In 1991, I left graduate school to take a position teaching in the English department at Northwest College in Powell, Wyoming, a small agricultural town in the Bighorn Basin east of Yellowstone National Park. I was thirty-six, a slow starter to be sure, but with a child in first grade and a "real job" at a community college in a state where any college was rare enough to be noteworthy, I was finally, it seemed, on the verge of becoming an adult.
Two years earlier, I had begun searching for a faculty position, hand-copying addresses and instructions from job announcements I tracked in issues of the Chronicle of Higher Education kept behind the circulation desk at the Purdue Humanities Library. I considered the opportunities and duties the ads described, but I found it more important, certainly more enjoyable, to consult the atlas for a tentative appraisal of what each place would mean to my family and me. Was it reasonably close to either of our families in Utah or New York? Near the mountains or the sea? Was it at least not in northwestern Indiana? As is often the case, the job search was discouraging. My first interview was on the Virginia coast, my second near St. Paul, Minnesota. Though both passed the first "atlas check," neither was in a place where we had any real reason or desire to live. No matter, because I didn't get either job. Later, during the summer, I drew little more than a perfunctory response following an interview at Snow College in Utah. In short, I came out of my first year "on the market" emptyhanded, except, of course, for the "interviewing experience" that more successful job seekers always credited as a kind of consolation prize.
Most of the second year was pretty much the same. Northwest College's position had run into some sort of administrative hangup, and by the time I got the call inviting me to campus, I had written it off as just another of the two hundred unsuccessful applications I had tossed in the mail. Actually, I was having something like an eleventh-hour hot streak. I was waiting to hear from a community college in Louisville I had visited the week before, and I had another interview lined up at a small four-year school in Iowa. But it was late in the season for academic jobs, and, with no response from Louisville, I was just about resigned to another year at Purdue, chipping away at the dissertation and wading through Chronicle of Higher Education and MLA Job List ads.
Though we had learned by then that an interview generally meant at best a 33% chance of success, with the call from Powell we again got out the atlas and flipped to Wyoming with considerable interest. There were mountains. There was the mottled shading of national forest. There was Yellowstone , a solid green square where geysers and grizzly bears played. My wife had been there once or twice as a child. My own Wyoming experience was limited to the long windswept drive between Denver and Salt Lake City on Interstate 80. Now, while our son read about the park and its hydrothermal features in books he borrowed from the West Lafayette public library, I prepared for the first interview I thought really mattered.
I had applied at Northwest College the year before with no luck, so I had reason for caution. On the other hand, at least I knew that they didn't take my repeated attempts as evidence that I was having trouble landing a job. Maybe there really was something to that interviewing experience, after all. I felt that I could "read" this committee's intentions, that things were leaning my way, and the welcome I received from my Powell interrogators further bolstered my confidence. One of the first places on campus they showed me was a kind of one-room natural history museum where elk, antelope, and black bears stared out of surprisingly effective dioramas. The faculty seemed a bit self-conscious about having "the animals" in the middle of the administration building, but there was no question that the mountains and deserts lapsing into the hazy diorama distance were central to the life of the community. Since I was an "ABD"-all but dissertation-with little experience, I knew I was out of my league in the buyer's market of the universities. Northwest College was just the kind of place I was looking for, and I found that the committee, including the successful candidate from the previous year's search who fortuitously knew one of my dissertation readers, was, in fact, pretty friendly. I soon realized that if nothing unforeseen and disastrous happened, the job would be mine.
