Michael Yates' Yellowstone journal

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Fri Jun 1 06:09:23 MDT 2001


Yellowstone journal, no. 1 May 3, 2001

Friends,

We left Pittsburgh on Sunday, April 29. We were on the road for four days,
stopping in Janesvile, Wisconsin (home of a large GM plant, some of whose
operations have been moved to Mexico), Chamberlain, South Dakota (which
sits overlooking the Missouri river), Billings, Montana (an ugly blot on
the beautiful Montana landscape), and Gardiner, Montana (gateway to the
northern entrance to Yellowstone Park. Along the way, the things that stood
out most were the swollen Mississippi river at La Crosse, Wisconsin and the
remarkably gorgeous Paradise Valley which leads into Yellowstone from
Livingston, Montana. Snow-covered mountains surround the valley, along
which meanders the Yellowstone river, the largest free-flowing river in the
U.S. outside of Alaska.

We will stay in Gardiner for three days, until Saturday when I begin to
work. Gardiner is in a lovely setting, but the town itself is rather ugly.
It reminds us of the town in the old TV show, "Northern Exposure," except
that here elk rather than moose roam around the town. The wether is
incredible, bright and sunny and cool. We even saw a few snow flurries
yesterday in early evening. It is pretty dry, and people are worried
drought and fires this summer. We hope not. We took a long walk today on
the outskirts of the town, actually in the Park, and we visited an old
graveyard. Some of the graves had strange iron fences around them, probably
to keep the animals out (people in the town fence in their yards for the
same reason).

It is hard to believe that we are really here. I wonder when it will really
hit home. I certainly don't miss Pittsburgh or Johnstown, but I miss our
sons and feel bad that they are still there, breathing that foul air (we
saw on the weather page of USA Today yesterday that Pittsburgh was the only
city in the country with an air quality ranked "unhealthy.")

Keep in touch. To be continued . . .

Michael

Yellowstone journal, no. 2 May 6, 2001

Friends,

We spent our last day of "freedom" exploring around Gardiner, Montana. We
went up a steep unpaved road outside of the town up to a partially
abandoned gold mining town named Jardine. It is remarkable that some hearty
souls still live there, and people are trying to get the mine operative
again. At one time arsenic was also mined here. We saw an old mountain type
person living in a hodgepodge arrangement of trailers and shacks. Pretty
strange. But then we met a woman who runs a coffee shop in town who
actually lives in Gardiner. To top things off a nice young man who works in
a combination outfitting-pawn shop (also with an internet connection where
I could check my email!) Lives in a teepee a few miles outside of Jardine.
He sold us some bear spray.

We signed up for work, got our uniforms (!!!), and went through a corporate
orientation on Saturday, complete with feel-good videos. The young people
running the show were nice though. The orientation took place at Mammoth
Hot Springs, a remarkable land formation smelling very strongly of sulphur.
After this, we drove to the Lake area of the park, to our new "home." A
park ranger had just told us at our orientation that we should drive
carefully around bends in the park because tourists often parked on the
wrong side of the road with their doors wide open. Sure enough, we were not
20 miles toward our destination when we came upon a large number of such
cars. We stopped to see what they looking at. And up on a hill side,
visible without binoculars were three grizzly bears, a mother and two large
cubs. I looked at them through the binoculars, and the mother was enormous
with an incredibly large head. This is a good time of year to see bears,
and everywhere there are warning signs, including a few short blocks from
where we are living. We also saw a few buffalo (this morning - Sunday - we
ran into a small herd of them meandering up the highway with two little
calves in tow) and various birds.

