Summer of 1993
Chapter 9--Avalanching Flood of
Fire and Brimstone
The summer of 1993 was a year of great flooding along
the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. The news reports made it sound
like all of Iowa was under water. It was a gross exaggeration, but
there was a lot of flooding. My best friend Matt, coming back to
Ohio from a trip to California, told me that the Missouri River looked
like a large lake. It felt to him like he was crossing a small ocean.
Many people lost their homes and possessions in the floods. In Yellowstone,
without television or radio, news of anything was sparse, but we were aware
of what was going on in the Midwest. It was a terrible thing; but
like most terrible things, it did not seem like it would touch our lives.
Before the summer was out, I came to see what a great flaw it was to think
that the events that affected people outside of Yellowstone would not find
a way to affect mine inside of Yellowstone.
That was an introduction to another chapter in
my experiences that summer with ACMNP. Our services were geared not
only to the park employee but also and especially to the park visitor.
Both had in common that each came from all over the country, or the globe
as the case may be, and brought a diversity of experience and religious
backgrounds. Naturally, some of these people had been in some way
touched by the flooding in the Midwest. The student minister--whose
name I still cannot remember--was from St. Louis. He had many friends
who had been directly affected by the floods. He was in for quite
a shock to discover that not everyone was entirely sympathetic with the
tragic plight and struggles of people devastated by natural disaster.
Or, was it a disaster of a different sort?
As God is the author of nature, God must be the author of this disaster.
And, since God is good, he must have had good reason to act. For
what other reason could God have acted than to punish the people of Iowa
and Missouri for their sins. Before you get mad at me, let me announce
that this is NOT what I argue. In fact, I hope the reader can see
that the argument is offered as an absurdity. Who could possibly
know the specific reason for any act of nature, and who could be so arrogant
as to suggest that a particular land of sinners was singled out over other
lands just as sinful? The Bible may have said that Israel was singled
out again and again for that reason, but the great many of us take this
as allegory. When we do wrong, we deserve the consequences.
Before Christ, this must be the consequence of our fruits. Evil produces
suffering, and we are prone to evil. With Christ, we have salvation.
Israel is that state of our lives without Christ. In history, it
was a land which suffered much and placed blame on that for its evils.
Yet, then as now, that sort of literal reasoning can never be valid.
Besides, it is not our place to judge, to pass judgment upon the soul of
another. Yes, some tourists may ACT like idiots, and my experience
of some people may not allow me to give them the finest adjectives, but
is this to say that we know the heart and destiny of another person?
Furthermore, what sort of person would blame the misfortune of a natural
disaster upon the person himself?
Obviously, I am suggesting that it happened in
my life in Yellowstone in 1993. Iowa and Missouri were singled out
as paying the price for their sins right from the pulpit, right in front
of an audience of people, some of whom were from Iowa and Missouri.
Before the wrath of God can be called forth,
we must have mishaps along our way. Actually, it was not all bad.
Not every event by any means was folly in the service of God. There
were many great moments, many of which I will relate. However, the
truth is is that it was not how I felt. In letters to people, I repeatedly
expressed that my summer with ACMNP was the only negative to my summer
in Yellowstone. It was ironic that the call that brought me to Wonderland
was the call that grew more faint with the summer. Although, in some
sense, that is not true. My ministry with Price was enormous.
Furthermore, in other ways, my mission to love succeeded to touch others.
This love reciprocated, too, and I may have been the person who had the
deepest religious experiences of all.
My job with ACMNP was supposed to be as a student
worker leading Sunday School. However, we soon discovered that there
were almost never enough children to bother with Sunday School. Furthermore,
my work schedule in the early weeks forbid any consistency of planning
for church services. So, what I became was something of an aid.
I set up the pulpit for the services, collected offering, read scripture,
and did various small things during the services. Dan was such a
poor reader of Scripture that I often made a point of volunteering to read
Scripture during his services. I had something of a background with
acting, and so I tried to bring the Scripture to its proper light.
It was not like I stood up there pretending to be a Shakespearean thespian.
All I mean is that I tried to read the Scripture in a manner that communicated
what I believed the author was trying to say. So often words are
read and pass over us without thought, but words properly read have a much
different effect. I tried to do my best in this respect.
Outside of the services, Matt asked me if I would
lead an employee Bible Study. Naturally, I said that I would.
