Thursday, December 30, 2010

I am Glad for Many Things... especially:
- a hot shower after a cold day
- a space heater in the bathroom right after the shower
- an apartment so small that I can carry said space heater to every single room without ever needing to unplug it
- a down coat
- a down vest
- down mittens
- a down comforter
- hand warmers tucked in each coat pocket
- the toe warmers that stick right to my socks
- the wool socks under the toe warmers
- let's not forget those great boots outside of the package (incidentally, everyone notices and asks me about my boots and I can't figure out why)
- hot chocolate in a thermos when it's o'dark 30 in the morning and cold
- hot tea in the above situation and at any other time
- hot soup in between the cocoa and tea
- the heater in the bus
- I pay homage to radiators in general
- my Rudolph-red long johns (I've never had red underwear before)

And that wonderful stupor that sets in after a long day outside in the cold when all the hot food and drink finally gets me warm--even my toes, nose, and fingertips.  I feel like the little mountain chickadee who lowers its body temperature 20 degrees at night to survive by spending less energy staying warm.  Except that I have a lower body temperature during the daytime and at night I thaw out and come back to beautiful 98.6.

Did I mention that a north wind is blowing and tomorrow's windchill prediction is 20 to 30 below zero?

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Come Away With Me

 I've spent much of the past few weeks scouring the northern range of Yellowstone looking for wildlife.  I've never devoted so much time looking for animals.  Although I am no stranger to Yellowstone, I am still amazed by the diversity of the wildlife in an ecosystem with very little human interference.  Before lunch on Thursday I had seen a 5 point mule deer, a golden eagle, a bald eagle, bison being hazed back into park boundaries (that's another story), coyotes, a trophy elk resting in a pasture among some horses just outside the park, pronghorn antelope pawing away the snow to reach grass, and three bighorn sheep rams battling for mating privileges with a young ewe.  The days that followed added to that list multiple foxes, a wolf pack, and an assortment of birds.  Not to mention Dasher and Dancer were hanging out by my door this past week.  I've learned that if I pull over with a scope and search carefully, something will be out there going about its life.  I spent yesterday snowshoeing up a ridge with overlooking a glacial carved valley contrasted with a canyon created by a river.  I felt all alone at the top of the world, until I came over a rise and found a few bighorn sheep looking back at me.  I detoured around three separate groups.  It isn't easy to survive the harsh winters here.  I watched kids born in the spring paw at the snow to reach the dead grasses underneath.  Sometimes it takes more energy to get to the grass than is received from eating it.

As I trudged (which is the only form of movement that can be done on snowshoes) back towards my car I thought how difference between an excursion in Yellowstone than other places: the animals here are as much a part of the landscape as the thermal features and rivers.  It is easy to imagine myself as a mountain man like Jim Bridger, or even a pioneer.  They saw the West filled with life around every corner.  To take a walk alone here is to step back in time and catch a glimpse of life before Europeans fulfilled their "manifest destiny".  It takes more effort to live near wildlife.  If there are deer or other ungulates around having a garden or planting new trees can be difficult.  If there are predators it changes how we care for our pets and where we put our garbage.  I have been impressed by the community here that has learned to do some of these things.
Coyote taking the easiest path to his destination.

Yellowstone is a place where wildlife can live essentially without human involvement and that's not the best choice for every landscape.  But in every landscape we can make small changes in our lives that improve the situation for our furry, feathered, and pollinating friends.  A backyard can easily be made into a bird habitat.  Do you know which plants are native to your area?  Try growing a few.  Nature isn't just thousands of miles away in a designated state or federal facility.  It can also be in each town or city, if we make a place for it.
"Conservation is a state of harmony between men and land." -Aldo Leopold

Sunday, December 12, 2010

A Sunday Walk in the Park With John Muir

“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, 
places to play in and pray in, 
where nature may heal and 
give strength to body and soul.”

“How glorious a greeting the sun gives the mountains!” 

“Take a course in good water and air; and in the eternal youth of Nature you may renew your own.  
Go quietly, alone; no harm will befall you.”

 “Between every two pines is a doorway to a new world.”

“In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.”

 "The clearest way into the Universe 
is through a forest wilderness."

