Monday, January 25, 2010

Yellowstone in Winter

Many people have asked me what it's like to live in Yellowstone National Park in the winter.

Well, I'll tell you....

It's cold.

My first week back to work in December, my eyelashes kept freezing together on my way to work. I've gotten used to that now, though, because it only really happens when the temperature dips below zero. Even though it rarely gets above freezing here in the winter, I've been lucky this year, and most days haven't been too bad.

The cold has made me change some of the ways I deal with my day, though. I ski to work and back every day, so I can no longer count on running to the safety of my warm car. My routine here now consists mostly of layers and finding things - two things at which I am very bad.

Layering sucks. Mostly because my thermo-regulatory system is not so good. Must have been all those years in Texas. Nevertheless, I am constantly either too cold or too hot or getting too cold or getting too hot or sweating too much and needing to remove clothing or shivering uncontrollably and needing to put clothing on.

When I'm working, the end result of this constant flow of clothing is that I end up looking like a bag lady coming from an irish garage clothing of all sorts (jackets, vests, gore-tex shells, fleece, etc.) hanging off my backpack at all angles by random zippers, ties, and bungee cords.

Every layer must have an option to make it warmer or colder. Pants have long underwear underneath and/or gore-tex shell pants on top. Shirts have a turtleneck underneath and/or long underwear and a vest or a fleece or a shell or, if it's really cold, a down jacket on top.

This wouldn't be a problem except that I hate being cold. So I start every day with the full compliment of layers on, regardless of the fact that every day I heat up so much on my ski to work (especially if I have the 5 mile circuit through the geyser basin to do!) that I'm sweating profusely by the time I walk into the visitor center.

I really don't know why I even bother showering.

My other problem is that it always takes ten times longer to get anywhere because not only do you have to put all these layers on...but you have to find all the accoutrements that go WITH all the layers.

On a normal day, I have problems simply making it out of my apartment with my wallet and my keys.

Now, not only do I have to find my wallet and my keys, but I must also discern the location of my gloves (the everyday light ones as well as the heavy mittens in case I find myself in a life threatening situation in which my fingers get so cold they might fall off), my hat (fleece hat to start so my ears don't get cold and ball cap to change into when I start steaming like a human geyser), my neck gaitor and/or balaclava (depending on how much of my skin can tolerate the current temperature), extra socks (in case my feet get cold or wet), and ski boots or snow boots.

And that's just getting dressed!

There's snow everywhere.

This may seem obvious, but some of you may not know that for the months of December through March, my beloved Honda Pilot is sitting 30 miles away from me at the West Entrance to the park underneath a foot of snow.

This means that I have to find alternate ways of doing just about everything.

Most of the time, I ski everywhere. I ski to work. I ski home. I ski to get my mail. I ski to walk the dog (quite the challenge that I'm still trying to master).

I even force the dog to pull a sled to take my recycling to the bins. He is not happy about this arrangement. He keeps thinking the sled is following him. A paranoid dog is not good.

If I'm not skiing, I have to snowmobile (and you wouldn't believe the layers and accessories needed for that thing!). I actually like snowmobiling, but the fear of having to change the darn belt (which apparently breaks a lot) was instilled in me at the beginning of the season, so I probably don't use it as much as I would otherwise. I have figured out, though, that a large pizza box will, in fact, fit between the handlebars and the windshield if I don't turn too quickly.

If you ski a pizza home, it's cold by the time you get there, so the snowmobile comes in handy.

It is, however, murder on your back.

It's remote.

Did I mention that I'm 30 miles from my car?

I'm also 30 miles (and an hour snowmobile ride) from the nearest grocery story.

This means that in December I had to anticipate what I would be wanting to eat in March. This may explain why I have recently been having cravings for things like cupcakes....didn't see that one coming.

This also explains why I have cravings for fresh fruit, vegetables, bread, and real milk. These things don't last very long. I pretty much live on frozen and boxed everything. And soy milk. Eek.