I do not remember which book of the Bible I chose for my study, but it
seems to me that it was Romans. In any event, the Bible Study idea
fizzled after one meeting because of the way Hamilton Stores schedules
us. The one meeting we held was very successful. We had about
a dozen people, almost entirely older members of Hamilton Stores.
Dan and I met with them in the basement, and we read and discussed the
Bible. I had been in several Bible studies growing up, and I felt
very comfortable inside the structure of a formal group meeting.
People scare me, but they do not scare me in situations like this.
I have always been very talkative in class, and I have never been afraid
of sharing my religious and philosophical ideas in a structured format.
My background with many different denominations and many different religious
views gave me confidence that I could avoid grave miscommunication.
I believe from the comments after the study that almost everyone was going
to return for the next study. However, the shift system at Hamilton
Stores botched everything up. The National Park Service required
that we post signs advertising when and where the event would be held and
that it would be sponsored by A Christian Ministry in the National Parks.
So, it was not easy for us to change times and place to accommodate people's
shift schedule. Furthermore, Dan worked an unusual shift in the EDR
as dishwasher that always made him available evenings but never any other
time. Although I admit that we undoubtedly could have been more creative,
the will was not there. I am terrible at organizing people because
of my great discomfort in asking people to do things, and so I am unfortunately
unqualified to be the leader of much of anything. To that end, I
was very thankful that we had Matt Perkins, who was incredible at organization.
The other major thing that I had to do was help
with something called "campground calling." On the face of it, it
sounds like that we went into the campgrounds trying to convert people.
This was not at all what campground calling was about. Obviously,
even if we had wanted to, it was against the National Park Service rules
to do so. What campground calling in fact involved was going into
the campground and announcing to people outside of their tents or RVs that
we were from ACMNP, that we had services at the Grant Village amphitheater,
and that if they were inclined to join us what times the services were.
We could not knock on anyone's doors, leave any notes, or do anything except
with people who were outside of their abodes. It was a very minimal
intrusion, but that made it no less difficult for me. As should be
obvious by now, the thought of dealing with strangers in informal circumstances
scares me to death. This was hardly an exception, especially in dealing
with people on a matter so emotional as religion. It proved to be
a very difficult experience, and one that never got better with time.
I did go campground calling. The campground
at Grant Village is divided into twelve loops consisting of over 400 sites.
It is vast. For a staff of five, we had to split up the loops between
ourselves. I had absolutely no enjoyment walking through the campgrounds.
The tourists were not mean, by and large, and I would estimate that
only about one in ten people either asked me not to talk to them or showed
great animosity in their faces when I told them that we were having services.
This is not what drained me. These people, though obviously not on
the same religious page as myself, at least cared enough about what I was
announcing to show offense. It was the two in three people who showed
absolute apathy to what I was saying that bothered me so much. No,
it was not at all a surprise that most Americans and foreigners are not
particularly religiously inclined, at least those who camp in Yellowstone
National Park. What bothered me was something more selfish.
I had used so much energy overcoming my fear of people only to have them
treat me like my effort was meaningless. This bothered me so much
that I intentionally tried to predict who was worth my bother and only
approached people who looked like they might be interested. I especially
found myself ignoring Germans because the apathy of Germans I had come
across was simply astounding to me. It created a stereotype.
This was wrong of me, of course. Furthermore, my results were about
the same as before I decided to be selective. After that, I sometimes
would stop the process altogether. I walked around the campgrounds
stopping nowhere and then waiting for awhile before finally returning to
the group. It honestly was that disturbing an experience for me,
but it was mostly MY PROBLEM. Matt would say that the one in five
people who actually responded positively was a great encouragement to him.
I tend to be a perfectionist, and I doubt that I would have been happy
if four in five people were positive. That one person who gave me
the blank stare would still have drained me greatly and sent me wandering
into thought about the state of the human condition and why I felt it was
such a great ordeal to ask someone for just a moment of his time.
That the vast majority of people only fueled the fears with which I began
only left me dejected. I certainly let down the ministry by failing
to live up to this end of my commitment. Fear is not an excuse for
In Yellowstone, I found myself less afraid of
people, found myself less intimidated by them, found that I fit in, but
I could not get over this fear when it came to campground calling.
