Chapter 1 – Let the Summer be Good
“I’m back,” I said to no one. I was twenty-two and alone in my small red Honda Civic, driving under the Roosevelt Arch in Gardiner, Montana.
It was a damp gray morning in late May of 2008. At the Yellowstone National Park entrance station one hundred yards away, I rolled down my window and showed the ranger a small slip of blue paper—a temporary Park entrance pass for employees.
“Do you need a road map?” she asked.
“Thanks, but I’ve been here before.”
As I accelerated toward the base of the Gardner River Canyon, my car issued a deep, congested sound. The volume grew as I drove faster. I cringed to think of this noise reverberating between the Canyon’s tight walls, disturbing the early morning peace of a place I love.
When my muffler fell off on I-94 outside Glendive, Montana, the day before, I had started to wonder what the experience would bode for the rest of my summer. Two weeks prior, I had graduated from a small women’s college in St. Paul, Minnesota. After the commencement ceremony, my friends and I, our shoulders draped in honors cords, posed for photos with our parents. “What’s next?” everyone had asked. Among the answers of my closest friends— medical school, a graduate program in chemistry at Berkeley, an internship at the World Health Organization in Geneva—my response made me instantly self-conscious: “I’m driving to Montana.”
I had driven from my hometown in Wisconsin to Yellowstone many times before. My first visit was on a western road trip with my dad as a teenager. I had also worked in the Park before, living at Mammoth Hot Springs with one of my best friends. I fell in love during that first season in the Park, only later realizing my affection was not for a man but for this place. My connection to Yellowstone, it seemed, had always been shaped by my connections to the people who had shared Yellowstone with me.
But this year would be different. I had never before made the long journey here on my own. I had never before dealt with muffler problems alone on the interstate, and I had never before simply entered the Park by myself. What would it be like, this season?
I turned the steering wheel to accommodate the tight curves of the Canyon road. My concerns and questions streamed like the current of the Gardner River, running thick and fast, off the shoulder. There were simple questions about the summer: Who would be my roommate in the employee dorm? Who would join me for adventures in the backcountry? Would I be lonely?
And there were bigger questions about my relationship to this place, which I loved so much I had spent time here every year since my first visit, six years prior. I had just driven over one thousand miles west, away from my family and almost all of my friends. I had chosen my direction for the summer, but what direction would I take for my life? Would this place shape my future as much as it had already shaped my identity, or would the Park be somehow insufficient this season, now that I had no one with whom to share it?
I rolled down my window to take in the sounds and scents of Yellowstone. My ears were assaulted by the roar of a muffler-less Civic. Darwin, the mechanic in Glendive, had been accommodating enough to open his shop at 7:00 a.m. on Memorial Day just to look at my car and generous enough to charge me nothing for labor—only $70 for parts—but it was becoming clear that the pipe he had added to my exhaust system wasn’t going to do the job of a muffler.
I pulled over at a roadside parking area along the Gardner River and clicked off the engine. The noise of my car immediately fell away, replaced by the thunder of the River—frothy, green-blue, and fat with melt. I stepped out of the car, and my nostrils filled with my favorite scent: sage, damp with dew, fresh with morning. I absorbed the tangy aroma with deep, greedy breaths of the chilled, high-elevation air. These details met my senses in a familiar way; they welcomed me to a place I knew even as they ushered in a season of unknowns.
Reassured by the sage, I thought of what I had written in my journal in my hotel room in Gardiner the night before.
This summer will be about people and places, as experiences always are. But I am after something this summer, my first alone in Yellowstone. I want an answer or an insight, at least. What affects me more, this place or the people I’ve met here? Can I separate my feelings for one from my feelings for the other?
Let the summer be good. I will write much more.
I smiled broadly and said to no one, “I’m home.”
Excerpts of Falling in Yellowstone have been published in High Country News, Camas: The Nature of the West, the anthology A Natural History of Now: Reports from the Edge of Nature, and So to Speak: A Feminist Journal of Language and Art.
“Shoshone,” a chapter of Falling in Yellowstone, was recognized with a Creative Work Award from St. Catherine University’s Abigail Quigley McCarthy Center for Women (2012).