Following the interview's final planned social/professional activity, I took a late afternoon walk. Powell was small and square, a compact knot embracing just enough stores, schools, offices, and homes for not quite 5000 people. With the houses ending abruptly at barley and sugar beet fields, it wasn't all that different in layout from a typical Indiana farming hamlet. Where the fields began the residential streets gave up their pavement, picked up irrigation ditches, traded names for county road numbers, and lost themselves in the cropland grid. It was still early in the agricultural spring, and the fields were dressed only in the dried flags of last year's stubble. To tell the truth, the place wasn't much to look at. Except, that is, for the horizon. North, behind the long flat desert escarpment called Polecat Bench, rose the blue hump of the Pryor Mountains, snow-whisked, striped with the dark seams of runoff canyons. All along the eastern edge of the Basin ran the white snowcloud of the Bighorns, serenely suspended atop vertical cliffs some six thousand feet above the valley floor. Just southwest of town were the red and gray bentonite badlands of the McCullough Peaks. To the west behind the foreground shrug of Heart Mountain the hunched ranges gradually turned purple and black as the sun slipped behind them. Over there were the Absarokas, the Beartooths, and ultimately the high plateaus of Yellowstone. Counting the Bench and the McCulloughs, which my Indiana-adjusted eyes were inclined to do, there were mountains just about anywhere I looked. And all that sky! Fire-tipped plumes and lavender lenticular saucers launched over the mountains, gradually dissipating into wisps and swirls in the clear dry air of the Basin. I was taking stock of a decision that, for my part, had already been made. Since Cara was a born Westerner and Tom was just going into first grade, it was for all intents and purposes a done deal. As I walked back toward Powell, my path marked by distant lightning over the Absarokas, a coyote doggie-gliding its way across the dirt road in front of me served, despite undoubtedly having more pressing things to do, as a portent. When I returned to Indiana, I declined a late offer from Louisville, and cancelled the Iowa trip scheduled for the next weekend.
We arrived in Powell in August, settling into a rented house, enrolling Tom at Westside Elementary School. Our yard was frequented by a stray white cat with frostbitten ears who soon became our cat, moving with us the next year when we bought a house, and eventually relocating with us to Maine and then Florida. In the weeks before Northwest College opened, we explored the anachronistic downtown where Kragler's five-and-dime offered Aunt Jemima figurines and John Wayne clocks, none of which had been dusted, let alone sold, for years. We searched for tepee rings, rock circles thought to mark Indian lodge sites, scattered across the sparsely grassed, badland-edged, windy expanse of Polecat Bench.
That Labor Day weekend we camped on national forest land along the North Fork of the Shoshone River west of Cody. Passing cars we could hear from our tent held lucky travelers headed up to Yellowstone Park's east gate. There wasn't nearly as much traffic as we had feared, most schools having abandoned the traditional end-of-summer holiday in favor of mid-August starting dates. And so, a change of plans-we had intended to casually hike up one of the North Fork drainages-brought us over Sylvan Pass to Yellowstone Lake. A few bison, tails flicking, grazed and rested among lakeside fumaroles. In the still water where a steam explosion from submerged springs had long ago blasted Mary Bay, a trumpeter swan drifted among black-and-white goldeneye ducks. We crossed the continental divide-twice-to Old Faithful, eventually continuing around the south half of the loop road to the Upper Falls at the head of the Grand Canyon, and then back through the Hayden Valley dusk, returning to Powell far later than we had intended. It was the first of many such visits, mostly day trips, with occasional overnighters at the Old Faithful Inn or Mammoth Hot Springs. Sometimes we aimed for a hiking trail, sometimes just for a walk around the geyser basins. Anything we chose was okay. It was Yellowstone. Tom, who has since become an engineering student, eventually knew the interconnections between thermal features as well as the Park Service did. Once, at Old Faithful, he called out that Beehive, across the Firehole River on Geyser Hill, was about to "go" moments before a ranger huffed along the boardwalk alerting tourists to the infrequent eruption. Both knew the compressed 200-foot high column was soon to play because its "plumbing" linked it to another, smaller spout. During the four years we lived in Powell, we hiked to Shoshone Lake, Long Lake, Riddle Lake, Lone Star Geyser, Garnet Hill, Fairy Falls. We climbed Mt. Washburn and Avalanche Peak. We would arrive shortly after the plows at the end of April when otters played in riverside snowbanks, return in June for cutthroat trout battling their way up LeHardy Rapids, and again in September to hear the elk bugle. Somewhere along the way, we developed extravagant "mountain man" personas to amuse Tom, and ourselves, on the two-hour ride from Powell; in the absurd dialect our characters employed, my name was Lork, which may have had some etymological relationship to Luke, or perhaps "look," as in "lork at that thar." And we adopted the local custom of referring to Yellowstone simply as "the Park."
