Food Feature: Employed by Mother Nature
Two million acres of wondrous wilderness is minimum wage at Yellowstone National Park
Here it is, Randy said, pulling away brush that concealed the entrance to a cave he had been telling us about for the past two weeks. "This is Hidden Cave."
We rushed forward, but he put his hand out. "Before you go in, you've got to promise you won't tell anyone this cave is here," he said. His eyes surveyed the group he had assembled, all of us summer employees from nearby Mammoth Hot Springs — one of six hotel locations in Yellowstone National Park.
"You've got our word," said Ian, a dishwasher at the inn. It was a solemn vow, one we all took seriously. This was the kind of adventure we'd all come to the park to have, so we weren't about to do anything that would betray Randy's trust.
This was my second summer at Yellowstone National Park. During my first summer, I washed dishes at Canyon Lodge, located right next to the beautiful and massive Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. This second year I graduated to deskwork. I took hotel reservations by phone at the Mammoth Springs Hotel where Randy was my boss.
Most jobs at Yellowstone are menial, but people take them because they aren't looking for job experience or great pay. They're coming for life experience. Over the summer you get 2 million acres of untouched lakes, canyons and forests as your back yard. You get to see parts of the park tourists never see. Best of all, you form incredibly tight friendships with people from all over the country. Each year Amfac, the park's concessionaire, seeks to fill 3,000 seasonal positions. Most of the jobs are filled by college students between the ages of 18 and 24.
Working in the reservations office had its perks. My friend Ann McLean and I would pass the time by making fun of the unbelievable things callers said, such as, "What time of year do the deer turn into elk?" and "Do the rooms in the hotel come with a view, or are they all facing a mountain?"
Most tourists only budget three days to see the park, which is larger than Rhode Island and Delaware combined. Of course, the top attraction is Old Faithful, the geyser that shoots hot water into the air every hour on the hour. To most people, everything else is a photograph out the window. Winnebagos crowd the two-lane road that circles the park with fat arms sticking out to snap pictures of grazing elk or bison. This can be infuriating when you're trying to make it back for your evening shift after an afternoon hike or swim.
Yellowstone is a wonderland that can't be experienced from a car. It can't even be fully appreciated when you have two summers to explore it. It's one of the few places on Earth where thermal activity is still at work. Thermal activity makes the ground in certain parts of the park bubble and burp like soup on a stovetop. Geysers shoot flumes of sulfur hundreds of feet into the air and pools of water shine like geodes from the mineral deposits that cake their sides.
The natural wonder at Mammoth Hot Springs is the cascading terraces made of travertine and thermal water. The springs, which resemble elegant snow palaces, were created over the centuries as hot sulfur leaked through an intricate network of fissures in the ground. Steaming water from the springs runs underground to nearby Boiling River where it meets with ice-cold run-off from snow-capped mountains. The result is one of the most relaxing places to swim in the world.
Mammoth is one of the best places in the park to work because of its location. For those homesick for civilization, the dusty streets of Gardiner, Mont., are just a short drive past the park's north gate, a few miles up the road. Although there's not much there, we college kids would make weekly pilgrimages to bars like the Rusty Rail and the Blue Goose — real Western-style places where dogs were just as welcome as people.
Mammoth had a warm vibe to it. My dormitory was like a college frat house. Doors were left open for people to drop in and somebody was always having a party.
Some of the best hikes in the park were within walking distance from the dorms. Electric Peak could be seen from the hotel lodge and nearby Bunson Peak was a relatively simple hike, one we did without flashlights whenever there was a full moon. Randy took us to all sorts of wonderful, off-the-beaten-path places near Mammoth, like the gravesites of gold prospectors from the 1800s and an abandoned Native American campground where arrowheads could be found, but were always left, on the ground.
Then there was this cave, which came at the end of an exhausting, but beautiful hike on Beaver Trail.
Shimmying through a slit on the east wall of the cave, Randy led us to a room completely sealed off from light. To get there, we had to crawl through a slit that was more than 15 feet long, 30 feet wide and less than 2-and-a-half feet tall. It dropped us in a cavernous room with white moss growing on the ceiling. The moss glowed with light cast from our lanterns and flashlights — an eerie natural phenomenon.
As we explored the room, Randy took a seat on a large stone and removed a tattered copy of Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" from his pocket. As was his habit, he opened to a random page in the book and said, "I wonder what old Walt would say about our hike today." As he skimmed over the words he smiled. "This is perfect."
"O song of joys," he read, with absolute giddiness in his voice. "O the gleesome saunter over fields and hillsides! The leaves and flowers of the commonest weeds, the moist fresh stillness of the woods, the exquisite smell of the earth at daybreak, and all through the forenoon."
Over the next few weeks the cave became a meeting place, kind of a real-life Dead Poet's Society, where we could share stories, read from favorite authors and have long philosophical discussions over bottles of Boone's Farm, which was something even we could afford on our wages.
Before I knew it, summer was over.
On my last day, I made the rounds, saying goodbye to all of the close friends I had made. When I saw Randy he simply gave me a note. "Read it on your way home," he said.
It was at a lunch stop in Nebraska that I remembered the note. Pulling it out, I saw that it was wise words from dead poet Emily Dickinson. "Parting is all we know of heaven," the note read, "and all we need of hell."
Jobs at Yellowstone are available from April to October. For more information, visit www.yellowstonejobs.com.