Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Yellowstone Ravens Addicted to Diet Coke

It is no secret that I have a few Yellowstone Tourist pet peeves. Yes, I hate it when you toss your chewing gum under the boardwalk. I can’t believe you claim at the gate that you don’t need a map and then show up at Fishing Bridge wondering how you missed the road to Old Faithful. This morning, I rode with clenched jaws because I could see the tracks of a snowmobiler who was hot-dogging it all over the road, as if he were driving a bumper car in Disneyland, not a $10,000 machine in the world’s first national park.

It is also no secret that I despise the vending machines in the Fishing Bridge Warming Hut, and not just because I listen to their electric whine for several hours a day. Here I sit, between walls constructed from lodgepole pines which were placed here in a time when less than a thousand people visited Yellowstone every year. People enter the hut, chilled from traveling through the hushed winter landscape, seeing more bison and coyotes than people and vehicles, to be greeted by a cozy fire, a friendly ranger, and a neon banner for corporate America. No person spending eight hours in sub-zero temperatures truly NEEDS a cold soda. Dehydration and hypothermia aside, is there a better time to try out good nutrition than on a day when you are getting all this fresh air and exercise, and experiencing something you’ve never tried before? Not to mention that all that liquid and caffeine is going straight to your bladder and will lead to one very uncomfortable snowmobile ride. And then there’s the simple truth that electronics can be quite fussy in freezing temperatures, and more often than not you aren’t going to be able to get the treat you want out of the machine at all. I watched someone the other day key in every number on the touch pad—A1… A2…, A3…--until the very last slot finally coughed up a package of Juicy Fruit. When the machines don’t work, people get cranky with me, though I know nothing about how to help out (they are operated by the hotel company, who sends an employee over every Saturday to stock the machines). I spend much of that conversation discouraging people from shaking the machine until it spits out the Doritos which are dangling from E3.
But the very worst problem is that most people can’t drink 16 ounces of sugar-water during a twenty-minute rest stop at Fishing Bridge, so they savor the soda for a few moments and then leave 2/3 of the can for me to deal with. Actually, I wish they would just hand their unsipped sodas directly to me, and I would gladly walk over to the outhouse and drain the liquid down the vault, crush the can, and send it to recycling. That is the cleanest, most legal way to deal with the unwanted beverage. But in this case, they never ask the ranger. Instead, they might decide to toss the can into the recycling bin, soda and all. When I pulled the plastic liner from the bin to empty the recycling a few days ago, the bottom of the sack was weighed down by a gallon of “suicide” soda (remember when you used to go through the buffet line and empty one shot of every kind of soda from the machine into your glass? Mmm….) After double and triple bagging the whole thing, I bungeed it onto my snowmobile, and drove at 5 mph to the recycling receptacles in the housing area. I pulled on thin latex gloves and sorted every aluminum can and plastic bottle, until my hands were frozen and I was left with a plastic bag of flat soda.
But I would gladly sort through hundreds of sticky soda cans if it would keep people from making the very bad decision to dump their Diet Coke outside. Now I get that winter is an awkward time and the proper and polite solution of pouring your beverage in the toilet may not be obvious to civilized folks. And I get that when you pour that soda into the snow it truly seems to disappear into four feet of powder. In reality, however, pouring a can of soda into a snowbank is rather like pouring syrup on a snow cone or cola flavoring into a Slurpee machine: the liquid doesn’t disappear, it freezes, making sugar/saccharin ice cubes all around the warming hut. In the evening, when I’m not here to chase them away, the ravens swoop down and dig out these tasty bits of high fructose corn syrup for dinner.
Now, I’m no biologist, but I’m willing to wager that the last thing a bird which sleeps outside when it is ten degrees below zero needs to eat is a Slurpee. Beyond the issue of cold, that bird likely feels the sensation of being satiated—the same reason we drink Diet Coke when we’re counting calories—without actually receiving any caloric benefit. To survive the winter, the non-hibernating species in Yellowstone need to continuously ingest food dense with calories, fueling their efforts to stay warm. After all the talk we’ve heard about the empty calories of corn syrup, it is difficult to imagine what might happen to a bird accustomed to foraging off bison carcasses when it develops a taste for Coca-Cola. But can you blame it? We know that soda is bad for us, but can’t resist swinging by the drive-thru on the way home from work because it’s easier than cooking dinner. Given the option of free handouts at the warming hut or hunting for mice or bison, I’d certainly be tempted by the sugary stuff. And just like us, they’ll probably have no idea what it is doing to them until it is too late.
So every night as I pack up my snowmobile and pull away from the warming hut, I look up at the pair of black birds roosting just above the outhouse. I know they have their eye on the unguarded snow shack, ready to swoop in for a snow cone as soon as my back is turned. I try to resist personifying these intelligent birds, but part of me can’t help but imagine what goes on at the warming hut in the evenings as five-pound ravens get hopped up on Diet Coke. Do they get a little jittery and fly in frantic circles? Does it stimulate their productivity, helping them rip backpacks off snowmobiles with undiscovered strength? With a full belly and a caffeine buzz, who knows what a raven might be capable of? It’s likely my imagination, but as I glance up in the trees I’m certain I see a look so familiar to me after 10 years of graduate school: that crazed, wide-eyed expression which screams, “You’d better get out of my way, lady, because I haven’t had my caffeine today.”

