Updated: Feb 5
A photo taken through my windshield while driving over Tioga Pass in Yosemite.
Yosemite cliffs reverberate with echoes of legends, an immensity felt throughout California but particularly in surrounding valleys where peaks dominate the horizon. Fields of wildflowers, grasses, twisted oaks and grand conifers, plus a variety of wildlife species, endure harsh seasons for spring, celebrating sunshine with activity and abundance. Just graduating college with a bachelor’s degree and an open mind, I condensed my life into a Subaru Outback and left Washington with a food service job waiting in Yosemite National Park. Among infinite granite painted by waterfalls, meadows along sandy river shores, trails scrambling among manzanita and laurel, long days extending deep into the Milky Way, I found a tribe. My coworkers amazed me most, a diverse group from around the world called to that place for some reason or another. Many secrets are known only to the valley, but this is the story of the perfect summer of 2014, six months of hard work, adventure, and so much love.
Introduction to Park Life
Invited by my Washington State University roommate to spend our senior year spring break in a "Spring Break for Change" offered through our Center for Civic Engagement, we spent the week working in community gardens, on organic farms and for co-ops, learning about sustainability. This is where I met Carlie, my introduction to living and working in national parks. We toured the state in a van, staying in hostels, in hotels or on floors, and Carlie mentioned spending her summers working in different parks, living in their employee housing. I'd never heard about Yosemite, but I could see her face light up when she spoke about it. Throughout the week I thought she was calm and generous, friendly and funny, independent and smart. At a time when confidence was all I wanted, in the midst of dealing with ex-boyfriend drama, court, work, and frustrated with my classes, she inspired me. I wondered where her confidence came from.
I couldn't think of a better time to spend a summer hiking and writing than after graduation. Coming in April 2014 after car trouble in Tahoe, I entered the park through Sonora and Groveland on Highway 120. Both mountain towns have sufficient boutiques and amenities to keep you far from freeways and the agitated marketplace throughout the Central Valley of California. The steep and winding drives toward the park cuts along slopes of lupine and poppy, lusciously thick in springtime. Finally I was surprised when the road leveled into a landscape dominated with scorched pines. I hoped I hadn’t left my beautiful home for nothing, but after being greeted at the gate by a friendly park ranger and allowed to pass, I headed down towards the valley to check in late. The ranger's enthusiasm for our location matched Carlie's, and in it I found hope for my adventure still.
A photo of a charred meadow in Hetch Hetchy blooming full of multicolored wildflowers.
I imagine anyone visiting Yosemite has built up expectations, but being there always surpasses any. Unimpressed with the rows of burned pines, I couldn't understand the hype behind the area. Then I came around a bend to a horizon of hills descending, the long road to the sea I love below. I was in beautiful Foresta, the scarred meadows blushing with new growth, showcasing a rugged, rocky landscape without trees. While admiring the sparse mountainsides, a landscape dissimilar to the rain forest jungles of my home, I dropped into the Merced River basin. Boulders the size of houses passed, and those hillsides became a cathedral of granite, sheer cliff walls dwarfing human constructions, life growing wherever possible. The already summer sun flashed rainbows onto waterfalls crescendoing from their heights of origin. A series of streams bless the meadows of Yosemite Valley, absorbing views of peaks above carved by glaciers to flow like waves. Through the grasses and old growth redwood, suddenly El Capitan looms, a cliff so broad and sheer it dictates the scene and almost incites vertigo looking up from the base. Bending backwards to avoid breaking gaze with the chief, I was soon mesmerized by the sight of Yosemite Falls, two cascades full, then striking Half Dome at the forefront, a captivating world of granite and water.
I couldn't believe this unique playground was my backyard. When I got to the Delaware North Company HR department and checked in, I was greeted with more kindness and excitement, like you couldn't enter this sacred place without feeling the gravity of its beauty. No one seemed to mind I was late as I wandered in anxiously, thinking I might get fired for my unending car problems. I was led to the nearby Lost Arrow dorms for the night, and was too nervous and excited to stay in with my verbose, pregnant, pagan roommate. Instead I took my first of many runs around the valley floor, following the road past campers and tourists at Happy Isles, climbers bouldering behind the Ahwahnee, and my future housing. I was new and oblivious to the history of my surroundings, probably feeling like John Muir upon his entrance, stunned. After an exhausted and excited night, I dressed up as professionally as possible, making sure I was on time for my first orientation.