We were anxious to check out our room. It sucked, so we asked for another
one. This one faces the woods and is pretty tiny. In terms of living
quarters we have definitely come down a notch or two (more like 20!).
However, we scavenged the other rooms, since not many people are here yet,
and managed to get things together pretty well. Karen put up a bunch of
pictures, and that helped. We were feeling a bit low late last night,
wondering what the hell we were doing here. But we felt better this
morning. The weather is crisp and clear and the air is cleaner than
probably any I have ever breathed. The food is tolerable, and the
co-workers we have met so far seem ok, though not many of them would be
able to make it in the city, if you know what I mean. The managers are so
young that I still feel like a professor when I talk to them. One fellow
majored in economics, believe it or not, and another one in sociology. The
sociology major made a face when I told her I had taught economics. A
number of the older workers, and some are very old indeed, live in campers,
some quite elaborate, complete with satellite dishes (I am jealous and
cannot quite believe that we don't even have a phone). Once all the snow
melts and the lake is clear of ice, it will be really beautiful here. The
hotel is an amazingly large wooden structure, and the inside is gloriously
attractive. All I have to do now is find my phone line for an internet
connection, and life will be good.

Keep in touch. To be continued ...

Yellowstone journal, no. 3 May 8, 2001

While Karen is taking long walks, finding new things for our room, driving
three hours to get our mail (just temporary until the post office here
opens), and getting a tan in the bright and fairly warm sun, I have begun
training for my job. The hardest part is learning all of the computer codes
and manipulations along with all of the room types and activities
available. Already, I am sure I could tell you more about hotel rooms that
you would ever want to hear. It is interesting to note that the younger
people are quicker on the computer than the older folks, but the older
people are more serious about learning the job. Given that I have made a
lot of mistakes and am not particularly adept at the computer operations, I
have a new sympathy for my students. Although when a 21 year old college
student said she was sooo tired, I had to laugh.

The workers in my group are a varied lot. There are a few young people who
are students, but most of us are not college kids. One woman used to
supervise a bookmaking operation in Las Vegas; another is a retired
insurance agent; one man seems to be a drifter who goes from job to job;
one odd fellow is a former census bureau supervisor and ardent (obsessive
would be a better word) geyser watcher and predictor ( by the way, "geyser"
is the only Icelandic word used in English). Most appear to be adept
hikers. Everyone here has been very friendly, including the supervisors.
This corporation, AMFAC, has somehow managed to get a lot of reasonably
competent people to come here and work for low wages and not be too grumpy,
and, in fact, in many cases, to feel lucky to be here. No doubt, the
setting has something to do with this, as well as the room and board. Part
of the company's strategy is to train its supervisors to be extremely
polite and friendly and to convey the idea that the company is in alliance
with the National Parks Services to preserve the parks. And it is true that
the staff is very attentive to the environment. It will be interesting to
watch the staff's behavior this years, because AMFAC's contract is up and
other companies are no doubt bidding for a new one. (Note: UPJ could learn
a few things about how to treat people from AMFAC. This is a sad thing to
say, that a corporation would treat its people better than a university. Of
course, it has no choice, really, given the pay and the dependence of the
company on all of us - it would not be so easy to replace us during the
rush of summer season).

We have been pleasantly surprised by the food. Ample variety and quantity,
and pretty well prepared. We have made friends of the head chef and some of
the cooks. This may pay off in the future! Karen already asked the chef to
supply balsamic vinegar and he was happy to say we would have some today,
and soon we would also have field greens for the salads! The dining room is
plain but ok, and everyone eats together regardless of rank, another
company strategy I am sure. Everyone is on a first-name basis.

I haven't had as much chance to see things as has Karen (she begins work
next Monday). She has seen a coyote in field nearby and has been taking
long walks several times a day. We saw a porcupine right by our room
yesterday. Everywhere you are aware of the presence of bears and you have
to be alert at all times. Lat year a grizzly took up residence close by,
and rangers had to chase it away with plastic bullets!!

I have been suffering real withdrawal not being able to watch professional
basketball games. This morning my head was glued to the radio, trying to
catch the scores from AM stations that kept fading out. Just as I would get
a station that might announce them, the signal would fade out! We can get a
couple of good FM stations, but AM stations only come in late and night and
very early in the morning. What is worse, we can't get any newspapers here
yet. For news hounds like us this is tough. If any of you would send me the
basketball clippings from the newspapers and any interesting news stories,
I would appreciate it. Or email them to me.

Keep in touch. To be continued .. .

