Detours in Delay, WY

They came from all over the country without a plan other than to see what the place would do to them. There was a great tradition of those who had ventured out West in search of opportunity. It was another America for those who had not been given the life they’d been promised — an Ellis Island at the edge of the Great American Desert. From the kitchen at the Inn to the laundry room at the Lodge, all of them arrived ready for a revelation. The work would be harder, but nature’s therapy would soothe any frazzled spirits after a long shift. With each coming morning the latent emissions arising from the Upper Geyser Basin became less of a miracle and more an attraction relegated to those who could afford to visit the place with only fresh eyes. Soon they would become more occupied by the tyranny of small annoyances. Of course, it was a strange thing to be attending to those who could condense a hero’s journey into a week; who opted for a dose of struggle as relief from comfort; who would make a petting zoo out of one of God’s final drafts, enclosed in an imaginary fence.

As the crowds grew the romance faded into the daily resentments of everyone’s back home. The ones still around would feed the melodrama involved in mistaking this purgatory of young adulthood for real life. A month into the season the college kids from abroad arrived to renew the initial sense of wonder that had begun to slip into mundanity. Their energy and their smiles would make the place shine once more. But this was ultimately another diversion on their path to an arrival that would not involve anyone here. They had more in common with the people on the other side of the counter than the ones sharing their dorms. August 25th was called Christmas for the number of times it snowed here. That’s when these kids left, only weeks after they arrived.

It would make the lingering presence of the late-spring class really feel like the day after Christmas. These were the true residents of this place that belonged to no one. They had lost their sense of home and were looking for the vague wisdom of the land to steer them in some direction. They were misfits, late bloomers, and last resorters. Some had been scarred by a past life and some were just lonely. South of Paradise Valley and north of the Grand Tetons there was shelter. On all four ends were modest towns that relied on sales of rubber tomahawks and novelty t-shirts to persist as lighthouses into the Park. Thousands and thousands would pass through but those who lingered for months, some even years at a time, would get the full package. Their longing and heartache would give them an experience that wealth could not afford.

I arrived through the airport at Bozeman, Montana a day late, then hopped onto an employee shuttle heading southbound from the Holiday Inn across the street from the town’s iconic Walmart.

“Ladies and gentlemen…,” said our bus driver, Jeff, issuing out words like a drunk taking his time to enunciate every one without slurring, “on your left and on your right… sits what we call… Paradise Valley.”

I pulled out my earbuds and gazed up out the window.

“You may have heard… of the album of the same name… released by a young man I saw in concert way back in 2002…”

“I think this guy’s on downers,” said a kid from New Jersey.

“Now at the time… the audience was made up almost entirely of women…”

“Are people out here just, like dull?” said a Portland girl.

“He’s most known for having dated Taylor Swift… at one point in time…”

Eyes loosened their grips on the blue screens then fixed their gaze out the window. The tones of driver Jeff’s voice went out of focus, vague and calming like the swaying of the lush green hills of the countryside. By this point the city kids were checked out.

“John Mayer!” I shouted.

“Good work young man!”

_________________________________________________________________

100 miles to the south we arrived at Old Faithful, where early May was winter anywhere else. I got off and trekked my luggage across mounds of salt and pepper slush to the dorm office. They paired me up with another California kid, also a college dropout, named Skylar. Call him Sky. He had a book on Yellowstone history splayed out over his bare chest when I met him. “Did you know the guy who designed the Inn was 29 when he did it?” was what he said to me before “Hello.”

“I don’t hearing like that kind of lifetime math my dude.” I said. “Messes with my head. I know Kanye didn’t make his first album until 27 and that gives me hope.”

“Jim Morrison died at 27,” said Sky.

“Everyone died at 27.”

“We’re the same age as Justin Bieber, too. We’ve got some catching up to do.”

“Yeah,” I said. “But I bet he’s never been to Wyoming though.”

Arrival was also day one on the job. I had missed my first flight so didn’t get any kind of employee group briefing. I snuck in through the back entrance of the Old Faithful Inn, a massive puzzle box of a log cabin for a hotel.

“You’re late so we’re gonna have to put you on dishes, okay?” said Sous Chef Brian.