Living in the Valley
Beside the always packed main store, with a view outside of the crossing ridges, and shrubby, rocky walls comprising Yosemite Falls, I had my introduction on the park, safety, customer service basics, cash handling practices, and hospitality. I was nervous and excited and couldn't help but smile, trying to remain fluid and falsely confident through icebreakers and repeating practices. The women directing our class was the most enthusiastic encounter so far. Having recently arrived herself, she was bubbling over with it. She said Yosemite is a magical place where people often meet their spouses, like her for example. Another romantic story was how Carlie met her boyfriend while working there. On one of my first days, a girl told me I was pretty and said there were more boys than girls in the valley, so I would find a guy to date right away. I appreciated her compliment, and her comment lingered in the back of my mind as I was flirted with by both staff and guests constantly. Later she would write me off for unknowingly hanging out with the guy she liked. In my mind, someone who didn't date much, love was a nice thought, but I was resolved to focus only on myself and being creative.
After class that day, I moved into my home for the next six months. Huff is the name of the employee community of tent cabins, consisting of various rows of cabin frames covered with thick tarp, containing heaters, beds, cabinets, lights, and outlets. What more do you need? There was little WIFI in the valley, and the village store always seemed best for finding reliable signal. We got by on imported goods, which for me was a guitar, camera and laptop, enough dishware for one, basic art supplies, and a couple plastic bins full of clothes for under my bed. My greatest packing indulgences were clothes (obviously) and my bedding, which I piled into my corner of the cabin. There were shared fridges and stoves, laundry rooms and bathrooms, a center for events and a gym, and even a place to swap unwanted items. Each cabin also shared a "bear box," a latched metal container for food and anything else scented, necessary as wildlife has taken to scavenging from park guests.
A goal of mine for this trip was to meet people and make friends, and I was lucky to come away with a family. Everyone was pretty tolerant, and even the housing supervisors thoughtfully made me as comfortable as possible, giving me roommates who were completely earthy and chill. I was lucky to have them. Allegria was tough and honest, minimal and thoughtful, and east coast Breson became my closest friend in the valley, sharing my independence, taste in music and books, and generally my struggles. She showed me around San Francisco for the first time, and we decorated our tent with lights and a piñata, drawing with chalk across our cabinets and longboarding through the room. After Allegria was sent to Tuolumne, to work in the northern part of the park, our new roommate Abby was young and cheerful, sweet as pie, and made the best out of her mindless dishwashing job by dancing and making friends with everyone.
With a few free days to unpack and explore, and I did my first hike in the park, the Upper Falls Trail. As a sea-level girl, it was an exhausting transition to the higher altitude, but provided a mind-blowing territorial view. I quietly asked the trees and valley to accept me into their home. I swear they responded favorably. My housing under Half Dome and Glacier Point made me smile for the first week, watching them change daily and having access to any trail. One run took me up the misty staircase to the pools of wide and colorful Vernal Falls. Another on sandy horse trails lead to the face of Half Dome, then to boardwalks through meadows to view cathedrals. I ran some new route almost daily, on steep trails along granite ridges, or mule trails along the river. A couple times I attempted to scale a mountain off trail, straight up the side, and each time I ended up on a cliff, wondering how to get down. Outside our tents, tall trees towered competing for light, warmed by the cliff walls on every side. There were countless nearby hikes and climbs, swimming holes and beaches, rocks to lay on and jump off, rope swings into pools. The Milky Way took over the night sky unless it was a full moon, when reflections off granite would illuminate the valley as if day.
