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 any action.
    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 it.
    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 on top.
    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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