The kitchen at the Old Faithful Inn was a sprawling maze of stations, substations, secret corridors, and walk-in freezers that seemed to have no end. Platoons of guys in white chef’s coats hunched over shiny steel countertops staked their territory in every corner.

“Hey man,” said a short, skinny guy who looked 50 and 19 at the same time. “I’m Chance. I’m on the line normally but I’ll be busting out dishes with you tonight cause all the other dishies are lazy sacks of shit. Nice to meet you.” He shook my hand up and down with both his hands.

___________________________

I was most at peace at this hour. The rising and falling sound of “You’re a shit! You’re a piece of shiiiiiiiit!” over the past 40 minutes had gently pushed me towards getting out of bed. In the couch room JD and the deli crew were out well past pub hours still buzzing. “Yeah, I was kinda worried about him getting hypothermia or something but now it’s funny,” he said. The guy he saved was in the fetal position by the board games. His forearm was sticking through the inside of his shorts with his balled up fist out the other end. I switched by Starbucks Doubleshot on Ice with the tab rotated over the hole and a green straw sticking out, like Chef Brian does, and switched it with what was left of the Golden Ale sitting upright in his other hand.

In the washroom I splashed cold water to my face and stopped there. I forgot to pack Sensodyne in the drawstring but was too giddy from what I just saw to bother brushing. Back at home base, Skyler was awake in bed, and I told him it was Chance’s ass that was screaming by the creek near the stairs as I buttoned my whites. “This is going to be a good week,” he said.

Through the EDR door the Slovenian girl was sitting alone and looked lovelier than ever with her toque blanche on the table. At dawn Old Faithful would be erupting and I was eager to get the line ready so that I could watch it go without any tourists around. I knew Chef wouldn’t acknowledge my “Good morning” and I loved him for it. She dumped what was left of her Jackson Hole Wheats and joined me.

At this hour the ranger station had not bothered to set up a prediction time, so the sign still read “9:38pm.” The girl took a quick detour to the second floor of the Inn with the luxury showers. She wouldn’t get in trouble, she said, since the night before there was some kind of annual gathering involving a screening of The Shining for the guests that would knock them out until noon. But still it’s dark and people are creeps, I said, so I tossed her my extra can of bear spray.

I had a front row seat by myself for a good half hour. At dawn, the smoke emitting from the background attractions of the Upper Geyser Basin turn the place from a half-lit room into an ethereal realm within minutes. Sun rays coyly peeking out from behind the trees guarding Observation Point smack up against the fumes to reveal where everything sits. The stream below begins to glisten. The darkness begins to yield like mother nature emerging in widescreen. The girl sneaked up on me holding her boots at her side, but it didn’t spook me since I could smell her lotion from yards away. There in the middle we sat as all agony was deafened by the silence.

_________________________________________________________________

Most of the time Chance and I wouldn’t say much to each other in the dish pit. We were too busy in the zone, heads down, letting the mutually productive partnership form our bond. We would be here for another month and a half working seven day weeks; waiting for the influx of European university students to arrive with summer and alleviate the workload, so that finally we could have a weekend.

Roommate Sky had a more mellow gig as room inspector at the Inn. He always had his finger on the pulse of the happenings around Old Faithful. One day he swung by the kitchen with the day’s events.

“Y’all heard about the shakedown?”

“The what?” I said.

“The shakedown,” said Sky. “Like an hour south of here. The hotel there’s smaller and they need help for their season opening. No employee dorms there, so you have to come back, but I hear a day’s pay there is like a week here. Plus, it’s under the table.”

Here we were, landlocked into this place, promised hiking and white-water rafting adventures on our off days, except we weren’t given off days. By the time the Europeans came to take our shifts and allowed us three-day weekends, Yellowstone was absolutely packed with tourists. It seemed every morning at 8:30am on the dot, a new tour bus would discharge its mass of dead-eyed, cargo short wearing sightseers upon the geyser basin, ready to devour then dispose of this piece of American ingenuity. There was no room left for the rest of us.

“I swear this place is becoming like Disneyland,” Chance would say. “Except we don’t have an underground prison like they do.”

We knew how we’d spend the first weekend afforded to us as employees of the Old Faithful Inn. Fifty miles to the south was Grand Teton National Park, a quieter terrain tucked into the undercarriage of Yellowstone. Marked by the winding volcanic streams of the Snake River and the majestic, piercing peaks of the Teton Range, this land south of the increasingly congested Yellowstone was where we’d go to exhale.