Sunday, December 5, 2010

There's No Place Like Home

In C.S. Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia Aslan tells the Pevensie children that they cannot come back to Narnia.  They go back to their own world and live their lives, never forgetting the magical land of Narnia where animals talk and they have wonderful adventures.  Then, in the final book, the children are suddenly snatched from their world to Narnia--this time to stay.  I feel a little bit like that.  This week I moved to Montana.  "Moving to Montana" sounds like it ought to be on a bumper sticker.  Starting tomorrow I will be an instructor for the Yellowstone Association.  Yellowstone National Park, like Narnia for the Pevensie's, is now my permanent home.  Most people tell me that I'm "living the dream".  If you should wonder what the dream is like, let me tell you a little bit about Gardiner, Montana.

It's located on the edge of the northwest corner of Yellowstone only a few miles north of Wyoming and the 45th parallel.  In other words, I am closer to the North Pole than the equator.  Sociologist that I am, I can't resist demographic statistics: population of 742 (counting me), pretty even gender ratios and married vs. singles, ranks in the 98th percentile for air quality, the unemployment rate of 6.6%, the crime rate is half that of the U.S. average, the mean temperature in July is 86 degrees and in January it's 13, and the elevation is 5,285 feet.  I went to church today where there 21 people (8 under 18) and 3 deer in the parking lot.

I have 400 square feet, not counting the front porch, to myself.  For the first time I have no roommates which means I don't have to label my food anymore.  I've already learned that I talk to myself more than I realized.  I take my garbage a few miles outside of town to the dump where I was thrilled to discover that they have recycling!  The lone grocery store is called The Food Farm and I can walk there in three minutes.  The only chain restaurant in town is a Subway. The closest stoplight is 51 miles away. And what of my neighbors?  I often see residents walking down the street.  About half of the time these residents are human; the other half are deer working their way down from high elevations that are now filled with snow towards lower ground for the winter.  There was a five point elk in the post office parking lot yesterday.  There is a pile of deer scat on my front porch, which was where I was standing for the following:

I feel the immensity of the change as much as if I really had stepped through a magical wardrobe and heard the door close behind me.  Even good change can be disconcerting.  I tell myself, "I can do brave things."  I remember being part of a discussion about the meaning of the word home.  Is it a childhood house?  A college apartment or a car packed for a long road trip?  For me, home is the place that I think of while falling asleep at night and where I want to be in those moments before I first open my eyes in the morning.  I think of a place that is quiet with few people.  I imagine beautiful pine trees.  There are stars twinkling above and I can see the Milky Way.  I must be home because now when I go to sleep I cannot wish myself in any other place.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

A Reluctance to Die

On the alpine slopes of Wheeler Peak, on the eastern edge of Nevada, there stands a grove of bristlecone pine trees. Bristlecones are the oldest living organisms on the planet.  They are twisted and grow slowly in the harshest of conditions.  There are short growing seasons, harsh winds, and brutally cold temperatures.  They grow slowly and have very hard wood.  In fact,  their wood is so hard it is resistant to disease and bugs.  When such a tree eventually dies it continues standing for thousands of years.  It does not decompose, it is so hard that it erodes.  Slow growth and their unusual ability to adapt are the keys to their long lives.  An interpretive sign read, "...[The tree's] ability to stand for centuries after death is directly related to the adversity of its life."

The sun was setting early behind Wheeler Peak as I stood in the grove of pines.  I looked at the "grotesquely beautiful"tree in front of me.  It was 3,200 years old.  It's always a danger to anthropomorphize something, but I couldn't resist.  What would such a tree say if it spoke?  What is it afraid of and what does it hope for the future?  What advice would it give me?
It awoke from dormancy as a seed at about 1190 BC.  That was four years prior to the Trojan War.  There are Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.  This mighty pine is older than all but the Great Pyramid of Giza.
When the famous Hanging Gardens of Babylon were built, the pine had seen about  600 years pass by.  It was already 900 years old when the Lighthouse of Alexandria, the tallest of man's creations for many centuries, guided sailors into the Egyptian harbor.  It was alive and well when the great statue of the Greek god Helios which formed the Colossus of Rhodes was sculpted. 

