Friday, June 10, 2011

The Summer of a Lifetime

Note:  this is the first installment of many reminiscing of my summer working at Glacier National Park.

(taken on a return trip in 2002)

The summer I turned 18, I was at a loss as to what to do with my time. When the spring term of college neared its end, I contemplated taking summer classes but with the limited offerings I would have far too much time on my hands. The local part-time job offerings were bland and dry – I could either work in food service or temp in an office. Unable to find a solution on my own, I ended up in the college counselor's office to see what she suggested. While waiting to see her, I perused the job board to see what was available. Amongst the flyers for McDonalds and Walmart, a beautiful poster of a snow-capped mountains, lush greenery, and a deep turquoise lake caught my eye. “SPEND YOUR SUMMER WORKING IN SPLENDOR” was the slogan, or something like that. After a disappointing meeting with the career counselor, I sent back the little postcard that was on the poster, unsure if I would get a response since I was cutting the hiring deadline super-close. Much to my surprise, I received a job offer, although it was in the warehouse. I happily accepted and counted the days until I was scheduled to arrive in mid-May.

(just a note here - this was in a time when the internet was not used as widely as it is now, so all communications were done by *gasp* snail mail.  The concept seems archaic and odd even to me, especially when a visit to GPI's hiring website shows all applications are done online now.  Ah, the good ol' days!)

When the day I was to leave finally came, I packed my gold '86 Honda Civic with a few suitcases and dorm room necessities and said goodbye to my grandma.  I had never been on my own before, and certainly never driven long-distance alone either. I was one of the few employees arriving in my own car (most employees arrive by plane, train, or bus), and I had planned my trip carefully. The morning I pulled out of my grandma's driveway in Myrtle Point, Oregon, I felt the bonds of youth fall away and the open road stretched before me. That day, I drove roughly 450 miles to Tri-Cities, Washington. I rented my very first hotel room at a Super 8, and explored Richland, Pasco, and Kennewick. They did not exactly make an urban paradise, but to me they were heavenly. Once I ate dinner and returned to my room, I was a bit apprehensive but still excited to be on my own for a change.

Since my trip the next day was fairly short, I left Tri-Cities around 11 and drove to Coeur d'Alene, Idaho (about 180 miles, give or take). There, I stayed with a distant great-aunt who turned out to be a horrible gossip and talked my leg off. Coeur d'Alene was another beautiful city, but I was in such a hurry to escape dear auntie that I didn't get a chance to explore.

My third day took me from Coeur d'Alene to Kalispell, Montana (just over 200 miles). Once I crossed over into Montana, the rugged beauty of the state became apparent. The temperature was much cooler, although I still drove with the window down because the air was so fresh and clean-smelling. I was surprised and then saddened when I saw my first roadside white cross, then the sign that explained their significance. It was especially sobering to pass multiple crosses at one location and realize many people had died there as a result of an auto accident. By the time I neared Kalispell, I was road-weary and a bit melancholy. My mood immediately improved when I crested a hill and the full glory of the Rockies came into view. The just-setting sun set them on fire, whitening the snowy caps to dazzling pools of white and casting purple and blue shadows on the land surrounding them. I had seen them before, but not in Montana and certainly not so close. I drove the remaining miles with their beauty framed in my windshield, enthralled with the scenery.

Now comfortable with renting hotel rooms, I set up camp again at the Super 8 in Kalispell.  I had given my schedule some padding in case an emergency arose, so I would be there two nights.  I was surprised to see Kalispell was about the size of my childhood hometown (and current - Grants Pass, Oregon).  There were two malls, one upscale and one strip-mall type.  The smaller town of Whitefish was only a few miles away, and reminded me of the classy, artsy town of Ashland, Oregon.  I cruised around, browsed the malls, explored the restaurants I could find.  Too soon, the two days were up and I was on my way into the park.

I left Kalispell early that morning.  While mid-May is warm in the Pacific Northwest, in Montana it felt a bit like winter.  I had gone from shorts and t-shirts to jeans and long-sleeves, and I drove with the heater on in the car.  I remember leaving the town of Columbia Falls (the last real town before the park) and the change of scenery was breathtaking.  Kalispell had been a moderately-sized town in a large prairie that had spectacular views of the mountains.  Columbia Falls butted up almost directly to the same mountains, and was thick with timber.  A few dozen miles more and I was winding up and down small hills, and the signs of civilization became fewer and fewer until they were nearly non-existent.  

Lake McDonald is the western entrance to Glacier National Park.  I passed by the entrance signs and the nerves began.  This was such a huge, new experience for me, and I wouldn't know a soul!  As my nerves became more jagged, the scenery grew more lush and wild.  I passed a beautiful area called the "Goat Lick," which was literally a sheer cliff wall with mountain goats climbing it like it was a grassy knoll.  I wanted to stop, but I had to be at the HR office at a certain time, so I couldn't.  I passed the Snowslip Inn and Summit Station, which looked promising for nights of fun.  Finally, I broke out of the mountains and back into prairie land, only miles from East Glacier (the tiny town the main lodge, Glacier Park Lodge, resides in and where all new hires begin their employment).  I stopped in the town for a few minutes, amazed at how much my life had changed in the last few days.  I had gone from a fairly rural coastal town to a totally rural mountain town.  I was away from my family and friends for the first time ever.  I was starting a new adventure at 18!  The town of East Glacier is nothing more than a few houses, a school that primarily teaches Blackfoot children, a gas station/convenience store, and two restaurants.  That's pretty much it.  In fact, the population is sparse in the winters, and goes up substantially during park employment.  

