50 Stories, Week 13: Yellowstone Summer

In June of 1993, I was pregnant – again. Despite having been on the pill for years and using a diaphragm correctly, this was the third time my body tried to make me a mother before I was ready. I was slated to spend my summer working in Yellowstone National Park and my boyfriend Richard had plans to ride his motorcycle up the west coast. After deciding to have an abortion, a close girlfriend brought me to Planned Parenthood and held my hand tightly. It was rushed – the decision making, the procedure, the healing expectations. Summer had begun and there was no time to mull the loss or feelings of uncertainty. My relationship with Richard was on hold since we were going our separate ways. I was unclear about the future, except that I was embarking on an adventure and it was not the kind that comes with having a baby.

Boarding the Greyhound bus in San Diego that night, I prepped for a 27 hour ride with countless stops and transfers to West Yellowstone. I curled my body up like a snail, knees against the back of the seat in front of me with my sweatshirt bunched up between my shoulder and cheek, and slept for hours. When I woke up, we were pulling into Barstow, and I popped out for a smoke. The layover was a long one, so I decided to use the bathroom inside the station – a luxury after the janky toilet at the back of the bus. When I came back out, I saw a sweet looking guy with shaggy brown hair and glasses, his head buried in a book, laying against a massive backpack. I was looking for a space to stretch my legs out so I sat down next to him. His name was Marc and by the time we boarded the bus, I knew I wouldn’t sleep until we parted ways in Wyoming. Marc was all intelligence and curiosity. He was an environmental studies graduate student, heading somewhere in the Canadian northwest territory on a research grant. We talked about everything – the cold war, religion, philosophy, nature, and of course, love. It was exciting to speak in metaphors and dig deep into my beliefs which, unbeknownst to me, were so malleable at the time. We used every inch of space between our two seats to eventually fold on top of each other – legs on legs and arms intertwined, even spooning while we watched the stunning countryside pass us by. I was elated and calm all at once, because I knew that part of the adventure would be over as quickly as it began. Marc wrote to me later that summer from a stop at Glacier Lake in the Canadian Rockies – saying it reminded him of Yellowstone. “I’ve been thinking about you since you got off the bus. What a ride! I should have married you in Las Vegas when I had the chance. I wonder if you got to sleep when you got to Yellowstone. Seems like I’ve been trying to catch up on my sleep for the past two days and I’m still out of it. But it was worth it. This is what you might call my basic – I really, really, really enjoyed our trip and wanted to make sure you know it. Miss you.” Meeting Marc gave me a feeling of possibility, that if I kept saying yes, I would be provided with what I needed. He reminded me that I was smart, beautiful, and interesting. And that I didn’t need to continue judging myself for my last bad decision. 

I didn’t get much sleep when I finally arrived but it wasn’t simply due to the deprivation brought on by hours of nonstop kissing and conversation with Marc. It was because from the moment I got off the bus to start my summer, so did everyone else. First we were assigned to a location – Grant Village for me. Then we had orientation, assigned our dorm rooms, met our roommates, found out our job assignments, where to eat, how to mail a letter, what to do in an emergency, and so on. My roommate’s names were Shannon and Jill – and our inner door opened to another room with two girls named Dominique and Gena. Across the hall was Kevin, Brian, Bradley, Guy and West. This was our crew for the summer and we became inseparable – from working, eating, and drinking together to hiking, camping, and exploring the surrounding areas. It was a quick initiation. Most of these kids were between 18-21 and from affluent backgrounds – their parents ‘forced’ them to work during the summer before or during college and they figured this was the least amount of effort with the most amount of fun. They were right. I was 23, though – old, relatively speaking – and working to live so I couldn’t call in sick as often as they did. 

I was assigned as a waitress at the Grant Village Dining Room, which overlooked the West Thumb of Yellowstone Lake. Occasionally, I had a breakfast shift, which required showing up at 6am – far too early for most people, and certainly for someone who had been drinking and smoking until approximately three hours beforehand. Yet, I began to look forward to those shifts. A forced entry into the morning air where I would ride my bike on the trail from our dormitories to the restaurant. I was moving too quickly for the mosquitos to land, and when I looked up at the canopy of trees, I felt protected. In those moments of quiet and solitude, I felt fearless, which was not how I was feeling day-to-day. In addition to processing another abortion and my relationship with Richard, I was experiencing an extra level of free floating anxiety.

Choosing to live in a National Park assumes you enjoy hiking and camping. It wouldn’t make much sense to live somewhere that beautiful and not explore. Except my fear was keeping me with one foot in the safety of my dorm room. Though I’d been outdoorsy before, and I felt a strong connection to nature in all its glory, I was terrified to be in the honest to goodness wilderness. Every step I took, I fought the stream of questions running through my head… How much longer was the hike? Would I fall and get a concussion? Would I be bit by a snake or attacked by a bear? Or both? How high did one have to hike before feeling oxygen deprivation? What are the symptoms of heat stroke? What if that boulder on the hill comes loose and crushes me? It was exhausting. So, when I let myself be peer-pressured into getting out, I stuck with the mellower hikes on well-trodden paths. 