This tree had lived through the creation and the destruction of such mighty wonders as the Statue of Zeus at Olympia, the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, and had lived through the earthquakes, fires, and mobs that destroyed them as human civilizations came and went.  Indeed, this tree and the Great Pyramid of Giza are all that are left on that list.  And there are bristlecones older than even the pyramids.  These trees live far from human civilizations so they do not see the wonders man built or their passing away.  But what would this venerable pine think about the swift passage of human history?  What would it say about political parties that come and go, the wars won and lost, or all the changes that mark human life?  I imagine that this tree was more like Treebeard, the ancient ent from Tolkien's Lord of the Rings.  Treebeard was concerned about the health of his forest and the constant earthy elements of water, air, and sunlight.  The bristlecones have seen centuries upon centuries and have survived against all of nature's challenges.  The biggest threat that these trees face at this point is climate change.  They already live in the harshest, coldest climates.  As the planet warms, they (or their seeds) have no where to go to find a suitable habitat.

In the shadow of the mountain, under the branches of such trees, I was awed by the tenacity of the trees. The harsh conditions these trees grow in give them the strength to persist.


Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Endemic: it only happens in one place.

At the beginning of 2nd grade Mrs. Clinger gave us homework: look on ditch banks for milkweed.  It has long, silvery leaves that are three or four inches long.  The leaves are soft to the touch.  We recognized the plant by its seed pods bursting with seeds hanging from silky parachutes.  I broke a leaf, and found a white, milky juice inside from which the plant gets its name.  Once we identified the plant, we were to look for a black, white, and yellow striped caterpillar.  Put the caterpillar in a jar with a milkweed cutting and bring it to school.  In a matter of days each caterpillar hung upside down like a J and a pale green chrysalis formed around him.
At school I checked the chrysalises daily, eagerly awaiting the end of the metamorphosis. Finally, beautiful monarch butterflies crawled out.  We did our best to resist the temptation to touch those beautiful orange and black wings while we waited for them to dry.  I learned the hard way that the butterflies whose wings were touched would never fly.

Butterflies migrate from Mexico all the way to Canada and back--up to nearly 3,000 miles.  This journey occurs over four generations of monarchs in the course of one year since most live only 2-6 weeks.  No one knows how each newly hatched caterpillar-turned-butterfly knows to continue the multi-generation migration.  The monarch I hatched in 2nd grade was the final generation of the year.  It was headed south towards Mexico for the winter. 

Milkweed doesn't look like much.  In fact, it's toxic if you eat much.  But that is what protects the butterflies from predators.  The milkweed chemicals it eats as a caterpillar remain inside and make many of its predators sick.  Milkweed seeds, with their silky parachutes, were used in early colonial days to fill pillows and comforters--their structure is similar to down.  During World War II, when other supplies were short, milkweed pods were collected and used to stuff life jackets for soldiers.
 I thought of these things as I stood by the milkweed in the garden.  I don't see much milkweed anymore.  Building houses, diverting water, and replanting with exotic plants has made milkweed harder to find.  The first seedpod had burst and I reached down to gather the seeds with their weightless white sails.  Milkweed is the only plant that a monarch butterfly will lay its eggs on.  It is the only plant that the caterpillar will feed on before forming a chrysalis.  I held the feathery seeds cupped in both hands and watched the breeze pick one from the top.  It soared above my head and away to the west.  I looked at the city filling the valley below and wondered if the seed will find a place to grow.  The migratory pattern of monarchs is threatened because of habitat loss.  Love a butterfly--grow milkweed.  I lifted my hands up to the sky and let all the seeds fly on the invisible breeze to find a place to wait for spring.


Friday, August 20, 2010

"All children, except one, grow up."

On Monday, the first day of camp, Rebecca's mom pulled me aside.  "Rebecca has mild autism," she told me.  "She has been to Red Butte camps before and loves them, but I wanted to let you know she may need to hear things more than once."  I noticed this week that Rebecca--a tall, slim 4th grader with shoulder length brown hair--was often in her own place.  She had a good time with whatever we did, but didn't talk with the other kids much and was happy on her own.

This afternoon all fifteen of us found a shady place the courtyard.  I brought pipe cleaners, pony beads, string, and jingle bells and watched in amazement as the kids turned them into incredible creations.  Anklets, bracelets, rings appeared instantly.  Headbands, pipe cleaner scissors, and baseball cap decorations evolved later.  For forty-five minutes the kids didn't want to move, even to go and eat.  They were mesmerized by the beads and their own creativity.  They sat on the ground in tight circles searching the bowls for the right colour choices.  I sat on a bench watching them work and preventing fights over the few precious glow-in-the-dark beads.  I watched the blue sky behind the red foothills.