Most of the time our housing was littered with crash pads, slack lines and hammocks, except in fall when a coating of sap takes over. At first I was too excited to sleep. During the day Huff was quiet, but nightly when most employees were off work, the entire area transformed into the craziest party. Different events like karaoke and tie-dye were hosted in the community center, our mobile home hub housing spotty WIFI and a ping-pong and foosball table. I immediately introduced myself and was welcomed by friends, adding another part of the world to the melting pot of hippies. There was an abundance of instruments and art supplies, barbeques and group meals. One night I was accompanied by a southern gentleman to view Lower Yosemite Falls by moonlight. Another day I had a suitor take me to a backcountry lookout. I think my enthusiasm can be contagious, and people were excited to show me some of the beauty I would otherwise have missed. Being some of the first employees hired for the summer season, we were granted a general selection of housing, and quickly decided to migrate from our first tent beside the community center on "frat row." Our new home was a few hundred feet down the lane, surrounded by my personal coworkers who would share my work and sleep schedule.
After a couple months in the park, people had shown me hidden waterfalls and caves, I'd hiked thousands of feet up to Glacier Point and around to Nevada and Vernal Falls, and had driven to and explored various other areas of the park. All the employees traded free goods and I think many people got free food, at least in our part of the valley. The fortunate few working at the raft stand would gift rafts to friends. If it rained, we would dance in it, or there was always the tribally adorned majestic Ahwahnee hotel to take refuge in. Everything we needed was within a mile, so trips outside the park were exciting and often food based missions, or employee party busses to the ocean. Maybe because of our close quarters, it seemed like everyone around had very strong and distinct personalities.
Living with all your amazingly talented and creative friends in a supremely beautiful place made it seem like it was your tribe against the outside world, and anything going on down the hills was exotic. When people begin to leave at the end of summer, the sun barely rises beyond the rim of the canyon and our little community is frozen. I didn't get to experience the intimate winter wonderland the valley becomes, but maybe someday.
My neighbors were a few of the best guitarists I've ever met, Kaden, Matt, and Chris. I was constantly hearing songs and compliments from Crystal. Sam was the coolest and went on adventures around the valley and beyond with me, the sister of Justin, Nico's roommate, dating Jocelyn, another beautiful climber babe. Next to us were rowdy Chad, wise Troy, and Teriyaki Terry. I made friends across Huff too; peaceful and accepting Jessica and Brenda, outrageous Bambam, adventurous and gentle Caleb, and countless others. The cool kids worked up in the high camps, away from the rabid crowds.
My friends were supportive, generous, and honest, and it was because of that our strenuous jobs under poor management was worth it. My "friends only" approach to guys in the park left several disappointed men in my wake. Starting out, I wouldn't pass an opportunity to hangout with people and explore the park, but would then have to continually dodge guys wanting to be more than friends who I really weren't interested in. Then there were other gorgeous men, but nothing fell into place.
Working for Delaware North
A five minute walk to work would take me past friends playing games outside their tent, or others working hard to rent rafts or bikes to guests. There was a basically abandoned ice rink and the community center, then a trail past a parking lot to one of the few places in the region to get food, Curry Village. At the base of a three thousand foot cliff, the pavilion is a large log cabin containing a bar and grill, pizzeria, espresso stand, and a grocery and gear store. Similar smaller adjacent buildings provide tourist information to the mass amount of visitors. On my first day I worked twelve hours, starting early as a barista and then moving after lunch to be a runner in the attached pizza pub, the only day I ever worked in pizza. My coworkers and managers were happy to meet me, and were patient as I learned their procedures. Angel turned demon by the end of the summer, when the building was terrorized by thousands of tourists and tyrannized by a few poor managers. But the draw of the park and my funny coworkers made the suffering worthwhile.
My first morning at the coffee stand, I met some of the coworkers I would work with consistently throughout the summer. Ginger-haired Tim had a master's degree but aloofly worked at the coffee stand with me, constantly reaffirming to management the fact he was only there to climb. Tim spent his forced working hours bouncing jokes with wit and dark sarcasm off the equally clever Theresa and Alana. Older biker chick Chaela was our supervisor and always valued our happiness over the customer or management, amused by the crew she was assigned. Her philosophy surmised as long as we worked hard, we could get away with whatever we wanted and the company could afford it. We even had old Gail for comic relief, who couldn't pretend to like most customers or management either. There were others who worked at the stand throughout the summer, and the fast-paced teamwork and comedic downtime was entertaining.