Indeed, it was not just in campground calling. Even at work, it took
me awhile to feel comfortable enough around someone to warm up to him or
her. I am sure that even amongst my coworker that I was perceived
as quiet, shy, and distant. If only they knew how much I cared...if
only I knew that they cared. Campground calling was unfortunate that
it confirmed my greatest fear--that I could unpour my heart and get nothing
in return. Yet, I keep telling myself that that is no reason to stop.
God gave everything, and many will reject, piercing the heart of the very
author of life. If God gave up, we would be nowhere. When I
give up, I pierce the heart of God. Thank God for forgiveness.
Thank God for Yellowstone, too. For, in Yellowstone, we can see these
issues more clearly. When beauty surrounds us, floods us, impresses
upon us, and we do something ugly, how much greater does that ugliness
appear to us. It appears very great, but not as great as the hope
of majesty evident in the tiniest of this land's wonders.
Our services had ample attendance considering
the challenge of communicating that there were religious services, the
weather, and all of the many things that would tempt any of us not to attend
church in a national park. We averaged about thirty for each of the
morning services and about a dozen for the evening service. Most
of the people at the evening service were employees, and about half the
people on the whole were employees. During a service, we would invite
people to introduce themselves, and so we learned something about who came
to our services. They came from all over the country, although it
seemed like a disproportionate number came from Michigan. We also
had many southerners. The West Coast probably had the lowest numbers
relative to the number of visitors in the park. For instance, we
may have had even fewer New Englanders, but there were not many people
from New England in the park. The statistics largely represented
the demographics of religious attendance in the country. In many
ways, our services were consistent with the American average, and the service
itself was in the style of the American average. This meant for me
that the service was what I was used to, being raised in the United Methodist
tradition. Indeed, we had many Methodists at our services, although
there were probably more Baptists. However, it was clear that the
Methodists showed the most comfort in the style of worship. Although
there were a vast majority of Protestants, we had a number of Roman Catholics
as well. In fact, one of our services had a majority of Mormons,
who properly are not considered Christians by any mainline denomination
nor by ACMNP. This was not the norm because Mormons conducted their
own services in the park with astounding attendance. The Mormon Church
is the largest church in the Rocky Mountain region and are a very pious
people, and so it should have been no surprise. Yet, observing one
or two services packed with people still could create a sense of awe.
The Mormons at our service were very friendly (and I have never met a devout
Mormon who was not friendly beyond the norm) and polite, but it was clear
that it was not what they were used to at a service.
We collected offering at our services in order
to help support ACMNP, which is by no means a wealthy organization.
The park budget for ACMNP required that $5000 be collected in Yellowstone
in offerings for the year. We collected well over 25% of that total
at Grant Village. Inspite of the obvious friction of our staff, it
did not hurt giving. Matt used the totals to say that our summer
had been a success in spite of everything. Although I sincerely doubt
that he meant to come across so crassly, it was common of something he
would say. He told me more than once that he believed that giving
was lower when Dan preached because of Dan. He may have had a point,
but it was not a point by which to judge the sermon. Popularity is
not grounds for judging the merits of a sermon, although Matt would not
say it was irrelevant. I would and do. Dan's sermons had plenty
wrong with them on their own without the irrelevant point about the offering
being thrown in.
This finally brings us to the point where we
can connect the floods in Iowa and Missouri with my summer in ACMNP.
On one Sunday morning, it was Dan's turn to give the sermon. His
topic was the Iowa floods. Dan's argument was the one I outlined
to begin the chapter, though put less eloquently. The punishment
for sin was suffering, Dan reasoned. America was a nation consumed
with sin. So, it was no surprise to him that God brought flooding
upon us to punish us for those sins. Even for those of us who were
used to Dan's fundamentalism, it surprised us that he so brazenly and fearlessly
poured salt into the wounds of people already trying to make sense of a
horrible disaster. The TW minister, upon hearing the sermon, was
so angry that he made a point of having nothing to do with Dan or Michelle
the rest of the summer. The sermon itself was the most boring fire
and brimstone sermon that I can imagine. The seventeenth century
American philosopher and minister, Jonathan Edwards, was known for his
famous "Sinners in the hands of an Angry God", but his sermons were more
typically long and dull. Nevertheless, the reasoning was not lacking,
and it would take a very gifted thinker to battle with the likes of Jonathan
Edwards. Dan was not blessed with the spirit of the American Enlightenment,
and so fortunately little was said about his sermon by our congregation.