Yellowstone journal, no. 4 May 13-14, 2001

Well, I have had several days of training now. It has been a real hassle.
But my idea is to do as little as possible, while giving the impression
that I am working hard! I told two of the young people who are very fast
that out their in the world we call people like them "rate busters," i.e.
people whose very fast work makes the employer expect that from everybody.
But I also told them that they could make up for being faster than anyone
else by helping their slower workmates. One young man apologized! During
the training one of the supervisors said that two positions were open at
the front desk, shift leader and tour clerk. The pay increase was so
pathetically small that I though no one would bite. But three of the
younger people did. They see this as a good career move, in that this is a
really large hotel with a complicated set of operations, so a job with some
authority, no matter how slight, will look good on their resumes. Of
course, my strategy is to slough off as much of the work onto these younger
people as possible! On the other hand, I might want to do a job like this
someday too. Not enough to work too hard though. I spent 32 years working
hard, more than enough.

I have begun to see more into the corporate strategy here. A fair number of
people working are old. The "lead" host in the restaurant is a woman 78
years old who drove out here herself. We met her today, and there is no way
that she is going to be able to do the kind of work a typical restaurant
demands. So my guess is that these old folks are glad to have something to
do (by the looks of the two and three hundred thousand dollar mobile homes
many of them have, they don't need the money). They will work cheap, and
they will never cause the company much trouble. What the company loses in
productivity it gains in loyalty and willingness to take orders. A number
of the older people are retired military, and while these vary in terms of
personality (our next-door neighbor is a veteran, but he is also pro-union.
Unfortunately he is also quite sexist and he talks too much. Another vet -
in both the army and the navy - is a Jesus nut. God apparently told him to
get a computer, and then God told him to start a religious website, which
he has done. He has been moping around here for the past week, unable to
make an internet connection. I told him what the problem was - there are no
local access numbers, so he would have to use an 800 number - but he
wouldn't listen and kept calling Microsoft until they told him the same
thing. I guess he only listens to God and Microsoft).

A good many workers are young people just doing summer jobs. Waiters and
the like can make a ton of money here, since the hotel is almost always
fully booked, and the restaurant is pretty fancy and holds about 300
diners. The company benefits from hiring these young persons in two ways.
First, they are not much concerned with wages and working conditions and
will not cause much trouble along these lines (though they might party too
much!). Second, some of the youngsters are serious about careers, and the
company can look them over and recruit the best ones for full-time positions.

There are also some workers who need these jobs, and they enjoy the freedom
of moving around from park to park, summer and winter (the company has the
contract at several parks and resorts). Plus they get a place to stay and
relatively cheap food. One of these employees, George, is a native of
Puerto Rico, who grew up in the Bronx. He is now a cook in Employee Dining
Room and in the restaurant, although he has held a variety of other kitchen
jobs. He is divorced and has a 15 year old son who lives with his former
wife in Puerto Rico. For George, this is a pretty good job, all things
considered, and, while he is in no way a company person, he would hate to
lose this job. George has a friend, Jorge, from Guatemala, who also works
here in the kitchen. In the winter Jorge worked in Key West, while George
worked in Death Valley. Both would be hard-pressed to afford to live in the
city, so this affords a way to live, and in a beautiful setting to boot. We
had George over for coffee. It seemed funny to be entertaining in our tiny
room, with George sitting in our only chair, while Karen and I sat on the
bed. George told us that the goes to the employee pub for a pizza every
payday. That made us both sad.