Wyomingites, we discovered, had a generous conception of "the neighborhood"; ours included places as far away as Thermopolis, a hot springs swimming hole one hundred miles from Powell that we visited once or twice each winter. We sometimes hiked in the Montana Beartooths near Red Lodge, or camped as far away from home as Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge near the Idaho-Montana border; these shallow, marshy lakes rest in a remote valley from which trumpeter swans, with the help of newly discovered northern populations, have dispersed to reclaim a substantial part of their original Rocky Mountain range. On a winter night, I drove our aged Escort wagon over Togwotee Pass to Jackson Hole to land a guest speaker for the Northwest College Writing Festival. We braved the 10% grades of the "Oh My God highway" to reach the Bighorn Medicine Wheel and hiked above timberline in the Bighorn National Forest's Cloud Peak Wilderness Area. One August, we combined a day at Crow Fair, one of the largest intertribal Native American gatherings, with a visit to the nearby Little Bighorn battlefield, where Custer, along with Crow allies, had met his famous fate in the persons of Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. Perhaps our most frequent destination outside of the Powell Valley was Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area, not far past the massive sugar beet refinery at Lovell. The canyon view was almost Southwestern in its scope, and the sere grass flats and brushy side canyons supported wild horses-not the ordinary escaped ranch animals but, as Lovell promoters boasted, genuine descendents of the original Spanish mustangs. There were abandoned ranches and at least one intact ghost town, a sampling of frontier architecture once inhabited by colorful figures like pioneer journalist Carolyn Lockhart and entrepreneur and self-proclaimed physician Grosvener W. Barry.
Looking back now, the whole experience seems hopelessly scattered, with occasional daytrips or weekends forced to substitute for the kind of familiarity that marks the indigenous experience. I couldn't claim to know even the park itself very well. There were whole regions-the Gallatin Mountains, the Pitchstone Plateau, the Thorofare-still way beyond my limited backcountry experience. But none of that mattered at the time. Yellowstone was sacred ground; its aura extended all the way to Powell and beyond, east up the canyons of the Bighorns, south to the hot springs at Thermopolis, even north to Billings, a refinery city along the banks of the Yellowstone River over one hundred miles from both Powell and the park border. The desert cliffs of Bighorn Canyon, the history-haunted grasslands of the Little Bighorn, the famously unfoothilled Tetons, the hidden marshes of Red Rock Lakes surrounded the park like luminous satellites. For me, Yellowstone suffused a territory less defined but far larger even then the ambitious "Greater Yellowstone" designated by ecosystem managers and environmental groups. Our final time in the park, after we knew we were leaving Powell, was a kind of ceremony-the last geyser eruption, the last walk by the lake, the last buffalo.
Eleven years later, I'm flying above the lightless landscape of Northern Wyoming. From what I've read about the latest energy boom, I half expect the whole place to be just one garishly glowing methane well. But at least what I can see from the plane is all black. I always felt that the Wyoming landscape was harsh and otherworldly from the air, but after years in crowded Florida I find the darkness below reassuring. I'm on my way to another job interview, which I hope will be the last one I'll ever face. It's in Billings, and I have reason to believe that as long as nothing unexpected occurs I should get this job.
An hour ago, the Denver airport sunset was typically spectacular, with booming blue-gray clouds slashed with sunbeams. Between-flight commuters broke from newspapers to test their cell-phone cameras through plate-glass airport windows. I had lived in Denver in the early 1980s, so I recognized the principal landmarks of the city's Front Range view: Long's Peak jutting up north, then the massive camelback of Evans, then south to that distant jag-it might be Roxborough Park-I always used to think was Pike's Peak until that famous mountain would emerge from its clouds farther off. With the light fading behind the mountains, I turned back to my gate, and was soon thousands of feet above the Bighorn Basin.