There was another low point in the summer as
well. Buddy Glass had continued to offer communion between the services.
No one was bothered by his short service except Matt Perkins. When
asked why, Matt responded that in his tradition communion had to be administered
by a minister. Indeed, in some faiths, Holy Communion was not a simple
act signifying the body and blood of Jesus but something of a rite of passage
in the church. In general, the point of Matt's discomfort was legitimate
in the sense that sacraments such as communion should be administered by
someone who has the understanding and recognition of the Church to lead
such things. However, I disagreed in this instance. If we were
on a desert island, we would hardly wait for a minister to arrive before
we felt right about sharing in the Lord's Supper. In Yellowstone,
we had no ordained ministers. We had Buddy Glass. Why not?
He explained who he was, who he was not, and did so at a time that was
not awkward for anyone. People could join or not join based upon
their particular convictions.
Matt was not content with this and made a point
of putting a stop to the practice with official decree. Matt asked
Bill Young about it, and Bill Young told Matt that the practice had to
stop immediately because it had not been approved by the National Park
Service. Since communion was being given during ACMNP's allotted
time at the amphitheater, it could be construed by the National Park Service
that we were having a service that was not advertised in our bulletins.
So, what was at first a legitimate question of faith turned into a suppression
of faithful expression. The fact is that the National Park Service
would not have stepped in, and the worst thing that would have happened
had they was that Buddy Glass would have been asked not to practice communion
in the public place. In all practicality, there was no risk to ACMNP,
and Matt had appeared to have, whether true or not, connived to put an
end to a practice he thought was wrong by means of a strong-arming tactic.
This is certainly how Buddy Glass and his group took it, and they never
returned to an ACMNP service. Matt held this schismatic attitude
against them, and it is unfortunate that the two never sat down to discuss
things. For my part, I can see why Buddy was very mad. I also
can see the point that schisms in the church should not be made lightly.
Nevertheless, I have trouble holding anything against Buddy's action and
much to hold against Matt's. It was a rotten thing to do.
Matt consulted with Bill Young often, especially
about Dan's performance in the pulpit and on the job. It was true
that Dan was struggling at his job. Matt said that Hamilton's had
told him that they considered firing him. I find this very hard to
believe, knowing Hamilton's, but it was true that no one was happy with
Dan at work. He began the summer as a dishwasher in the EDR where
he struggled mightily at what other dishwashers told me was a simple job.
Then, someone had the bright idea to make a waiter out of him. It
did not make sense, but he was given one of the hardest jobs in the store.
At that, he lasted a day. Finally, he landed in the grocery where
he was said to be just as bad but was tolerated. Jay Clayton, who
worked in grocery, told me that Dan Wesbrook was one of the most incompetent
workers he had ever known. It was frustrating for everyone.
What was worst was that Dan was a genuinely nice guy and tried to do well,
but he did not. Matt Perkins talked much to Bill Young about it,
and according to what Matt told me, Bill Young had had it up to here with
Dan. He was frustrated by his sermon and his performance on the job.
Because of that he vowed that he would not give him a good recommendation.
I just wonder whether Matt had to berate Dan so much. Of course,
I am berating both in this book, but this is very different. My book
is about my experiences, and no one has to defend themselves nor should
feel the need to. However, that was about people's lives and careers.
What good did it serve?
Obviously, I had ears for both men. Often,
I was the only one who knew what everyone was doing. Dan would call
Bill Young to complain about Matt. Matt would call Bill Young to
complain about Dan. Maybe, Bill Young knew a thing or two from distant
Mammoth, but only I could relate to this reality on a daily basis.
It makes me wonder now whether at those moments I knew I was in Yellowstone
at all. The politics of it seemed much like everyday life.
Yet, it was Yellowstone. For, only in Yellowstone, could two men
much older than me confide in a teenage boy. It was new for me, but
I tried to be the voice of reason. My life experiences, at least
where it came to religion, were no less than these older men, and I spoke
the language. However, I did not do enough.
My dislike for my situation in ACMNP did not
keep me from socializing with my colleagues. One Sunday in the middle
of July, Matt asked me if I would like to hike up Avalanche Peak with him.
He expressed worries that I was not experienced in backcountry, but he
said that I could go along. We had a very nice time of it, speaking
not only about Dan but about theology, about our lives, and so on.