Rebecca finished after only a few minutes.  She made a pipe cleaner bracelet strung with sparkling beads and one jingle bell.  She stepped out of the shade and into the sun and smiled as the beads caught the light.  She skipped and giggled as the bell tinkled.  She jumped, leaped, and twirled in her green summer skirt.  She swirled her arms above her head and down--always watching her bracelet in the light.  She laughed out loud as the small bell jingled with her jumps.  She danced free and without form.  Her eyes and face were open, happy, and enraptured by the miracle of beads and bells moving in the sunlight.  Her happiness was simple and pure.  Rebecca was everything that childhood embodies.  I wanted so much to join her!  But this dance was hers, not mine.  She filled the courtyard with her dancing until the others finally finished their projects.

"You must have been warned against 
letting the golden hours slip by; 
but some of them are golden only 
because we let them slip by." 

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

"Why, if I picked a day to fly, this would be it!"

The barn swallows fledged today.  They built the entire nest--a small mud cup above the boys' bathroom door in the Children's Garden at Red Butte--in less than twenty-four hours.  One day it was just a small blob of mud and the next day it was complete.  Usually I think of natural processes as being very lengthy.  How long for a stream to carve the slim, twisting slot canyon or a glacier to carve the u-shaped valley?  But nature moves quickly as well.  Summer still reigns, but already all over the Garden seeds are growing.  Some are fruit, like pears.  Others, like the service berries, have already gone to the birds.  The oak trees have miniature acorns and the milkweed has fluffy pods under each leaf.  And only a month or so ago a pair of barn swallows built a nest.  I saw the female sit on it each day as I used the bathroom and hundreds of the children I teach discovered it and eagerly led me by the hand to see their discovery.

I've been watching another nest as well.  The Cooper's Hawks rebuilt last year's nest and this time they were successful in raising two chicks.  For the past few weeks, while the parents were hunting, its' two occupants frequently peeked over the edges.  I stood underneath the nest and high above me one would stand with his white baby feathers.  He stood silhouetted in the sunlight.  I was always the first to end the staring contest.  Mom or Dad sometimes sat nearby on a branch.  Recently, when I come by no chick peers down at me.  But today while walking across the Wildflower Meadow four hawks flew across to land in the trees at the edge.  Four hawks with the characteristic banded tails of the Cooper's Hawk.

Meanwhile, the barn swallows hatched and grew.  Nakedness was replaced by feathers and the nest became more and more crowded.  This morning they seemed to be standing on top of one another.  The parents flew constantly to and from with food.

About midmorning I noticed an unusual number of swallows zipping and diving high above the Children's Garden.  I checked the nest and only one bird remained--not ready to go.  But every other swallow in the Garden celebrated the day of flight as the new birds flew acrobatics all afternoon.  I wished to be one of them!  I rushed a boy to the bathroom for an emergency trip this afternoon (he didn't make it all the way) and while he used the bathroom I watched the last bird .  It stood at the edge of the nest stretching its wings, but not ready to test them.  Other swallows flew in to chirp at the last chick, but still it didn't go.  I wanted to be there when it flew.  After all, what could be more magical than a bird's first flight?  At last I left the nest to go to other places in the Garden.  But when checking it this evening the mud nest was empty and quiet, as was the air above the Garden.  What a wonderful day for flight!  Clear sky, strong sunlight, and a wind blowing up the mountain.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Meet the American Dipper

One of my favourite creatures of Yellowstone is this dark greyish-black bird that is seen in shallow rapids and fast moving water. The American Dipper (also known as the Water Ouzel) is about the size of a robin and rather unremarkable in its outside appearance. The Dipper can be found in mountain waters from Panama to Alaska. It doesn't really migrate so in Yellowstone it is seen in the dead of winter, standing on rocks in icy waters, "dipping" at the knees. These birds sing year-round to claim a certain patch of river as their territory. The Dipper lives entirely off of aquatic insects and occasionally a tadpole or small fish. To get these it must go into and under the water. Dippers have special nostrils that close underwater and an extra eyelid that allows it to be able to see. They have strong enough feet that they can walk on the bottom of the river while completely submerged by gripping rocks with their feet. Even more amazing, they dive into the stream and "fly" underwater by flapping their wings. In fact, Dippers can even fly/swim upside-down. It can be a dangerous life at times. Because of their underwater habits, sometimes this little bird becomes prey to a salmon or some other large fish it may encounter. The presence of Dippers shows good water quality. They can't survive near a polluted stream.