Knowing I needed to get to HR, I continued on.  The road to the main lodge passes under the Amtrak rails, revealing a HUGE manicured lawn that leads to an enormous log building.   In front of the lodge (not pictured above, darn it) is a huge teepee.  Oh, I have tales about happenings in there....but we'll save that for later!  With some guidance, I found my way to the HR office.

I was there a good 2 or 3 hours before I was finalized as an employee and given my dorm room assignment.  While not mandatory, it is recommended that employees live on-site in the dorms.  At the time, I believe $7 per day was taken from our return, we received a shared room (with 2-3 roommates depending on the room), access to a community bathroom with showers, and three meals a day.  The dorms were old and spartan, but it was an adventure so I didn't care.  I was placed in a 3-person room, and since I was first there I was able to claim the single bed rather than one of the bunks.  I was given the rest of the day to settle in, so I put my things away, spread my bed with my comforter set and pillows, and hung pictures on the walls.  I even created a curtain-partition around my bed so I could have some privacy....made out of the provided white sheets since I had brought my own pretty, decorated sheets.  

Once settled in, I met the few other girls already in residence.  We were from all corners of the nation, and thankfully got along immediately.  A few girls were already sharing quarters, but for now I was on my own.  Next I met some of the guys in residence, also from all over the nation.  I immediately made friends with a nice guy from Florida who worked in Reservations, and we hung out at dinner that night.  The food they served us was not awful, but it wasn't great either.  We quickly learned to squirrel away individual cereal boxes, snack bars, crackers, and other treats we bought with our meager wages to avoid some of the more bland meals.  Perhaps if I didn't have such a sensitive palate, I wouldn't have minded the food so much!  

There wasn't a structured schedule at Glacier aside from working hours, usually 8-5 for most of us.  The dorms had no TVs, and while there was entertainment in the lodge specifically for employees, we found other ways to occupy our time.  When warm enough, we could swim in the pool, or sit on the veranda facing the east side of the Rockies.  We were allowed to sit in the main lobby (pictured above) where we could listen to live music or hear a talk from one of the locals....but once the guests started arriving, it wasn't as fun.   

Of course, the natural way for young adults to pass the time was partying - and we partied HARD.  My first night, there was a big bonfire by the creek a ways away from the lodge and dorms.  I boldly bought my first underage pint of liquor (Jack Daniels, no less) and joined the party.  Being extremely young and only a little experienced, I drank far too much.  I don't remember much about the evening (aside from developing a HUGE crush on a chef, whose name I can't recall), but I do remember being half-carried up to the dorms by the dorm mom and another friend.  We had to pass over a cattle grate (Montana - home of the free-range cattle), which my drunken mind couldn't seem to negotiate.  At one point, I fell and took both my helpers with me.  Ahhh....good times :).  Thankfully, they got me back to my room and while I would like to say I learned a lesson, that evening was the catalyst for the summer's partying.

The first workday was not a fun one for me.  I had worked in restaurants many times, but my weeks as a pricing clerk in the warehouse was awful.  It was dirty, I didn't really get along with the others, and I fell off one of the loading docks one day while trying to negotiate moving a large box.  Not long after I started, I was offered a job in the accounting office, which I took immediately.  It was tedious, but MILES better than working in the warehouse!  

Once the lodges began their process for opening, new employees began arriving in droves.  As I said before, East Glacier is where every employee starts their journey at Glacier, so we saw pretty much all of them come through.  They stayed in our dorms where there was room until they were ready to move on to their locations. I went through several temporary roommates until I finally got my two permanents.  You can't imagine two such opposites!  One was from Kansas, she was quiet and shy and VERY prim and proper.  I can't remember exactly where she worked, but it was a desk job of sorts.  We later found she was a Hutterite, which explained her demeanor.  The other was from Florida, and was a total hellion.  She was a waitress at the Goat Lick restaurant (the fine dining room, now called the Great Northern dining room....guess the Goat Lick was too trivial), and was forever partying so hard that she would miss shifts at work because we couldn't wake her up!  I woke up several times to strange men sleeping in our room (a huge no-no that will get you fired immediately if you get caught) and with her passed out.  She was fun when you weren't trying to wake her up.

Now that our dorm was full of mostly permanent residents, I made friends easily, and started falling into a routine.  Work 8-5, then play as hard as I could until I had to sleep.  Having a car made me extremely popular, so I found myself included in hiking trips and other adventures.  I finally ventured out to places like the Snowslip and the Summit Station, where our age didn't seem to matter and drinks flowed freely.  In fact, I don't think I was ever carded or denied a drink the entire time I was there.  I even dared to venture onto the Blackfoot reservation on a day off....during orientation, all employees are cautioned to stay off the res, but I threw caution to the wind and enjoyed the little town of Browning.  

My routine was about to become anything but with the arrival of a new employee.  

Stay tuned for part 2!

1 comment:

  1. Duchess—Check out the Glacier Park Employee Centennial Reunion site:


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.