Working at Yellowstone: My life living at America's First National Park
Old Faithful, frontal view
A geyser and a bison
My cap shaded my face from the glistening sunlight as I headed toward the Visitor Center. The tourists encircled the boardwalk surrounding Old Faithful, patiently waiting for the geyser’s next eruption. The sky was a canvas of blue layered with white mustaches. It would have been perfect beach weather.
I just started my weekend. After changing out of my work uniform, I decided to take a walk on the Upper Geyser Basin trail while the weather remained nice. I knew Old Faithful was going to erupt soon. Starting my second weekend at the park, I knew that when the tourists enclose the geyser's perimeter, it’s a sign that Old Faithful will set off within the next ten minutes. I entered the Visitor Center and decided to watch the geyser go off from the front of its enormous glass window, a window that reached to the ceiling.
What do you look foward to on your visit to Yellowstone?
Even though it became my tenth time seeing the famous geyser bursting, it never became tiring. The first time I saw the geyser go off, I was with my family on a family road trip. The second time I was eating breakfast on a bench outside the Visitor Education Center. As I recalled these memories, the smoke grew thicker and thicker as the geyser became close to setting off. Boiling water sputtered out from the mound in short bursts. At last, a white pillar of vapor erupted with a thunderous hiss. Old Faithful had arrived. I continued to watch the white column shoot toward the sky, when I noticed a lone bison walking in front of the window.No way. I rush out the door and truly I am not dreaming. The bison continued to forage while Old Faithful spewed steam. Other tourists catch on to the double spectacle, conflicted between taking photos of the geyser or the wild animal. "The geyser we can see in another hour and a half'" I heard someone shout.
Yellowstone National Park became the United States’ first national park in 1872. About half of the world’s geothermal features1 spread across the park, an area larger than the size of Rhode Island and Delaware combined2. Old Faithful is one of about 300 geysers in the region , made famous because of its predictability. Its eruption happens about once every 90 minutes.
Old Faithful and Madison area: Geysers, Forests, WaterfallsClick thumbnail to view full-size
96 percent of the park is located inside Wyoming with the other four percent shared between Montana and Idaho
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How I became a Yellowstone employee
It had been a few years since I had graduated out of college and I was going through a life phase where the place I wanted to be in life appeared to me so far away that I felt a little discouraged. I wanted to escape my current surroundings and look at life from a different angle. As I searched introspectively, I remembered the family road trip we took to Yellowstone back in 2009. I recalled my astonishment as we drove over the mountain road and saw the pine forest in the distance. Or the delight that spread across my face as I saw wildlife in person. Ever since our visit, I had told myself that one day I will come back. Out of curiosity, I searched online how we could apply to work or what kind of jobs were available at Yellowstone. That's when I learned about Xanterra.
"Old Faithful Inn Dining Room, How can I help you?"
“Party of five? Hi, thank you for waiting. Would you like to see the wine list tonight? No? Right this way please”As we pass through the dining room doorway, a set of stairs leads us down toward a carpeted aisle, like the red carpet that celebrities walk on at the Oscars.
“Watch your step just right here” I turned around and continued to lead the guests toward their table.
Its amusing to see the guests' first reaction into the restaurant. For some, I hear their awe as they view the ceiling. The light reflects into their eyes as they notice the rows of logs that nestle together like new brown crayons straight out of the box. Others look exhausted as they slowly unravel the fatigue coming from a long drive with the family.
The Old Faithful Inn Dining Room
Xanterra Parks & Resorts, Inc. manages the hospitality concessions at Yellowstone. As the largest national park resort management company in the United States, the business oversees the guest services of 15 national and state parks1. Out of the 6 lodging locations around Yellowstone, the company hired me as the Dining Room Host at the Old Faithful Inn.
This was my first time in a restaurant host position, and to my surprise, I enjoyed it more than I expected. Maybe it was because I liked the business culture better than my previous Japanese restaurant jobs. Or perhaps, as the host, I had the opportunity to hold a conversation with the patrons, while other aspects of the position allowed me to utilize the skills I learned as an administrative assistant.