I am always amazed to see this plucky little bird standing in the middle of rivers surrounded by snow doing its characteristic "dipping" at the knees.  Long after everyone else is bored, I keep watching it dive in and out of the icy waters.  I think about persistence.  Sometimes smallest, most unremarkable looking creatures do the most incredible things when we can’t see.  We could a lot from the Dipper.


Monday, January 25, 2010

Never a Dull Moment

A few thoughts and observations over the past week or so.

About guests:
- Tip.  Please, when in doubt: tip.  In fact, if you can afford to vacation in ritzy places you can afford to spare a few dollars for the underpaid waitress, bellhop, or driver
- Please, please pack light.  A 21 person ski club came and we couldn't figure out what on earth they brought.  But we dutifully stacked their luggage on top of the coach until the pile was as tall as I am.  Imagine a body-bag size duffle, smaller duffle, a cooler of alcohol, a pair of skiis, and a pair of snowshoes for each person.  I found out later they came to the lodge and went snowmobiling.  That's some kind of ski club.

About driving:
- There is no time to use the restroom when you're the driver.  When I drop off the guests to use the facilities I go get gas and by the time I'm back they are ready to go.  Probably wouldn't make much of a difference.  I'm amazed how long I can hold it when the temperature is -11.  I'd be worried that if I sat on that cold, cold toilet seat I might stick like a tongue to a flagpole.
- Speaking of gas, one day this week I drove 100 miles and put in 43 gallons of gas.  That means about 2.33 miles per gallon.
- My boss called me Carl on the radio.  Every driver in the park heard.  No wonder I never feel like a girl here.
- Meet "Turd Girl".  That's what 50 California retirees know me as.  We were wolf watching and I took the opportunity to show them what we can learn about wolves by looking at their scat.  So I picked up a frozen piece and they guests couldn't believe it.  Whenever I walked through the lobby in the days that followed they all cried out, "Hi Turd Girl!"  But at least they e-mailed me the picture.

About Life Here:
- I'm flattered, I heard through the grapevine that another Old Faithful employee said about me, "I'll marry her, she's got morals."  Until he found out that I am over 21.  I'm too old. 
- I asked a few coworkers about how they met their girlfriend or wife.  One met his 800 miles into hiking the Appalachian Trail.  The other met her when he tried to race her in their hometown in high school and she beat him off the line.  Then he took her on a shooting date and she showed him up at that.  They've been married for a long time and have grown kids.  Now they are both snowmobile guides. 
- This past week there was a swarm of earthquakes--over 900, but most couldn't be felt.  The strongest was about 3.8.  They are the first earthquakes I have ever felt.  My friend from California kept running to the doorway without even thinking while I was still laying bed trying to remember what one is supposed to do in an earthquake.  I vaguely remember something about crawling under your desk. 

Monday, January 18, 2010

Don't Quit Your Day Job.

Sometimes my life reminds me of stories of up-and-coming musicians--the ones that wait tables during the day to sing in jazz clubs at night.  I spend my days, as you know, driving mini-tanks over the river and through woods around Yellowstone.  The stars of the show are the buffalo, eagles, wolves, and elk.  But at night, when everyone returns to the lodge and relaxes in the lobby, all that changes.  My friend George is a retired vocal professor who is hired to play piano in the lobby in the evenings.  He owns an impressive collection of music and a couple of times a week I stand behind him at the piano to sing along.  Each night has a different musical theme: jazz, Gershwin, Broadway...Strangely, guests are usually more impressed with my ability to carry a tune than carry their luggage.  Obviously, they haven't carried their luggage recently.  Believe it or not, people ask questions like these: "Have you sung on Broadway?", "Are you going to be a Broadway star?", and  "Is she a professional nightclub singer?"  My fellow transportation workers have offered to turn the bellhop desk into a bar, let people smoke, and transform the lobby into a club.  Unfortunately, I didn't bring the slinky black dress to really bring it off.  Besides, the lighting really isn't right.

