Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Leaving and Learning

A few weeks ago, I was standing near one of our law enforcement rangers outside the West Thumb Warming Hut when a visitor disembarked from an in-bound snowcoach, ogling up and down and all around as she crossed the snowy parking lot. “You must feel like this park really belongs to you,” she said to my colleague as she approached. He smiled, “Officially, while I’m wearing this uniform, I will tell you that this park belongs to everyone and I’m just here to watch over it.” Then, leaning in conspiratorially, “But in truth, when everyone leaves the park at night and it’s so quiet and I’m out on the trail all by myself, I do feel like this park is mine and mine alone.”
These words crept back to me last week as I loaded my snowmobile to drive away from the place which has been my part-time home for nearly ten years. In July, when you walk the boardwalks elbow-to-elbow with the American masses, Yellowstone is in every way the nation’s park; but in the wintertime, when not a single vehicle tracks up the Grand Loop road between dusk and dawn, it is easy to mark your territory, claiming the first ski on last night’s snowfall or a private eruption of Old Faithful by moonlight. As with so many things in life, I didn’t realize how much Yellowstone was in my blood until I started my new job here at Canyonlands. I may have to strap an elastic band around my wrist and snap myself every time I mention “the mother park,” for it seems I just can’t stop talking about Yellowstone.
As wrenching as it is to leave a place you love, there is nothing like the process of saying good-bye to polish it up all nice and shiny for your memories. My last week in Yellowstone was crammed with the best the park has to offer, from cozy evenings with friends, to moonlight skis and snowmobile rides, warm conversations around the wood stove, frosty morning walks in the geyser basin and top-notch skiing on favorite trails. Those days of saying goodbye to friends—with hugs and goodies, promises to visit and dreams of returning—solidified my deep gratitude for associations forged during the last four winters, particularly with the guides who have brightened so many of my days with smiles, one-handed waves, pockets full of candy, plenty of wise-cracks, and the unspoken acknowledgment of our shared quest to discover the every-day spectacular of Yellowstone.
Camping out with my coworkers in a historic cabin-turned-warming hut reminded me how fortunate I am to work for an agency where colleagues are friends and the workplace is steeped with adventure and opportunity. My time with this intrepid trio of women was far too short, and I sincerely hope our association will continue in the NPS and beyond. And on my last day in Yellowstone, as I took that final ski up to the Continental Divide and then down the Spring Creek Trail, I realized that if I had one day left on this planet and by some good grace it was in the wintertime, I would choose to spend that day skiing this very trail on a sunny but not-too-warm winter day, topping it off with a Caldera Cake at Old Faithful (hey, if it were my last day, I’d probably eat two or three!) After such a week, my heart was as heavy as the wet, sloshy snow which fell during my last Yellowstone night, but also brimming with sincere appreciation for the privilege of being a small part of something so tremendous and challenging and inspiring as a Yellowstone winter. I have met new versions of myself through my experiences here, and I can only hope my work here has contributed positively to the place which so many others claim as theirs and theirs alone.
After my first winter at Canyon, I scribbled down a list of “Lessons Learned in Winter.” I stumbled upon my notes the other day while I was packing up, and it seems appropriate to share parts of that list now, as I embark on a journey which is bound bring its own set of harried lessons. There are certainly otherslessons I would add today, but to preserve the innocence of those first four months, I will stick to the original list:
Lessons Learned from a Yellowstone Winter:
*Do not fear the snow. (I’m sure that was penned with you in mind, Jen!) After a week in the park I quit kicking the snow off my boots when I came into the house. The snow melts and evaporates away in moments, adding precious humidity to the room and leaving no trace on the carpet. I vacuumed only once during my first winter, for snow doesn’t track like dirt. Besides, it’s going to snow almost every day, so the sooner you accept that, the less time you will spend worrying about it.
*Get a job where you can wear sweats to work. Knowing that you have your fleece pajamas on under your snowmobile bibs will always bring that secret smile to your face.
*The weather forecast will never be accurate. Plan for every possibility and quit worrying about it. Even if it snows a foot, you'll still be able to get there on a snowmobile.
*Cook with what you've got, even red delicious apples. Fresh fruit is rare as gold during the wintertime, and apples snubbed by snowmobilers are a welcome supplement to a diet of packaged foods with six-month shelf lives. While I might prefer a Fuji or Jonagold, an apple means so much more in Yellowstone’s Interior, and homemade applesauce will forever be a favorite food because it reminds me that friends are looking out for me and doing simple things to make my life a little better.
*Go to bed early.  When the sun sets at 4:30 and you have no television, no internet, and few social obligations, sleep creeps in early. And after a day spent shivering in sub-zero temperatures, your tired body can take nine…ten…eleven hours to recuperate.
*Dance with your skis on.  Topping my list of favorite Yellowstone moments is a dance during the Snow Lodge Winter Olympics. In 2008, the hotel company brought in a live band to perform for employees in the Old Faithful pub. Erika and I seized a rare chance to enjoy live music and snowmobiled over for the show. Halfway through the evening, cues were exchanged between the veteran employees who mysteriously snuck out the front door. Moments later, they came clacking in on their skis, stomping in rhythm with the music and pulsing the floor with the most wonderful, vibrant percussion. Those without skis played hop-scotch over their tips and tails in a frenzied ski-dance, a Snow Lodge tradition, unique to a life lived on skis. When I snap my skis on outside my front door, skiing to work, to play, to exercise, to socialize, to take the garbage out, I think of that night dancing in the pub with my skis on, shouting to the world, “This is what it means to live in Yellowstone!”
 Here, we dance with our skis on.