In the summer of 1995, we left Powell, voluntarily but inevitably, due to a complex set of circumstances I'm still not sure I understand completely. Chalk it up to inexperience with the rugged world of academic politics. We ended up in Fort Kent, Maine, so far north that we lived between the Canadian border and the "Welcome to Maine" highway signs. Yellowstone seemed like a lost home. I knew I'd go back if the chance presented itself, but I also knew that such an opportunity was unlikely in the generally college-poor Rockies. Maine's St. John Valley, self-contained and as close to self-sufficient as such a cold, remote land could be, proved a hard place for people "from away" to live. Even the closest urban center was for Valley natives "just the rest of the planet," as novelist Cathie Pelletier said when I told her that our college journal was printed at the University's main campus on the outskirts of Bangor. Like few contemporary American places, the Valley belonged to the people who had settled there generations ago, who shared and cherished the legend and heritage of Acadia and New France. Outsiders were not disliked or distrusted; they were simply irrelevant. University people came and went, and no one was really surprised when, after a few years, I started applying for other positions. We were looking for the same things we had sought eight years earlier at Purdue: access to our families, to mountains or the sea. I had interviews with schools in Montana and Idaho, but nothing came of either one. Instead, we found ourselves in Lakeland, Florida, just as Tom was entering high school.
We eventually developed a comfortable routine in Lakeland. I worked at Florida Southern College, noteworthy for its beautiful and historic lakeside campus complete with the world's largest collection of Frank Lloyd Wright buildings. The most rewarding experience of my professional career occurred when I taught Florida Southern classes in Greece, Turkey-with a stop at the Mammoth-like Pamukkale Hot Springs-and, the next year, Italy. Cara supervised work-doing much of it herself-on the old house we had bought, wrote novels, and eventually she too secured employment at Florida Southern. Tom flourished in high school, graduated with honors, and, in keeping with his long-standing interest in systems and electronics, applied to and was accepted by Caltech.
With Tom spending most of his time in Pasadena, we again began to think about the future. Did we really want to spend the rest of our lives in the flat, crowded, politically oppressive atmosphere of Central Florida? On the other hand, we'd been in Lakeland a long time. We had good friends, a house we'd put considerable work and money into, a garden with oranges for us and forage for various kinds of butterflies. We took long walks in the nearby scrublands and open pine woods, encountering gopher tortoises and swallow-tailed kites. Each summer, we monitored scrub jay populations at a local preserve, getting to know individual birds by their leg bands. I had grown up with the water horizon of the Great Lakes and liked having the ocean close at hand, closer, despite the intervening urban congestion, than it had been in northern Maine. Though we hadn't fully realized it, we had begun to settle, to develop roots.
One thing we did know was that we wouldn't move again unless we were convinced we'd stay in our new home indefinitely, even permanently. But we didn't really worry about it much. At Purdue, I had responded to hundreds of ads, virtually saturating my small corner of the market. Now, I was applying for two or three jobs each year. At that rate there was a pretty good chance I would never have to consider an actual offer. I knew that most college teaching positions were entry level, and while the academic ranks didn't mean all that much to me, especially since Florida Southern had no tenure system, I could understand why a potential employer slogging through stacks of applications would pass mine by. Hmm. What's wrong with this guy that he wants to start over again? In short, I didn't expect much for my trouble, but we weren't quite resigned to staying where we were either.
Now, as the plane flies north toward Montana, I review what I know about Billings, the self-proclaimed "Magic City." If you live in Wyoming, the magic consists mainly of merchandise. From Powell, going to Billings was going to town; those trips tended to be practical in nature-shopping, driving the two hours home after dark with supplies ranging from winter coats to tropical fish. Then there was the occasional art exhibit or poetry reading, since Billings was the hub of the region, boasting an urban zone of influence, which, I've recently been told, stretches between the metropolitan spheres of Minneapolis and Spokane, and extends from Greater Casper-maybe even from the farthest outskirts of Denver and Salt Lake City-to some indefinite
in Canada. Even though I've come to see the city as something like the capital of a lost world, what I remember about Billings itself doesn't amount to much. I can picture a park by the Yellowstone River with cottonwoods and waterfowl, and, I think, an odd canopy over one of the downtown intersections-maybe I just saw that in a photograph. When the city lights at last emerge in the distance, I'm ready for the sudden landing on the Rimrocks, the downtown buildings still a few hundred feet below.