Until one day, Gena and Dominique asked me to join them on a backcountry camping trip around Heart Lake. There was strength in numbers, they said, and thought I was funny so could be good company. I remember thinking that these two girls were probably popular in high school. Cool, with an edge of bitchiness. And even at 23, my unfulfilled high school ideals of being fully accepted compelled me to say yes. I felt a bit nervous in my gut but the first day of hiking was easy, mostly downhill and I stayed distracted by chatting away. We set up camp near the lake – back then you didn’t need reservations, we just left a handwritten note at the trailhead and that was good enough. The next day, we were out for a day hike when I started feeling funky. I had an adrenaline rush and felt my guts begin to rumble. I’d had this experience with anxiety before, a rush of needing to let go of my innards. I quickly found a place for me to relieve myself, drank some water, and rejoined the girls. While I was still new to self-awareness, I had a yoga practice by then and I remember checking in with my body and mind. Is this one of my many anxious thoughts, or is something actually wrong? About thirty minutes later, I felt a swift headache. Shortly after, cramps and another bout of diarrhea. I felt clammy and couldn’t figure out what was going on until a lightbulb-slash-question mark went off in my throbbing head. Last week, when our group went swimming at those falls and I filled up my Nalgene bottle, did I remember to use my water filter?

No. 

No, I did not. 

Eventually, dehydration set in. My heart was racing, and my low energy was accompanied by delirium. Thankfully, Gena and Dominique had just the right amount of worry (or irritation that I was putting a damper on their trip) to go find a ranger. I stayed put and after what felt like days later, a nice man on a horse came upon me. The horse seemed enormous, or perhaps the man was tiny. Things got surreal looking up from the ground. Where I’d been afraid hours earlier, I’d reached a state of resolve – as in, I resolved to die out there and that seemed about right. I thought perhaps this was nature’s way of punishing me for the intervention I’d chosen. I remember being picked up and strewn over the back of the horse, then a bumpy ride back to the trailhead where an ambulance was waiting. They hooked me up to an IV and I quickly began to feel better as we headed back to the village. Until the embarrassment set in. Gina and Dominique had to go back to our site, pack everything up including my gear, and hike back out to the car. I felt like a grade A loser for not remembering to filter my water and having a body that couldn’t manage a little foreign bacteria. I thought no amount of self-deprecating humor was going to smooth it over but when I saw them later at dinner, they were genuinely concerned about how I was feeling. And it turned out they had their own adventure to tell about a black bear that crossed their path on the way back. All was forgiven.

At the end of July, there was a talent show in our village. We’d been seeing signs the past few weeks, inviting campers to bust out their kazoos and hone their magic tricks. Bradley and Guy said they wanted to play a couple of songs for the show but needed someone to sing, and asked me to join them. Could I sing? I thought so. My father sang in a barbershop quartet and chorus since before I was born. We sang show tunes together and I loved singing along with the radio. But my sister used to tell me that I had a bad voice, that I was trying too hard to sound like other people, so instead I would end up singing silly and over the top. I knew, deep down, though, that I could carry a tune and since my vulnerability was on full display that summer, I said yes. The guys wanted to do two songs, something fun and something that would allow them to get deep in their jam, whatever that meant. We went with Janis Joplin’s Mercedes Benz & Sinead O’Connor’s Last Day of Our Acquaintance. When the big night came, I was excited and terrified but in a good way. I got up there, sang my heart out, hit all the notes, felt the levity of Mercedes Benz and the pain of Sinead’s words, and let go completely. And then… we won! Somehow, in that little cafeteria, with people clapping for me, I felt elated. Until we realized that winning meant that we were entered into the park-wide talent show the following week, in front of hundreds of attending campers. I wish I could say that I had a cold or another bout of diarrhea to excuse that performance – but the truth is that we didn’t rehearse once since winning the week before. When the big night came, performing on an actual stage with hundreds of people sitting and watching, we collectively choked. Guy broke a string on his guitar, Bradley’s drumming wasn’t in sync, and I was breathing from so high in my chest that every note sounded as if I was being strangled. Needless to say, we didn’t win that one. It was, however, a stark reminder of how with a little extra effort and less fear, we could have kicked ass.

By the end of the summer, I’d successfully done another backcountry trip, went camping with a group of twenty friends in the Grand Tetons, and whitewater rafted down the Snake River. Fear became my friend, I acknowledged her briefly then told her I was doing it anyway. On the last night of the season, we had a huge bonfire on the lakefront beach. Everyone was there, all of us over the excitement and adrenaline of our daily adventures but still unsure of what our futures held. We sipped our beers quietly and watched a meteor shower stream across the sky.

Out there, under the stars and the big sky, the safety and terror of the forest, the bison and the bears, the cool kids and the misfits… I realized that I had been healed. That I would get another chance to bring life into the world, when the time was right. 

Adventure anxiety Children Fear Growth Jobs Life goals Mental Health Nature Perspective Self-Awareness Travel vulnerability Writing

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