Just as I got comfortable in coffee, I was moved across the room to the cafeteria to cashier. Lucky to start in spring, I could get used to the register system and inventory before peak season hit and we were serving thousands. As one of the first new people, I was probably given more kindness and attention than future employees, but on the downside I was moved more often and given an inconsistent schedule. My supervisors liked me and even made me an example for new cashiers, but they liked me so much they wanted to utilize my talents everywhere. It became so most the time I was a cashier in the cafeteria, quickly ringing up an endless line tourists whose food was probably cold by the time they made it through our poor service. Occasionally I was put on the cafeteria line to begrudgingly scoop food onto a plate for people endlessly for hours, and I pathetically regretted whatever I had done to wind up there. A good alternative was the quiet trailer in the woods at Happy Isles, next to a bus stop at the base of Half Dome, where several times I could sit and read until a tourist approached for a hot dog or Gatorade. There were also special events held in the pavilion throughout the summer, giving me an opportunity to buss tables in a penguin suit for tips. I felt most comfortable at the coffee stand, but most days I was a cafeteria cashier working split shifts from 7 to 10:30 am, and returning in the evenings from 5:30 until 9 - 10:30 pm in peak season.
On the registers with me were Anna and Anne, William and Dave. Mostly I worked with Anna, who was soon dating Tim and who both lived directly across from me. Our friendship began shaky, but as we got to know each other we became great friends who confided about everything, whittling away slow hours with games and gossip. She was one of the best climbers I've ever met, and one day I sat on a crash pad couch and couldn't comprehend what I watched as they cleaned a boulder and scurried up. Another cashier was Anne Fudyma, an outgoing artist from Portland who made everything more fun and lighthearted. William was an older cashier and was very kind, though too much fun to tease as a stickler for the rules. Dave was a kindly senior who would sing me old songs and tell me stories of past times, never bothered by anything. We assisted the cafeteria comprising sassy line veteran Tina, funny and sweet Dean, and the young and laid back climber and photographer Scott. There were several folks working behind the scenes who didn't speak English well, so we would say good morning and smile and make faces when it was too busy. There are various others who deserve mention. Through these friendships we all found support.
By the peak of summer everyone was worn down by late nights and early mornings. In spring the park was peaceful and picturesque, animals strolling idly along the village paths, but in summer Yosemite is an amusement park and immobile traffic jam. Excited tourists line up for the overpriced cheap food, and I would punch a few buttons and greet them, most the time equally as excited. But eventually it became hours of endless questions from every side, without management giving breaks. Some of the managers were amazing and worked as hard as we did, but some were overly sensitive, unprofessional power trippers who shut up in the office eating and creating tension. We're all guilty of bad days and longing to be outside, but by the end of summer, several of us were worn out and etiquette disintegrated towards several undeserving and startled customers, and towards the generally annoying management. Many coworkers were stoned or drunk on the job, creating abounding shenanigans as the party crept into the workplace. Even with diverse backgrounds, the community of awe and acceptance got us through.
A photo of me smiling and holding up two fingers in a peace sign, inside the tent in Huff.
On my first and only day at the Curry Village Pizza Patio, I was taught by a couple staples of their cheesy crew. On cash register was Jose, and Nico was behind the scenes making pizzas. I was apparently covering for someone, grabbing supplies to fill orders, trying to keep a positive attitude on my long first day. Pizza was notorious for drinking on the job and joking around in the back by the ovens, probably the only area of the pavilion where people could relax. I didn't know at the time, but I'm glad I got to spend a day supporting their crew. I met Nico at a barbeque outside of his tent a couple days earlier, introducing myself after seeing a few other people from my orientations. He was friendly then and eager to help me learn my first day.
With my first paycheck, I bought a pair of climbing shoes and a harness. Previously in my life I indoor top-roped, but climbing in Yosemite was a phenomenon. It looked so fun but I didn't even know where to start. One day, I saw Nico and his bestfriend Devon gearing up to go, so I embarrassingly asked if I could accompany them and try not to get in the way. They said yes and we spent the day scrambling around, setting up anchors, and climbing as best I could. They were both very patient with me and I even fell on top of Devon's head and nobody was mad. I never felt embarrassed being a beginner.