I guess I could snowmobile out every weekend to get fresh veggies. Many people do. But it's a lot of work. You have to determine if the amount of groceries you need will fit in a cooler that is imaginatively bungeed to the back of the snowmobile or if you need a tow sled. If you need a sled, then you need a tarp. If you need a tarp, you need more bungees.....

You see where this is going?

The remoteness of my home also makes visiting friends a little difficult. If a single friend wants to visit, I can snowmobile out and pick them up. More than one, though, or one that wants to visit when my shared snowmobile is unavailable, and they have to pay to hop a snowcoach to get in.

I also don't go out to visit people much. Bridger, while being awfully cute, does not possess the right size or demeanor to ride a snowmobile. Dogsitters are few here in my community of 200, so I have to plan my visits to the outside world around Bridger's bladder.

So why, you might ask, do I choose to live in Yellowstone National Park in the winter?

I can.

Although many people tell me they would love to live in Yellowstone, most of them couldn't do it. I sometimes wonder if being here is what is right for my personal goals, but to be honest, right now I have no spouse, no kids, and no reason (besides a dog that has had to get used to being on leash ALL the time) to not take advantage of this opportunity that, in the future, might not be an option.

It's mind bogglingly beautiful.

Nuff said.

It's a place like no other in the world.

I ski to work to work everyday. I stand by myself in a snowy geyser basin and watch geysers go off just for me. I hear wolves howling in the distance and follow their tracks. I watch bison amble past Old Faithful as it erupts. I watch the snow swirl around the windows as if I was in a huge snowglobe. I meet amazing people who have made it a priority to get themselves in to this cold, snowy, remote place because they think it's important to have and to visit and to support wild, unique places like Yellowstone National Park. I get to do a job that humbles me. And then I get to ski home.

So what is it like to live in Yellowstone National Park in the winter?

Where do I start.....

Sunday, January 24, 2010

A Whole Lotta Shaking....

  1. a series of vibrations induced in the earth's crust by the abrupt rupture and rebound of rocks in which elastic strain has been slowly accumulating.
  2. Something that is severly disruptive; upheaval.

It seems like earthquakes are getting to be more and more common in my life lately.

The first few little tremors were kind of exciting. The subsequent bigger ones made me want to drop everything and run outside screaming.

This is, of course, not what you are supposed to do. If you are inside you should stay inside. If you are outside you should stay outside. Apparently there are some crucial seconds there between being inside and being outside where all hell could break loose. The point is, though, that you're supposed to stick it out where you are.

I suppose that in a really big earthquake your fear comes from the fact you are in imminent danger of having everything around you fall on your head. In the little big earthquakes like I recently experienced, I was pretty sure that nothing was going to fall on my head. In fact, the most perilous physical result of those quakes was the gentle swaying of my hanging plants.

Not scary.

But they scared me all the same.

Don't get me wrong. I'm no chicken. I've purposely chosen to live on a fault line, in a tsunami zone, and , now, inside a supervolcano. But the big crises don't scare me. It's the little ones – the little ones that come along and shake everything up and make me have to look at the world differently without any warning – that make me want to curl up into a little ball.

Big earthquakes change everything. People die. Houses fall down. Communities suffer. And everyone recognizes that there was, indeed, a major catastrophe.

Little earthquakes just shake you up. There are no outward signs. People don't know how they've affected you. Little earthquakes sneak into your own little personal world, give it one big jolt just to remind you that you are, after all, not in control of what's going on, and then leave you to deal with the fact that your world just changed whether you or anyone else can see it or not.

When little things shake you up, you're supposed to get over it quickly.

Luckily, the earthquake swarm seems to be tailing off here in Yellowstone. The shaking, what little there is of it now, is too small to be noticed.

Soon, the earthquakes will just be a good story to tell....and a lesson learned.

Hopefully, I'll be better prepared, and a little less shaken up, when they strike again.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Unconditional Love and Beyond...

The last week or so of work before you go on vacation is always hard.

I knew I was in for it one snowy day when a nice man on the telephone said to me, "I'm watching the webcam. Is there supposed to be someone out walking around on Old Faithful?"

The obvious answer was, of course, "No".

Out I went.

