography were invented
over a hamburger at dinner. This is not insignificant. In most
people's lives in other parts of the world, after work you go home.
Friends are not made easily, certainly not close ones, because you do not
live with the people you work with. The meals were the best time
to socialize and plan more socializing. Being as shy as I am, I really
appreciated the structure of the life at Ham's because it gave me opportunities
to forge friendships that I could not do back in Ohio. Even though
there were opportunities similar to this in the college atmosphere, I still
found it very difficult. The difference between college and Yellowstone
was great. In college, I never had the sense that I belonged with
any group that I had joined. I not only felt intellectually outside
but felt emotionally that what was desired by the group was not at all
what I desired. I desired to love, to dream, to contemplate beauty.
In Yellowstone, there were more people with whom I found similar aspirations,
even amongst a much smaller pool of people.
There were not very many differences in a late
shift day than an early shift day, but the tone was very different.
If the next morning was a late shift, we woke up very late. We did
not bother to wake up for breakfast. The older people would protest
to us, "But, you are paying for it." I would explain, "Yes, and I
am paying for my room, too, and I prefer to pay for the privilege to sleep
at this time than to eat!" This would get a chuckle.
The main difference with a late shift than an
early shift was that the day was completely dominated by work. We
had to be at lunch at 11 am because they would not serve it after 11:20
or so because they had to get ready for the early shift. So, we would
go to work, then get off at 3:30. This left us only one and a half
hours before we had to be at supper at 5 pm. During the short break,
I would usually write. There was nothing else that one could have
time to do. We would go back to work, be done at 10 pm, then usually
be too tired to do anything. The late shift was one where we got
lots of sleep but little was done. I regret that I did not make for
myself more adventures during those weeks. If they were horribly
average, it was because I valued getting sleep a little too much.
Thankfully, I valued it less as the summer went on.
Anyhow, most evenings where anything happened
were dominated by working the early split shifts. Often, after eating,
we returned to the dormitories to prepare for any evening plans that we
had. Early in the summer, I did not go out very much. Much
of my life was confined to what was available in the dormitory. The
most prominent activity of the early evening for me was playing ping pong.
Price liked to play, and I loved to play. So, we often found ourselves
playing in the basement.
Ping pong was taught to me by my father.
He used to tell me that instead of spending time studying that he played
lots of ping pong and lots more of a card game called hearts. Soon,
I grew to love the game; however, we had no table, and I had no friends
to play with. Most of my ping pong was played once a year at church
camp. I would play hours upon hours with people, keeping track of
my record. In high school, I played a little in the church where
my father ministered, sometimes taking my sister Gloria with me to practice
on her. She was frustrated because she never beat me. Sometimes,
I took a paddle and a ball into the basement of our house and practice
hitting it against the wall. In any event, even though my playing
was severely limited, I was pretty good. I could now beat my father
more often than not. I definitely would not say that I was great,
but I was better than average.
Anyhow, Price and I would hit the ball around.
I was merciless with him. If he through up some lollipop, I would
shove it down his throat with a smash. When I began playing, I wanted
people to show no mercy with me. It taught me to hit the ball better.
However, many others just play for the fun of hitting the ball around.
I would not play under those conditions. I was a nineteen-year-old
idiot. Before hitting the ball, I would explain that I was going
to treat them like I would treat anyone else because I liked to practice
off of poor players to improve my game. Sometimes, this went over
well because the person was somewhat serious about the game. Often
enough, I became the arrogant, cocky player whom everyone wanted to beat.
Games brought out the worst in me, and they still do. This is why
I do not play games very often anymore. They say I have improved
my attitude, but I still have to admit that I have more fun playing a game
when I am trying to do my best. It really had less to do with the
need to win as it did with the need to be good. Anyhow, at nineteen,
I might be kind and generous in many aspects of my life, but I was evil
on the ping pong court.
Price had fun, inspite of me. He always
told me that he thought I should enter tournaments. I knew I was
not as good as that. There were a few players that I could never
beat in college that convinced me that I needed much more practice to be
really any good. Yet, if you get your balls slammed back on you as
many times as Price did, you might think the same. He liked to play
matches against me to see if he was improving. He was, but scores
can be a very bad indicator. Sometimes, the score can reflect the
number of mistakes you made rather than what the other person has earned.
As we played, we were often joined by others
who wanted to play me. As I stated, Michelle was so mad at me when
we played that she took to violence. Dan would play as well, and
he was decent at the game but not good. Dan was never really good
at anything. A guy named Jeff Bruce, a custodian in his thirties--another
of the rare breed--would watch. He claimed that I was not really
that good. He said that I hit the ball really hard but that I missed
almost as often as I succeeded. Of course, he never came that close
to beating me. He would then say, "I never said I was that good,
either." We liked to trash talk. It could be fun, but I do
not think it was my best quality.
My only challenger was Patrick. He was
genuinely a good player. He also took the game very seriously.
So, when we played, it was intense and quiet. Patrick's problem was
that I seemed to play my very best just at the moments we played.
I have no doubt that if I was better than him that it was only very slightly.