Usually I pick the music, but sometimes there are requests.  Last week a group of 50 retirees were visiting and we all sang "Red River Valley" and "Puff the Magic Dragon" together.  Tonight a woman stopped by to join in on "Summertime" and "Some Enchanted Evening".  My favourite was a girl, probably about 8 years old, who sang "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" with me tonight.

Tonight is also significant because it marks the first time that I've ever been paid to sing.  A little girl gave George and I $1 each.  The funny part, is that this happened while I was singing songs from Beauty and the Beast.  So I guess doing that play has finally "paid" off.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

A Lesson in Ecology

Lately, I've been thinking about the first law of ecology which states: everything is connected to everything else. Last week I stood in the Hayden Valley watching the Canyon wolf pack feed on a carcass. They had pulled a piece of winter-killed bison calf (winter kill is when an animal succumbs to some other ailment such as hunger, weakness, or injury and dies on its own) aside and the alpha female and male were eating while the big, black alpha male slept in the sun nearby. As soon as the two wolves moved off to nap the ravens descended. Later, when the wolves moved further away I'm sure the coyotes in the valley came to scavenge as well. Eagles and magpies may join them. Not mention a host of beetles and bugs that will finish the process. All the result of one bison calf dying—and that's only the beginning.

In the years since the 1995 wolf reintroduction there have been a number of ecological changes in Yellowstone that scientists are studying to determine the relationship between the changes and the wolves. Having wolves as predators appears to change where elk graze. Now elk stay out of streambeds because they are vulnerable to attack there. Willows are recovering in Yellowstone. With the growth of willows there has been an increase in beaver (who have been at low numbers). Because of the dams beavers build wet, riparian areas are increasing. With more marshy areas the moose population may rise, not to mention amphibians and song birds. The wolf return means fewer coyotes. Fewer coyotes likely result in more fox, more rodents, and more pronghorn antelope fawns survival. More rodents mean more owls, hawks, and eagles.

Sometimes the interrelationships tell a sad story. Trumpeter swans are recovering from near extinction in the middle of the past century. Hundreds of swans migrate from Canada to winter in and around Yellowstone. They come because thermal runoff into rivers keeps the water from freezing. Swans used to fly further south, but they have lost wetlands along the way. They migrate by memory and now that no swans know the way the restoration of wetlands will not restore their previous migration. Should Yellowstone have a hard, cold winter many will starve to death and threaten the existence of the year-round swan population in the area. I wonder how they lost their wetlands. Was it in the building of houses, suburbs, and cities? I like to believe that if a few ponds and marshes were preserved along the way that human society would reap as many benefits from them as the swans would. I believe that unintended consequences matter. Sometimes they matter most.

Garrett Hardin expressed the first law of ecology in these words, "We can never merely do one thing." Although humans have a tendency to view themselves as separate from nature, this first law applies just as it does to wolves, ravens, and swans. Each choice and decision has multiple effects, many of which are unexpected.

Sometimes, the end of a long day finds me driving through the woods watching the last rays of sun filter through the trees casting long shadows on the snow. I think about relationships. I chose to come to Yellowstone to guide and drive. I knew I would learn some mechanical skills and facts about the Park. I didn't fully realize the way the friends I make here would change my perspective. Or that being here would clarify my expectations of work that I would like to pursue. I value relationships with friends and family so much more.  Priorities are different.  I hadn't expected to learn about faith, trust, and patience. I am learning a bit more about prayer and to search and work for answers.  As the sun slips behind the horizon I conclude that human life is as complexly woven as the natural environment that surrounds me.

All things by immortal power.
Near of far, to each other linked are,
that thou canst not stir a flower
without troubling of a star.
- Francis Thompson (English poet 1859-1907)

Sources: Decade of the Wolf by Douglas W. Smith & Gary Ferguson,

Thursday, January 7, 2010

"I love all trees, but I am in love with pines." Aldo Leopold

Between every two pines
is a doorway to a new world.
-John Muir

I never saw a discontented tree.
They grip the ground as though they liked it..."
-John Muir

The tree is more than first a seed, then a stem,
then a living trunk, and then dead timber.
The tree is a slow, enduring force
straining to win the sky.
-Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

The true meaning of life is to plant trees,
under whose shade you do not expect to sit.
-Nelson Henderson

If I knew I should die tomorrow,
I would plant a tree today.
-Stephen Girard

Monday, January 4, 2010

"Stick shifts and safety belts, bucket seats have all got to go."