The May air is cool and, by Florida standards, dry, even on an overcast morning. My motel window looks out on the Rimrocks, where magpies and ravens range along the ochre sandstone cliffs. Fruit trees are blooming, and the cottonwoods and willows along the irrigation canal wear the delicate effusion of early green that I haven't seen in seven years in Florida. At first, though, I find Billings disorienting, perhaps partly because it's always strange to return to a place after long absence, but also because the city is, well, urban. Despite my past experience as a reluctant shopper at Rimrock Mall, over the years my version of Billings has become inextricably embedded in my memory of the wide open Bighorn Basin. So the standard city downtown and oozing shopping centers are disconcerting. With office towers, refineries, and helicopters, it's obvious that Billings isn't another Powell.
During an afternoon break between interview-related events, I wander downtown, taking in Rodin's bronze Adam and some striking forest fire photography at the Yellowstone Art Museum and pausing under the open metal framework that hovers, half-awning, half monumental sculpture, over the corner of Broadway and Second Avenue. I pass Barjon's Books, a new-agey shop where I remember once purchasing a world music CD to bring back to Powell. I discover the baseball stadium where the Billings Mustangs play. I begin to like the city, even the fact that it is a city, which does give it certain advantages over a place the size of Powell. As much as I love the open spaces and the wilderness, I grew up in Rochester, New York. I am, I suppose, urban, or at least suburban, despite myself.
Before I fly back to Florida, a potential faculty colleague and I take a walk along the Rimrocks at Zimmerman Park, where a popular hiking and biking path wends through ponderosa pines on the clifftop. From the Rims the city is reassuringly finite. Downtown snuggles in a pocket formed by Rims and river, with neighborhoods lapsing into ranches and irrigated farmland to the west, out past a shimmering new Mormon temple. Even in these sprawl-ripe expanses edging town, the obvious evidence of modern human settlement soon thins out. The southern horizon holds the unassuming north nub of the Bighorns; the Pryors, a gentle undulation from here; and the great floating snowline of the Beartooths, northeast of Yellowstone Park. When I fly back over Wyoming in the daytime, I can see more landmarks-the deep slash of Bighorn Canyon, the abrupt mountain wall east of the Basin, the high snowy tundra of Cloud Peak.
As it turns out, leaving Lakeland proves more difficult than we'd imagined. Saying goodbye to home and friends and moving even a modest household's worth of belongings, as well as an arthritic elderly dog and two kittens, across a continent is not an easy thing for a middle-aged couple of limited means to contemplate, much less attempt. But in the end, the lure of the Yellowstone wins out, and I accept the position. Two months later, on a tropically humid Florida morning, we close our house sale. As we leave the realtor's office, two swallow-tailed kites unexpectedly land in a live oak by the parking lot, calling back and forth and gesturing with their wings in the language of avian ritual. Kites make occasional appearances in Lakeland, but they are birds of the open sky, and I've never seen one alight before. Though these two are preoccupied with each other, it's hard not to see their presence as a symbolic gesture of farewell. By nightfall, we are in Dothan, Alabama, headed north and west.
To get to Mammoth Hot Springs from Billings, you can cross Beartooth Pass, or, as we do today, head to the Gardiner entrance through Paradise Valley. In Yankee Jim Canyon, we encounter our first "charismatic megafauna" in the form of a band of bighorn sheep. Nearby, we find a few of last winter's wandering Yellowstone buffalo in a quarantine facility at Corwin Springs, victims of cattle industry fears concerning the spread of brucellosis, a notorious ungulate disease. Finally, we fulfill the goal of our pilgrimage, passing under the Roosevelt Arch, complete with the obligatory posing tourists. Just inside the park, we're flagged over by a cheery graduate student from Idaho State, who explains that Cara has been chosen to fill out a visitor survey. He hands her the questionnaire and sends us on our way across the Wyoming line, past the sign that still informs visitors that they are midway between the Equator and the Pole. A lone elk far from the high summer ranges puts in an appearance along the Gardner River near Boiling Springs.