Most of the people here seem to feel lucky to be here in an amazing
national park. I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand it is true
that the setting is hard to beat. Everyday, we see snow-covered mountains,
wild animals, an incredible lake, and all in clear air and low humidity
with temperatures seldom getting too hot (we are at about 7,800 feet above
sea level). But on the other hand, the corporation obviously benefits from
this kind of thinking. The workers are paying for their stay here, through
the profits that the company is extracting from our labor. Further there is
something absurd about having a fancy hotel in a national park, a place
where wealthy visitors (at least some - Ted Turner and Walter Cronkite
stayed here last year, as well as several movie stars and professional
athletes. The Busch family, owners of the big brewing company rented an
entire floor last year, and treated everyone like shit.) can be pampered
while they enjoy nature. Edward Abbey, the late writer and environmental
radical, would probably want this place burned to the ground. And one other
thing that I find annoying. People here act as if cities were evil
incarnate. The army retiree turned Jesus nut told Karen (after boring her
for an hour with his conversion and incessant God talk) that she would
never feel the same about cities again after being here. When Karen pointed
out that cities were diverse and interesting places and suggested that the
people here were not nearly as diverse and wondered why there were not more
black workers, he said he had to go in to his room. I get the feeling that
not a few of these woodsy types are racists. And it is interesting to note
that a lot them are so over-weight that I can't imagine that they could do
much hiking. Plus the managers are all workaholics, so they can't possibly
have that much time to enjoy nature. And they seem to know nothing of and
care not at all for world events. Just what the rich and powerful want, a
bunch of ignorant folks content to walk in the woods. I really admire those
who can survive in the wilderness. But it's the people in the cities who
have made whatever decent changes have been made in this country. If we had
to rely upon the people here to make change, the national parks would not
even exist. And what great naturalists, foremost among whom are the
American Indians whose land this once was, chose to be ignorant of the
larger world?

Just to keep you posted, we have seen now six grizzlies, three only 20 feet
away from us (luckily we were in the car!), two coyotes, numerous bison,
ducks, geese, and elk, some cutthroat trout, a pelican, a porcupine, an
osprey (a large fish-eating hawk, and (we think) and eagle in the Grand
Canyon of the Yellowstone. All except the fish and birds are possibly
dangerous. You all should read the book "Death in Yellowstone" by Lee
Whittlesey, which describes in lurid detail all of the known deaths, except
in car wrecks, that have occurred in the park. Amazing tales of bear
maulings, bison gorings, and the like as well as foolish people jumping or
falling into geyser hot springs and being burned to death. You really do
have to be careful (don't worry, mom, we are careful).

We do miss our kids a lot. We have talked to them, and our daughter, Tara,
has been sending emails. She told us an amusing but sad story. She works in
a daycare-pre-school for homeless children in Washington, DC. Last week she
took them on a field trip. They kept looking at all of the white people
(all of her kids are black) around Dupont Circle and saying to Tara,
"There's your sister, or there's your grandmother." They do the same thing
when they see white people on TV. Finally, Tara just told them that her
family was just everywhere. A more telling commentary on racial segregation
in the United States is hard to imagine. At our workplace here, there is a
good mix by age, gender, and disability, but not so good by race. Some
Hispanics and Asians but only a couple of black workers.

It is strange not to be a teacher anymore. But I do enjoy not being an
authority figure, just one of the employees for the most part. It will be
interesting to see what will happen whenever anyone in management gives one
of us a hard time.

Keep in touch. To be continued . . .

Yellowstone journal, no. 5 May 22, 2001

Last week we saw something right out of a TV nature show. A bison had died
in the Yellowstone river, and a very large male grizzly bear was feeding on
its carcass. The bear just camped out on the shore, going out into the
water to eat whenever it got hungry. After a couple of days it was so
stuffed with meat that it could hardly move. When we saw it was sleeping on
the shore. Then out of the woods a grey coyote crept down to the shore to
the left of the bear and slowly made its way toward the carcass (coyotes
are in sharp competition with newly-introduced wolves for food). The bear
was eventually roused from its stupor and chased the coyote away. But the
coyote was determined and moved up into the woods only to sneak down around
the bear on the right side, about 50 feet downstream. When the bear noticed
it this time, it got up again and chased the coyote away. But in the
process the coyote had gotten the bear to move away from its initial
position close to the dead bison. Then the coyote maneuvered around once
again to the left of the bear and this time got to the water much closer to
the meat. Just when it looked like the coyote might get to eat, the bear
charged and the coyote ran away for good. The speed of this bear was
astounding, dispelling completely any notion that a human could outrun one
in an encounter. Incidentally I met a young woman who has had three close
encounters with bears but has escaped unscathed. We were thinking about
bears when we took ur first real hike the other day. We climbed about 900
feet up a trail (four miles round trip) to a wonderful view of the lake,
the hotel, and the mountains around the lake). I am getting used to the
altitude finally so I was proud of myself for making it to the top of the
trail. By the way, it snowed here yesterday! I nearly froze at work as
every time someone opened the back doors to the hotel, a cold draft blew
over to the front desk. Even so, I don't miss the heat, humidity, and dirt
of Pittsburgh in the summer.