Now, many happy law-abiding citizens come to the park and, when told they need to get back on the boardwalks to avoid being scalded to death by the boiling water waiting mere centimeters below a very thin crust of earth, say, "It's ok, I'm just taking a picture."

In this case, the rule breaker, upon being told that he could not, in fact, just walk up onto Old Faithful, replied by saying, "It's ok, I'm filming a documentary on unconditional love."

That was a new one to me.

So, at least, if he was going to break laws and get a ticket, he was doing it for a good cause.

The following last few days of work, punctuated with cold temperatures, snow and ice, and road closures, continued to challenge my perceptions of what was normal.

It made hitting the road even more rewarding.

So bright and early Monday morning, Bridger and I hit the road. (Harley, being more fond of the top of the dryer than she is of the car, opted to stay home.)

Seven hours of driving brought us to our first Motel 6 of the trip in Salt Lake City. The front desk clerk, after looking at her available rooms, apologized that she only had a room with two beds.

"It's ok," I said. "The dog doesn't like to share."

The clerk gave me that look that said she did not get paid enough as a Motel 6 clerk to put up with my humor.

I was not kidding. Bridger takes up a whole double bed. He has, without my noticing, grown into a very large dog. Bigger, in fact, than his big buddy Uly who, if you don't know Uly, is a ginormous dog. Parents, apparently, never notice their children growing up. I now understand this.

Anyway, Bridger was happy with his bed. I was happy to watch Dancing with the Stars. And we went to bed happy....until several hours later when I leaped out of bed after finding a bug crawling on my neck. Crisis averted...not a cockroach....just a box elder bug. Apparently there had just been a huge hatch. Super.

The following day, after 5 hours of driving, I found myself pulling through the gate to Zion National Park.

I have been to Zion many times. I have shared it with many people. I have, however, never seen it as beautiful as it was this time - the sky was a brilliant lapis blue, the leaves were sunflower yellow, the walls gleamed with their redrock splendour, and the dog panted in the 85 degree heat. My flip flops came back out to liberate my toes, and Bridger and I went for a walk on the Pa'Rus trail.

The Pa'Rus trail follows the Virgin River from the Zion National Park visitor center up to the turn off for Zion Canyon. It's a lovely walk. The views were amazing. The river looked inviting.

The dog, with his newly grown winter coat suitable for surviving the below zero temperatures of Yellowstone that we had weathered just three days earlier, was pitifully hot.

I tried to hold the leash while he waded into the water, but it soon became evident that this was not going to work unless I, too, really wanted to go into the river.

I would do just about anything for my dog. He, after all, adds so much to my life without me even asking. He loves me. He makes me laugh. He doesn't think I'm crazy when I wake up in the middle of the night flailing around because there is a bug on my neck.

So I broke the rules.

Off came the leash. Into the water went the dog.

Happy dog, happy me.

I was all ready with my excuse if a law enforcement ranger had come by and caught us though.

"It's ok, it's all in the name of unconditional love."

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Life of a Geyser

Is a geyser alive or not alive?

If you are between the ages of 5 and 9 and want to become a Young Scientist in Yellowstone National Park, you have to be able to answer this question.

You have to list 5 things that make you alive, and then be able to say whether or not geysers share these characteristics.

Many kids decide that, yes, geysers ARE alive.

Reconciling this conclusion with reality can sometimes require a little creative rangering.

However, the children usually end up hitting on some very astute observations in the end....observations that often find themselves working themselves into my thoughts on early mornings in the geyser basin when I am called upon to do "geyser prediction".

Now, you may think this sounds glamorous. After all, how many people can say that they get paid to predict geysers?

It is, in reality, very stressful. Do you have any idea how many people get upset when Old Faithful goes off at the "wrong" time???

All the pressure is worth it, though, to be able to be in the Upper Geyser Basin in the morning. There are usually no people around. The air is crisp, and the natural sounds of steam and water mingle with the calls of the Canada Geese or the occasional snort of a bison.

It is at these times that I agree with the children. These thermal features....made of rock and heat and indeed seem to be alive.

They breathe. They grow. They reproduce. They speak.

And, from what we know and observe, we try to predict them.