Chance and I would hitchhike separately to increase our chances of getting picked up. He’d made it there in less than half a day by sprinting down the side of the road like a runaway, facing forward with his left thumb out, catching the attention of enough drivers. I was not so lucky. Instead, I marched forward, hands fixed to the straps of my pack, slowly inching towards my promised land, helped along by the goodwill of a few passing travelers here and there.

But I didn’t mind walking. Across the vast expanse of open green fields that lay to my right, I witnessed the snow-capped summits of the Teton Range. Their sharply pointed peaks stood defiantly against the sky, like monoliths of rock charging toward heaven. There they loomed in the background as seasons of sun and shadow passed across their stoic faces. I marched ahead.

_________________________________________________________________

A pair of retired gentlemen from Texas had let me tag along, napping in the back of their truck, as they drove through the winding roads east of the sprawling Jackson Lake. I was dropped off somewhere along a dirt path next to the Snake River, miles east of the main Teton Park Road that was supposed to take me to opportunity.

Tired and hungry, I walked several yards to a handsome patch of dirt beside the river, hoping that the gentle melody of its waters would lull me to sleep as I lay my head on my pack. Chance was probably outside the hotel by now, I thought. With a hand on my belly and a knee pointed towards the sky, I was ready to surrender to what tomorrow would bring.

It was that time of year when the sun was tender as dusk lingered until past dinnertime. Its rays gently shined onto my right cheek, as if bashfully covering its face from behind the branches of the shrub next to me. The air was cool and motionless.

With the Park only 10 miles across at its widest edges, the Teton Range could be seen from any point. No matter where you stood, its imposing presence was firmly planted, somewhere off in the distance. There I settled in the dirt, still in my jeans and hiking shoes. I slighted my head to the right and witnessed the silhouette of the Tetons cut across the pink-orange streaks of clouds in the sky.

The next morning, I picked up where I left off. By noon I had made it to where the dirt path rejoined the main road. By 3pm, I arrived at the hamlet of Moose, where I found the collection of unnamed bungalows where this “shakedown” was to take place. As I stepped onto the porch I saw Chance, looking down and discouraged on a bench. They had closed their doors to any more employees by the time he’d arrived. So there we sat, defeated and unsure of what to do next, looking out onto the road at the SUVs passing by. After some moments of silence, Chance spoke up.

“This lady schooled me on some stuff on my ride here,” Chance said.

“What was it?” I asked.

“The Grand Tetons? It’s French.”

“Yeah…”

“Les Trios Tetons. It comes from the French fur trappers who came here back in the day.” Chance pointed up at the mountains. “That big pointy one in the middle there?”

“Yeah. The Grand Teton,” I said.

“It means ‘the big boob!’”

“You’re kidding.”

“Nope! We’re standing in the shadow of a bunch of big French titties!”

I turned and looked toward the mountain Range.

“Do you understand what happened here?” said Chance.

“Those guys literally came here to hunt for beavers.”

I sat and looked in awe at the Grand Tetons, exposed under the harsh, unromantic white glare of a mid-afternoon sun. Lost as we were, we were part of a great legacy, I decided. Like those before us, we came to this land looking to bring some forward momentum to our lives and we had achieved it. That was what brought those daring young men to this wild frontier years ago, lonely and horny as they were. Looking up at those glorious mountains, it was clear that we had inadvertently acted out the same ritual towards actualization, towards livelihood; that there was nobility in its vague pursuit. Before the prospect of how the sobering trek back to Old Faithful would transpire dawned on our innocent shores, there we sat.

The sky was throbbing.

Beyond the relative low stakes marking sprints across ends of this summer camp Eden was how I, alone, would make my way back to California. And Sky and Chance and all the rest of them would hop along to Taos in New Mexico and Chisos in Texas and Camp Cedar in Maine. And some toward those ventures in between, in roles and spaces without a name, inching towards a stage of life too late to convincingly pull off a gap year. It would be a season in the hero’s journey of a young player on the verge of succumbing. And the threat of aging past the off chance for a sharp jerk and an abrupt landing into meeting the world halfway loomed on the horizon.

The sky was throbbing still. It called to patience for when it could settle into romance again.

from 2 March 2020

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