Yet, once I beat him 21-3 in a match that I played nearly as flawlessly
as I could at that time. To give you an idea as to how uncharacteristic
of a game that was, the one previous I had only won by 21-19. He
was very frustrated when he played against me, but we did not play very
often. He was usually on the B-shift; and I, the A-shift, so he was
off work usually by the time we had tired of it.
If we were not playing ping pong, we often watched
movies on the VCR in the basement. Most nights were not spent adventuring
in the Park, but in the enclosed basement with a movie. There was
no TV or radio reception in Grant Village, but we did not miss it.
Seeing movies was often enough. I saw only about a dozen movies in
the theater as a child, and so there were many movies I had not even never
seen but never heard of. I took some of my summer in 1993 catching
up on some of the popular culture I had missed growing up poor in Ohio.
Later in the evening, especially early in the
summer, I spent in my room writing letters. Sometimes, I would write
home. Sometimes, I would write to friends I had in college or in
other parts of the world. At this time, Price and the others were
often at the pub or partying in someone's room. I did not drink,
and so I declined offers to go to the Employee Pub until later in the summer.
Furthermore, I found out that there were drugs in some of the parties going
on. I had no fun at parties. I felt alone in a world of mindless
frivolity. My uncle had almost died of alcoholism, and my mother
had struggled off-and-on with it. These things were etched in my
mind. I was convinced that I did not need to experience everything
in order to understand how happy I could be. Not only did I have
no desire to be party to drugs or alcohol, I only had an intense sadness
when I was witness to its effects on people. How could I be a friend
in need if I did not have control of my mind? If someone cries for
my help and I am not sober, what good am I? I suppose, even though
I do not mind if people drink, that I really have a kind of moral indignation
toward the practice of excessive drinking. I never have understood
Sometimes, the party would almost come to my
room. Once, Greg came over with some beers. This was before
he decided to ostracize himself from everyone. I watched he and Price
talk for another. In that hour, Greg drank five beers and Price had
begun his fifth. They took absolutely no notice of what they were
doing. At times like that, as I simply sat on my bed witnessing it,
and I even felt like an outsider in Yellowstone. It was my own radical
nature, my deep seriousness about trying to live a life of love, that forbade
me to join such things. Yet, how can one love when one cannot live?
How can one interact when interacting is so destructive? Yellowstone,
as magical a paradise as it is, is still of this world. To know fault
of its own, Yellowstone has a very dark side, a life which is in no way
ideal. Sometimes, it could be something as simple as my attitude
as I played ping pong, and sometimes it could be the selfish indulgence
in things which prevent us from being ready to love. These are not
the things you want to take pictures of to put in the National Geographic.
Nevertheless, they occur under the roof of Yellowstone all the time.
We speak of bad things like poaching, but the most tragic thing of all
is seeing a life in Yellowstone waste away. Maybe, these things do
not destroy the park, nor do they tarnish the beauty of the park, but they
do tarnish the lives and souls of those people who share in the Yellowstone
experience. They make it less than it could be. And, if you
have seen anything what it could be, this is very sad.
The average night usually found me ready for
bed by midnight. Sometimes, Price was not in, yet. He had started
a relationship with Lynn, and he sometimes spent the night with her in
a room that no one lived in on the top floor. This relationship was
a big change in Price's life, but it coincided a larger struggle and change
in his life. When Price did come in, we often spent the night talking
about philosophy and religion. He had no direction for his life.
He did not know what to believe. Furthermore, this deeply bothered
him. He was often depressed because of it. His relationship
with Lynn struggled in large part because she could not help him overcome
his sadness, his longing to make sense of his life in the universe.
Price was rare. He was honestly confused but honestly interested
in discovering what he should be doing. We often discussed my ideas
In my life, an average night was not spent talking
about the nature of the universe. In my life in Yellowstone in 1993,
it was. Price asked me what I thought about God. I told him
that I believed that "God is love." He asked me what I thought love
was. I told him that I had spent most of my life trying to figure
that out. Yet, the most basic answer I could find was in 1 Corinthians
13. This was of little help because though it was beautiful he still
wondered what patience was, what kindness was, what all the qualities of
love were. Was I frustrated? Not at all. He was honest.
I understood why he could not believe and said that it would take time.
Those nights talking helped us grow to love each other. He realized
that I was not trying to convert him but only trying to tell him what I
thought and help him along his own spiritual path. I realized that
he was sincerely interested and that I could truly express myself and my
beliefs around him without worrying that he would hate me. Price
said that he was scared of himself. He confessed to me, confessing
for the first time in his life, that he had evil thoughts of the most wicked
kind. He thought that he was so selfish and evil in his own perception
that he doubted that there was any help for him. I told him that
I believed that I was his equal in wicked thoughts. I confessed having
images of every crime imaginable on a daily basis. Could we help
what temptations the demons give us? It is not our fault. All
we can do is not act upon them. I tried very hard to impress upon
him that he was not evil. He could not help it that all his feelings
were not so lily white. Little by little, he came to appreciate what
I was saying in his own thoughts and in his own heart. Nevertheless,
he was no less depressed by the end of the summer than he was when it began.
With that, we would go to sleep.
to next page
back to Table of Contents
Go back to
the front page