Sunday, January 9, 2011

My Favorite Moment of the Day

A magazine I thumbed through in the laundry room yesterday published paragraphs from writers describing their favorite moment of the day. After reading their stories about tucking their children into bed or going out early for a newspaper and pastry, I found myself pondering my favorite moment of a day in Yellowstone. I had pretty much settled on the following, until just this moment. The warming hut is empty after a slow day with just two groups of snowmobilers. I visited with two old friends, and then sat around the fire chatting with one of the new rangers and the wife of another seasonal. I had time to take a lunch break and skied along the Yellowstone River, listening to 43 swans a-swimming in an acre of open water. I’ll head home in just a few minutes, but the crackling fire, the chill on my cheeks, and the quiet of the landscape have a meditative effect, making this a favorite moment of a wonderful day.
My very favorite moment, however, is the final thirty seconds of my morning ski. I rise early this time of year, usually around 5:30 or 6:00 (don’t be impressed; I went to bed at 8:00 the night before), and work on the ol’ dissertation for an hour or so. Just as it is getting light, I head out for a quick spin around the campground, or a skate ski down the untracked-by-snowmobiles roadway. January mornings are cold and dark and it takes more willpower than I usually express at that time of day to drag myself away from my down comforter. Every day I convince myself that I can skip this once, but then I realize that there will be a day not too far distant when I will not be able to walk two steps outside my door and then ski through the best cross-country snow in the Rockies. I layer up, strap on the boots, and head grudgingly out into the sunrise.
The trail from the housing area climbs a slight hill, which inevitably makes me cranky. My blood isn’t circulating yet, so my fingers are cold, and half the time I manage to tangle up my skis in my early morning grogginess. The temptation to retreat is intense, but if I can just make it up that hill, the whole morning opens up to me and the fresh air truly goes to my head. I fall into the rhythm of the ski… swish, swish… kick ‘n’ glide… all those cliched skiing motions. I love the soft whoosh of each ski gliding over the snow, and the quietness of striding without footprints. I love leaving tracks in the smooth road surface: neat herringbones from my skate skis or slightly crooked grooves where my left knee turns out when I try to ski a straight line. The clouds turn pink with the rising sun, casting the brown plywood of Grant’s Mission ’66 structures in a surprisingly romantic glow.
Thirty minutes into my ski I begin cursing my own laziness for keeping me in bed that extra half hour, precious Yellowstone minutes I could have spent skiing. As the pink clouds fade to grey, I know that if I want to shower (and sometimes I do debate on whether that’s necessary after all), it’s time to head home. Now, as I turn into the residence area, that hill I dragged myself up just minutes earlier becomes an exhilarating downhill glide and I kick off down the trail to see how far the snow will carry me. On a cold morning, the momentum might take me right past my front door. I savor those sweet seconds on swift skis—wind in my hair, sun cresting the tops of the lodgepole pines, blood flowing easily now and fingers perfectly warm—wishing that I could ski the day away. For those few moments I am soley a skier and I am in Yellowstone, and nothing could be finer.
And that is my favorite moment of the day.

Sunrise from my front door.