It could have even been the camaraderie between my coworkers. Many of my coworkers were young, college-aged and came from a diverse background. Some decided to spend the summer at Yellowstone because they study Tourism and Hospitality back at school. Others just graduated from university and these were their first jobs as newly-minted college graduates. And then there were employees that traveled internationally from countries such as Poland or Malaysia to live this unique experience for the summer.
My Xanterra employees and I lived together with roommates in a dormitory. We shared the restrooms and ate at a common employee dining room. The similarities to a college dorm did not end there.
Arriving home from working a dinner shift one evening, I opened the door to find cans of empty beer arranged across the floor as if in a memorial. I walked toward my chair and found a bag of Lays chips at its feet. I took off my shoes and heard a crunch under my heels. Chip crumbs sprinkled on the carpet in a room littered with piles of clothes.
Another drinking party. As I walked over the empty cans, the door clicked open. My roommate came in.
"Where’s my phone?" She turned the bed covers, looked inside her boho bag. Nothing. She checked her backpack. Still nothing. Something was wrong. Her eyes were half open as if she were in a dream and she wavered like a zombie. She kept repeating "I need to find my phone" like a broken record. That’s when I realized my roommate was drunk.
I’m officially back in college now. I got into bed later than I planned to that night. After the phone roommate left, my second roommate came and gave me the details I did not know about: of the girls drinking too much, throwing up. I usually fall asleep well past midnight but tomorrow I had to work a breakfast shift. I hit the “snooze” button at least three times before I woke up the next morning.
"What about the coffee?"
Compared to working lunch or dinner shift, breakfast time is relaxed at the Old Faithful Inn Dining Room. Lunch may be the busiest. Tour groups with 70 or 25 members have arrived back to back as the doors opened for lunch. The statistics tell us that some nights, the dining room serves around 700 to 800 guests.
Just before working my first breakfast shift, the power went out in the area and the facility operated on backup generators. The maintenance crew informed us that there was a storm the night before which took down the main power line between Mammoth and Old Faithful and they did not know when the power would return. Because of the power outage, our managers warned us during the service briefing that the dining room will serve a limited menu and the breakfast buffet (a popular choice among guests) would not be available.
Sunrise near Mystic Falls
"What about the coffee?" guests would ask.
"Unfortunately, coffee also is unavailable at the moment" I answered. The coffee was a tricky situation, it fluctuated between available on a limited basis and unavailable.
It was bizarre to see the dining room function despite its handicap. Guests ate from paper plates and plastic utensils because the dishwashers could not operate normally. The dining room served hot drinks in paper cups. Only later did the managers tell us how spectacularly we ran the dining room. They praised our teamwork for not receiving any complaints from our guests. I think that was the moment I learned to like working as a host.
Lake area: Yellowstone Lake
Mammoth Area: Bunsen Peak
We lose the sense of time after living at Yellowstone for a while. Without TV, radio and slow wi-fi connection, for many of us, it acts as a rubber stopper on our normal media consumption. Without mass communication bombarding us with the concept of “time” the days begin to mirror one another. Everyday the sun would rise over the pine-covered forest. The tourists arrive, sit eagerly in front of Old Faithful, take their photos and come to our restaurant to eat.
Living in Los Angeles, I’ve always wanted to venture on a “real” hike. For one month I lived surrounded by the great outdoors. I wanted to make the most of this opportunity by making it a goal to hike every weekend. Xanterra provided a recreation center just for employees at each of the six worksites. The Rec Hall staff organized various events from shopping trips to white-water rafting, making it easier for staff without a car to go exploring around the park. They also usually planned a hike about twice a week. I participated in a few of their hikes, including the hike to Mount Washburn.
The view climbing Mount WashburnClick thumbnail to view full-size
Rainwater splattered the van the closer we drove to Mount Washburn. The weather reminded me of living in Scotland: it looked like the kind of rain accompanied by strong wind, powerful enough that we wouldn't be able to open an umbrella when walking outside. We would look like we took a shower in our clothes.