Most days begin and end with two similarities: it's dark and it's cold.  I usually have to be at work by 6 am which means the alarm goes off at about 5:45.  First, I offer a very heartfelt prayer that I won't break down that day.  That leaves just enough time to put on boots, socks, toe warmers, long johns, insulated pants, thermal top, turtleneck, fleece vest, coat, beanie, work, gloves, brush my teeth and walk to dispatch while pulling on my headlamp.  I begin the day as a fledgling mechanic checking the Bombardier ("bomb") over and coaxing it to start.  She's no more excited than I am about waking up in the cold and dark.  These coaches are at least 40-50 years old. 

Once the coaches are running, we take a break for breakfast, and then it is time to play bellhop and load luggage.  So I stand on top of the coach and another driver passes luggage up in the "cage" where I play tetris to try to make it all fit.  I have no idea what people bring here that is so heavy.  But I can do anything with bungee cords--secure skiis, poles, or crates of alcoholic beverages.  Forget diamonds, bungees are a girl's best friend.  Once luggage is loaded I switch to taxi driver and guide, put in my ear plugs, and get rolling.  There are, luckily, rare moments of glamour to the job.  Most of these moments come from these awesome amber-coloured sunglasses I have that not only really help on flat light days, they also make me feel pretty cool.  Case in point:

Some questions about the coach and the ride:  Will my makeup freeze up on top?  I reply, "I can't promise you that your makeup won't freeze.  Yes, of course you can carry it on your lap if you would like."  Is there power steering?  This question usually comes as I throw my body weight into cranking the wheel and try to quiet my panting after a three, four, or five point turn.  "Yes," I respond as I flex my arm, "The power steering is right here."  Is there wi-fi in the coach?  "Umm, no."  Is there any other way to get there?  "Umm, no again."  Good news, the bombs are loud enough that I can hum to myself the whole way and no one ever hears.  As long as my lips don't move they have no idea that I'm being my own radio.

Any number of adventures can occur throughout the day.  For example, this week my throttle cable froze as I tried to turn a corner in West Yellowstone.  The bomb doesn't steer well in West anyway because the streets are too slick and there's nothing to grip, but in this case because the cable froze the gas pedal was literally frozen halfway down to the floor.  I had a coach full of passengers I'd just met and we were suddenly gunning it across the intersection at an alarming rate, not turning at all, and headed directly for a gas pump.  I flicked the power switch and we sat blocking the intersection while I made a few radio calls and pretended to act calm.  I decided to not mention in the call the fact that I was blocking the intersection--no need to announce that to my boss, all the other drivers, and every ranger in the Park.  Got the cable thawed, did a three point turn, and got out of there as fast as possible.  Just act natural. 

On another day, I stood with guests and watched 15 wolves cross the Hayden Valley, sneak up on some bison, and chase them for a bit.  The bison then decided they'd had enough of that running thing and turned on the wolves.  So much for dinner for the wolf pack.  I watched an otter swim in the thermally-thawed edges of Yellowstone Lake.  Plus, of course, the usual assortment of elk, bison, trumpeter swans, and bald eagles.  In addition, there's always a nice walk around a geyser basin in the fog that frosts everyone so we all age to about 70 years old by the time the walk is over.  Fabulous sunrises and sunsets.

The days end as an evening glacial technician.  In other words, it is now dark and I'm lying under my coach beating all the ice and snow build-up off with a hammer.  After 30 minutes (give or take) of this I fill it up with gas (don't get too close to the fumes, they give you zits), park it, and plug in the block heater.  I am not good at parking a regular vehicle and I'm even worse at a snow coach. 

I did get a great compliment this week.  One fellow who also drives remarked, "Girls who drive snow coach are tough chics."  Normally I don't like being called a "chic" but in this case I couldn't agree more.  Besides, it was the closest I'd gotten to feeling like a girl in a month.