It's funny to me....this prediction. We want so much to know what is going to happen. To know when things are going to happen. It's not enough that this incredible, magical wonderland exists in the first place and that we are lucky enough to get to experience it - we have to know how we can fit it into our schedule. We can't just let it happen.

And I'm just as guilty as anyone.

I have a hard time just letting life happen. I have to know when and why and what and how is this going to fit into my grand plan of how I think things should be for me?

And if things don't work out the way that I've worked things out in my's not good enough. It's not right.

But that's not the way it should be.

No matter how much we think we know and how many variables we think we have under control, the geysers still do exactly what they want. They take whatever they are given and go all the way.....until they run out of steam.

The most we can do is take what they give us, and be happy that we were there for the experience.

After all, a geyser, like life, is at it's best when it explodes right in front of you - and you never saw it coming.

And being able to live in the moment, I think, is what makes you truly alive.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Long Hike Home

It has taken me three long months to get back to where I belong.

The three months that I've been back in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem have been filled with work and stress and studying and more work, and I have devoted one, count it, ONE full day to getting my butt away from the pavement and into the backcountry.

Pathetic, really.

It is for this reason that, even with an impending presidential visit to prepare myself for, I forced myself to leave civilization behind and carried myself up into the Teton backcountry. And because I could not leave all sources of stress behind, I chose to take my dog, Bridger, with me.

Bridger has been living the existence of a leash dog.

Bridger has never been into the Teton backcountry.

Bridger has never been into ANY backcountry.

And Bridger has certainly never carried a pack, slept in a tent, or encountered any wildlife more exotic than the chipmunks that get him all riled up when we walk around the housing area.

Hell, he barks at statues because he can't figure out what they are.

So it was with anticipation, and slight trepidation, that I proceeded to pack my belongings for the one night trip up Teton Canyon into Alaska Basin.

Bridger eyed me warily when the new red doggy backpack came out. He's generally game for anything, though, so he didn't really flinch when the harness went on and the backpack was attached.

It didn't even really seem to slow him down.

It did, however, alter his width so that instead of harmlessly streaking by my friend Jeanne and I on the trail, he took us out at the knees.


But once we figured out how to dodge him, he added an entertaining element to the trip.

My fears about him running away were allayed as he kept pretty close to us the whole time. He must have figured out that running away meant that he was stuck with that stupid red backpack.

But as we climbed higher up the canyon, my spirits rose. The scent of the lupine was intoxicating and the colors of the paintbrush, columbine, monkeyflower, and countless other flowers were breathtaking.

It brought back memories of the many other trips along the Teton Crest Trail that I've done over the years with many other friends.

When we reached camp, the dog sacked out......

and I took in the familiar scenery of Alaska Basin.

The backcountry is a refreshing place. You end up spending a lot of time just staring at things and trying to figure out how you fit into the bigger picture.

It's a place I've spent a lot of time, but, after being away for what feels like so long, it never felt so much like home.

It took me a year and a half to get back here.

After I got back, it took me another three months of trying to fit in and get things right before I could even think about where I really am.
Now, though, I know for sure that I have gotten one thing, at least, right.

I have come back to the right place.

Here, with good friends, my dog, and the mountains I love -

Here, with my head back in a good place and my soul repaired -

I'm back where I belong.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Still Counting....

When you learn CPR, you never expect to have to use it. When you finally do, it scares the shit out of you.

I've taken a CPR class every year for the last 8 years....most recently 4 weeks ago. And every time, it's the same. The class doesn't really pay attention, everyone struggles to remember the ever changing ratio of chest compressions to rescue breaths, and everyone laughs when the resusci-annie doll doesn't respond to "Buddy, Buddy, are you ok??" In the end, we all walk away carrying our card that says we know what to do.

Justin and I did not laugh when the man we found did not respond.

I'm not sure what went through Justin's head when I ran off to tell someone to call 911, but when I got back, all I could think was, "This can't possibly be happening."

And then I heard myself saying, "I'm starting CPR."

He was young, something terrible had happened, and his eyes were dead. And I wanted to not look at him. I wanted to crawl into a little ball and rock back and forth and say, "I can't do this."