I told him problems I was having with the whole situation. I told
him things I write in this book, but it was not so critical. Back
then, I was trying to bring change to a bad situation. Today, I simply
try to put my feelings in perspective as it relates to me in Yellowstone.
So, I hope the reader will either forgive me for not being harsher then
or for being too harsh, now.
Avalanche Peak is a 10,500 foot mountain on the
eastern border of the park with Shoshone National Forest. It was
the first time I had been back along the road to the East Entrance since
my family had passed through that first day. However, I knew of Avalanche
Peak. It was the spot of an unsuccessful attempt by at the summit
John, Patrick and some other coworkers in early June when the snow on the
mountain was still great. Later, some coworkers made it to the top
and claimed that they had been sledding on the mountaintop. This
was something I now wanted to do today.
The trail to the summit is only two miles long,
but it ascends 2,000 feet over those two miles. It is a steep climb.
Although Matt was worried about me, it was he who had trouble climbing
the slope. I had told him that I was a runner and that these things
did not phase me, and they did not on this hike. Unlike Mt. Washburn,
the majority of the trail is wooded and more narrow. In small spaces
between the trees, it was possible to look up at Mt. Hoyt right next to
us or across to the peaks on the other side of the road. Mt. Hoyt
looked large and bare, and this quality struck me about it. As we
climbed, there was a point where it looked like we were reaching the top
only to find that there was a huge rocky climb beyond this false summit.
The rocks on Avalanche Peak near the summit are very loose and obviously
help contribute to many avalanches in the winter. I quipped as we
ascended, "So, this is what they mean by the Rocky Mountains." What
made the climb harder was losing the trail. Near the summit, we had
to climb straight up because we could not find the trail that takes a more
gradual climb to the top. Although Matt was beet red, we both made
At the summit, a group of hikers were sitting.
They, too, were workers in the park. I believe they worked for the
Hamilton Stores in Canyon. The view from the top was stunning.
Off in the near distance was Yellowstone Lake, much larger than it appeared
from Mt. Washburn. The entire lake was visible, blue and pristine
in the afternoon sun. To the East and South, the Absaroka Range surrounded
us. Below was Mt. Hoyt, now just a tiny mountain compared with the
grandeur it commanded early in the hike. Something of a bowl also
seemed to rest below us. It was a large bowl between the mountains
that seemed to have been caused by something, but I know not what.
The view was not as large as it was from Mt. Washburn because we were surrounded
by other high mountains, but it was amazing nonetheless and somehow more
satisfying than Washburn. Washburn is a road with a building on the
top. Avalanche is a trail with a narrow summit with rocks and snow
The peak itself had a non human visitor.
I do not know what this creature eats, but the largest chipmunk I have
ever seen was on this mountain. It was a foot long, and I have pictures
to prove its size and species. The other hikers said the beast was
there when they arrived. The peak had minimal vegetation being above
the tree line, and did not seem to have enough to feed the likes of a monster
chipmunk. I have seen the bison, the elk, and other large animals
of the park. Many have. However, have they seen the monster
chipmunk on top of Avalanche Peak? This was what the Yellowstone
experience was about. You climb a mountain, struggle up, wondering
what sights there are. You reach and behold one marvel after another.
Then, you see something quite unexpected, something odd and unique.
It happens time and time again.
Descending the peak, I took my hand at sledding.
I tried to sled on my backpack and got about fifteen feet down the mountain,
but this was too slow. So, I simply began running and sliding down
the banks of snow. I was shouting and having a good time. I
found a nearby snowdrift and climbed it. From there, Matt took my
picture. The picture made it look like I was on the Arctic tundra.
Here I was a small figure on a large snow drift wearing a new leather cowboy
hat I had just bought. Look closely, however, and you will see I
am wearing a cheesy Yellowstone sweatshirt. Nevertheless, it is a
striking photo that does not say "mountaintop experience" but tells something
of the truth of the day nevertheless. I had sledded in mid-July and
was making the most of my opportunity to explore.
We made it to Grant Village just in time for
Matt to improvise an evening service. We had both enjoyed our day
in the mountains, in the monuments that God had wrought. In the turmoil
of a staff simply not functioning well, an Avalanche was a good thing.
It is too bad we did not have more.
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