It's July, and Mammoth is crowded. It takes twice around the lot to find a parking space. The lunch line at the snack bar extends well out the front door. And it's hot, hotter then we remember, hotter, maybe, than it should be. Even so, there's no place I can think of that I'd rather be.
In Florida, I tried with reasonable success to avoid the Orlando hype festering an hour away from our home. Whenever school or family events brought me to the theme parks, I was impressed by the lack of genuine happiness among the revelers, beset by long lines, crying kids, hot pavement, additional costs escaped from the package deal, and maybe mostly just by pure pressure. We're finally here, it cost us a fortune, and, hey, it's Disneyworld; we better be happy, damn it, what's wrong with us? It always seemed that most of the faces in those crowds were grimly forcing their way through to some future day when they would look at their snapshots and believe they had had the time of their lives.
In short, I always found the theme park "worlds" dreary and unpleasant. I wasn't up enough on the latest pop culture icons to recognize the faces leering at me from tee shirts and high-tech shoot-'em booths. And I knew from my students that under each grinning rubber character's head there was an underpaid sweaty teen shamelessly exploited by a powerful and autocratic corporation, the same high-handed entity that had strongarmed the state's high-speed rail plans by insisting that the firm would support this badly needed public transportation initiative as long as the trains stopped only at Disney, that is, at none of the competing parks. Though I still thought Fantasia was pretty good, any illusion I had ever had about the benevolence of the Disney Corporation was long gone by the time we left Lakeland.
Yellowstone, of course, has its own history of commercial exploitation by figures ranging from Buffalo Bill to Jay Cooke of the Northern Pacific Railroad. Today, a handful of tacky tourist traps clusters around each gateway town, and the "attractions" and concessionaires continue to exert a not-always-healthy level of influence on park policy. But the crowd at Mammoth Hot Springs seems happy, maybe the most genuinely relaxed bunch of people I've seen in eleven years. Newcomers just off the hot spring terraces might stand in that snack line, but then again maybe not; maybe they'll just grab something from the general store, as we do, and head back to the springs, into the woods, out with the bears.
Characteristically, the terraces have changed in the dozen or so years since we've seen them. For some time, the springs near Devil's Thumb have been advancing on a historic residence at the edge of Mammoth village, but the activity seems to have shifted a bit higher on the terrace slope, at least temporarily sparing the Park Service a history versus nature dilemma, and confronting them instead with a broken boardwalk disrupting the terrace trail. Water filters through glistening orange and yellow pools in classic Mammoth Hot Springs fashion, the effect enhanced by that infernally glorious Yellowstone smell, an odor so distinctive that I found myself tracking fleeting hints of it in the brine of Maine and Florida, trying unsuccessfully to tease its essence from the powerful mineral and organic odor of the coast.
Accompanied by our arthritic twelve-year old lab/blue heeler mix-a Wyomingite herself-we spend more time in the car than we'd like. After taking turns walking the terraces (no dogs allowed in thermal areas), we head toward Lamar Valley. The sage hills are peaceful, the successfully reintroduced wolves, and the caravans of devoted wolf-watchers who follow them from pulloff to pulloff, apparently enjoying afternoon siestas. We stop to watch bison graze, mostly cows and calves talking to each other in low rumbles. A few antelope frisk or rest along the edges of the herd. Ground squirrels whistle and rustle in the brush. From the river bars, the calls of Canada geese and sandhill cranes drift on the wind, mingling with the chat of a few summer travelers comparing chili at various resorts. They seem especially fond of the restaurant at Signal Mountain in the Tetons, which, frankly, I like myself, though it's been a long time since I've eaten there and I've usually ordered the buffalo burger, not the chili.