But I kept counting. One and two and three and four and five......

Somebody kept saying that he was dead.

But I kept counting. One and two and three and four and five.....

Justin counted, too, when it was his turn. And we looked at each other as if to say again, "Is this really happening?"

And then the cavalry arrived. The heroes in green and grey armed with oxygen and needles and people that, mercifully, wanted to tell us what to do. I have never been so relieved.

And I did what they told me. I counted slower and squeezed air into the bag valve mask.

One, two, three, squeeze.

My EMT training kept cycling through my head. Open the airway. Re-position the head. Keep the seal good. Watch for the breaths going in.

His head was between my knees to keep the position right. My hands were clamped to his face.

I couldn't bear to look at his his eyes. So I stared at his chest. And I kept counting.

One, two, three, squeeze.

Finally someone moved me aside....and I fluttered around, trying to be useful, and failed utterly to feel anything but helpless.

Even the beep of the monitor as his heart started beating again didn't ease the constriction that had slowly taken a hold over my insides.

Justin and I helped wheel him out to the ambulance. And then we stared at each other.

We tried to remember what had happened for the statments we had to fill out. We talked to the rangers. We helped pick up the disaster area where the catastrophe and subsequent miracle had taken place. We looked at our shaking hands. Eventually, we just sat and held on to each other.

Neither one of us were prepared for what we had walked into. Neither one of us can forget what happened. Both of us continue to see his face....his eyes.

In the past few days I've thought a lot about this young man that has affected my life so dramatically by dying and then coming back to life. I don't know him. I've never spoken to him. And yet I want to go to the hospital where he is and sit by his side and will him to be see him open his eyes.

And maybe this is more for me than for him.

Not because I want to say I had anything to do with it, but because I need to know that awful, horrible, random acts don't kill young healthy people.

I need to know that, despite evidence to the contrary, life is not short and unpredictable.

I want him to be ok. But deep down I know he won't be. And that's the worst part of it all.

We did what we were trained to do, Justin and I. We paid attention. We yelled "Hey are you ok?" We remembered the ratio of chest compressions to rescue breaths. We counted.

No one is laughing, though.

And, though everything is finished, we still don't know what to do.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

To Bluff or Not to Bluff.....

Lately, I've been playing poker.

It's an interesting game to me.

I, who takes pride in telling the truth and playing as few games with people as is humanly possible, really enjoy bluffing.

I love the idea that pretending you're winning can actually allow you to win.

I feel like a poker hand sometimes. Like nothing I have really adds up anything. I think we all do at one time or another. But we pretend....we no one can tell. And sometimes, if we're good, we fool them all, and we win. Other times, we fold. Or we lose it all.

I could go on to quote a number of different ways that cards are a metaphor for life....but I think you get the picture.

One of the big differences between life and cards is this - if you bluff long enough in life, sometimes you forget you're bluffing.

Take working on a visitor center desk, for example.

Working in a visitor center can be exhausting. The people ebb and flow with the motion of a perpetual tide. The questions are neverending.

Some people can not handle working in a visitor center.

I, on the other hand, relish it. It is my bluff. My act. It makes me be a different person. A better person. No matter what is going on in my life, no matter what kind of mood I'm in, when I go out on the visitor center desk, I am at my best. Because I have to be.

A visitor to a national park does not care if I'm having a bad day. They won't even ask. If I don't give them my very best, they will judge not me, but my peers and my park.

"You're going there? Well, the rangers there weren't very friendly. We're not going back there."

So I don't have the luxury of being in a bad mood. Every contact I make with a visitor influences what they think about rangers, national parks, and maybe even the environment and conservation as a whole.

That's a lot of responsibility.

So I bluff.

And after spending even just a few minutes out on the desk, pretending to be cheerful and helpful......I become just that. And I return from my desk duty with a smile on my face, refreshed.

Not many people can say that their job makes them a better person - that their job makes them less selfish, gives them better perspective, or makes them smile more. I think mine does.

By pretending to have a winning hand, I win.

And that's no bluff.