I hoped the rain would stop by the time we drove up to the Canyon area. But it did not. As our group got out of the van, I put on my winter parka but I became concerned about my backpack. I had nothing waterproof to cover it and I wanted to carry my cell phone and camera inside . As if the hiking gods felt my unease, the rain miraculously stopped once we reached the foot of the trail. Our guide informed us that today instead of hiking on the actual trail, we would travel the road that cars used to drive to the summit. After performing an ice breaker, we set off to hike.
In the beginning I thought this would be an easy hike. I realized early on that unlike the Bunsen Peak trail, we would not have to climb over snow or trudge carefully over loose stones beneath our feet. But I was wrong. As we meandered up the slope, I fatigued quickly because the road steadily inclined, inclined and continued to incline. This hike also challenged me more than the Bunsen Peak trail because the altitude made it difficult to climb. Mount Washburn rises 10,243 ft.The road itself elevates about 1000 feet. I grew tired around 600 feet from the parking lot.
Does this mean I should have brought an oxygen mask? I sucked in air but I felt as though it did not spread to my lungs. I thought about drinking water, but knowing myself, I limited how much water I drank because pretty soon I would feel like going to the restroom.
I glanced toward the Polish girls chatting the minutes away in Polish. I wished I could understand their conversation. During our icebreaker, we had to introduce ourselves by saying our names and answering the question: ‘What did we look foward to the most during this hike?' One of the Polish girls answered that she "hoped to survive" this hike. I mentioned that I "hoped to take good pictures". Now I wondered if I would survive this hike.
I began to trail farther and farther behind the rest of the group .The Polish kids went on ahead while I followed about two car lengths behind them. Our guide periodically came back along the trail to see if I was doing alright. I felt guilty about making him walk back and forth since no one else lagged behind.
The snow-capped mountain slope that appeared unreachably far in the distance while we stood in the parking lot became closer and larger as we ascended higher. We have to be reaching the top soon. I wanted to sit down to rest my burning calves. I took breaks periodically but not as long as I wanted to because I hoped to catch up with the group. When I did take a breather, I made the most of it by taking pictures of the emerald green valley below.
The top of this Mt. Washburn has to be behind that bend. Far from it. We continued to climb up the mountain. Although it was late June, the snow piled over 12 feet along the roadside. Out of breath, I began to think that this hike personified my life.
Right now, I'm in the point in my life where I knew what I wanted to do in life, but getting there has been more difficult than I imagined and sometimes I feel like I won't make it. But just like I plan to reach the summit right now, I'm going to be okay.
Our group hiked among the clouds the closer we arrived to the top. That was awesome. I imagined that we would feel the same exhilaration if we were to climb up the Himalayas or find Shangri-La.
We eagerly trekked the last stretch as the fire lookout tower came into view. Because clouds remained from the storm earlier in the day, we could not view Hayden Valley and the Canyon area from the peak. Once I returned home, I googled some images and I could only imagine how gorgeous the sight would have been.
Coming home felt surreal. Once again my life became enveloped with constant technology, eating good food and falling in my ‘real world’ routine. I hoped to reflect on my life while I lived in Yellowstone, but because I was busy I did all the pondering once I got home. One of the things I try to incorporate into my lifestyle is to focus on accomplishing one thing at a time versus multi-tasking. In Yellowstone, I noticed that my to-do lists became shorter and I finished everything I planned to complete without the tasks pouring into the following day. It’s difficult but I make an attempt to simplify my schedule so that I don’t corner myself into feeling a sense of urgency. This may sound cliché but I also strive to enjoy the smaller joys in life. I catch myself starting up at the clouds in the sky often now, studying how different their shapes are from the clouds in Wyoming. I believe the greatest lesson I learned is that there are many ways to live with integrity. My circle includes hard-working and ambitious friends who progressed straightly from high school to college to career. Living at Yellowstone reminded me that living a "successful" lifestyle comes in many varieties, that it's up to us to determine what it means to live a fulfilling life for ourselves and not to follow what society may portray as the "ideal" life.
Working at Yellowstone: My life living at America's First National Park by StellaSee is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.