Work began on Friday, May 18. It's busy at the front desk, even this early
in the season when hardly any of the park is really open. Checking people
in, making reservations, ticketing activities (bus tours, horse rides,
etc.), dealing with irate guests, answering innumerable questions (where is
the bathroom, what is the weather report, can I change rooms, where is the
ice machine, how do I make a dinner reservation, what is there to do, when
does Old Faithful erupt, how long does it take to get here and there, etc.
etc.). Luckily, I have been to almost every state and i know something
about nearly every place in the world, so I can gab with the guests and put
them at ease or get them smiling. I astounded a young Japanese guest
studying for an MBA at Yale when I asked him about the former Japanese
Finance Minister, Sakakibara, who I believe knows Jeff Lavine and studied
at Pitt. So far I have checked in people from Japan, Germany, Holland,
England, Canada, India, France, and 20 or so states. Boy, you meet all
kinds!! One fellow, a retired ship builder from Newport News, Virginia (and
a Swede, Monica), was so happy that I remembered what he did and what his
name was when he came back to the desk for something, that he smiled every
time he saw me afterward. Yesterday, one of my fellow workers, a young boy
from Georgia, got a five dollar tip for running up some blankets to a
guest. I told him not to be so greedy, since this was really the porter's
job. But in an emergency later in the evening, I had to deliver some towels
to some German guests. I had to leave the hotel to go to these rather
crummy cottages abut 200 feet outside. All I got was a "danke"! Karen did
get a five dollar tip on her first day of work. Unbelievably the hosts in
the restaurant do not get a percentage of the waiter's tips, the first
restaurant I have ever heard of where this is the case.

The work arrangements and the company's strategies to make profits continue
to be of interest. One thing the company does is to tie itself to the
national parks themselves, implying that its main goal is to preserve these
wonderful parks. Thus attempts to save money by using fewer paper cups, for
example, is presented as a desire by the corporation to preserve the
environment. We are constantly being urged to enjoy the park and told that
this is one of the company's objectives, for us to have "fun." We have read
a few things about AMFAC, and we have learned that they share the water
rights in Death Valley National Park with the government, while the Indians
who have lived there for centuries own nothing. The also own property worth
about 100 million dollars in Grand Canyon National Park. It will be
difficult for another company to win the government contract from them
since it would have to pay them for this property.

Another clever device used by the company is the requirement that each of
us wear name tags with our first names and the state we are from on them.
This not only gives us something to begin conversations with and helps to
build up a certain esprit among us (each person has an interesting story
about how he or she came to work here), but it is also great PR for the
company with respect to the guests at the hotel. The guests are immediately
brought into a sort of personal relationship with the employees via the
name tags. What a melting pot this is, they must think, all these people of
all ages from all parts of the country. It reinforces a sort of national
pride for those who are from the U.S., and in doing this, it serves the
company well. The company does not appear as just any ordinary business but
as a very American company, serving the people's needs by helping them to
see this American park and hiring an all-American workforce to boot.

Maria Cristina and Fred, you will be pleased to know that I charmed two
Uruguayan guests (two very macho, almost sinister men who had been bear
hunting in Canada and who were carrying a lot of money - one paid with a
$1,000 traveler's check) with my elementary Spanish. All my education is
finally paying off!! They were really impressed that I knew the Spanish
word for "keys."

Keep in touch. Thanks to those who have emailed or written. To be continued
. . .


Louis Proyect
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