Nico and I bumped into each other occasionally, and I considered him a good guy until the night he hit on me. We were in our community center, and for some reason we could speak freely around each other comfortably. I thought we were platonic, and I didn't want any news of me being a lush spread around the neighborhood. Everyone was dating someone, and even the tourists wanted to have fun, and even though it was probably commented on, I tried not to have my business spread around. So I told Nico I wasn't interested. He tried to convince me by saying it was a free love community, but I told him to go find free love somewhere else. Like any rejected drunk person would be, Nico was pretty offended, and I left thinking I had ruined another friendship, and hoping for a little more romance.
After that, I didn't know what I thought of him. I would see him at work and give him a cold shoulder for being rude after I rejected him, but he never seemed to mind. He still looked confused but happy to see me. That week, I was wheeling a cart covered of bowls through our kitchen, and a stack too tall tipped and fell, shattering across the floor to the amusement of the other staff, but Nico came over to make sure I wasn't hurt. After that, the thought started growing that he might be a really nice guy. Then Jose, Nico's old roommate, showed me a video of Nico taking care of him when he was drunk barfing.
So I went for it and we turned out very similar, and he was spontaneous, passionate, and open about his past. We played guitar and swam, went hiking, and even roadtripped to San Francisco and Monterey. Most of the time we worked opposite shifts, so I would only see him after 11 p.m. when we would try to find privacy in the moonlight, night climb, or hangout with friends. I was basically sharing the tent with Justin and Jocelyn, and after a few months, Nico and I finally moved in together. Even though it was fast, and I totally hated leaving my wonderful roommates, I wanted to spend every second with this person who I couldn't believe was so much like me, even though he was raised in an opposite culture. For months we dated and didn’t have each other’s phone number, simply because we spent so much time together. He even carried me to the valley hospital when I fell and sprained my ankle bouldering, and took care of me as I healed. We would see each other at work, but my managers didn't appreciate the public displays of affection interfering with standing at the register. Numerous people told me it was a fling, but despite their warnings, we've been together since he asked me to be his girlfriend, changing my life under a radiant supermoon, on my birthday in the summer 2014.
By the end of summer, everyone was worn out. My friends were heading back to reality for the winter and I finally had to start thinking about what my degree would be used for, and to be honest, I was also freaked out at the serious relationship I found and what it entailed, being completely open and honest with someone. In the orientation, several jokes were made about the strange questions heard while working in the park, out of fear of bears or other animals, or strange preconceived notions about how the park is run for accessibility. The stories were all true; I was asked how to drive to the top of Half Dome, how or at what time do we turn the waterfalls on and off, why the animals weren't trained better, why I wasn't more careful hiking. I was wary from the hours of standing, serving an endless line of customers, without thank or our required breaks, and then scolded and profiled for my poor attitude towards managers. I was tired of low quality food, and watching the beautiful place I had grown to love being exploited. The roads in and out of the valley are crowded freeways, and destroyed a perfect place for the desire to make it accessible for all who can pay to see it. Farther west is the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, which would be almost identical to Yosemite Valley if the dam hadn't plugged the gorge. Then there is the rest of California, flooded in consumerism and commercialism, superficial happiness amid all the forward thinkers, along with pesticides, offshore drilling, wildfires, trafficking, and other extravagance.
California has a huge population, doubled by the amount of tourists visiting the lush landscapes. Of course I think everyone should see Yosemite National Park and the alien landscapes comprising it's thousand acres, but I also hope the park operations can learn to run more sustainably, and that people can stay on trails, clean up after themselves, and otherwise minimize their impacts on these places. I saw numerous animals close up while in the park; bear and cubs, coyotes, bobcat, grouse, rattlesnake, deer. These sanctuaries are threatened as the droughts and climate change begin to slowly creep into their pristine pieces of wilderness.
I ran harder and further than I ever had in my life. I fell in love and was able to open myself up to the people around me. I learned I didn't need to be perfect, but to work hard for the payoffs I want. I climbed trees, I climbed cracks, I climbed mountains, I skinny dipped, I drank too much, I danced through fields of wildflowers. I'll never forget the best summer of my life, and I encourage anyone considering working in National Parks to go for it, because there are benefits beyond those granted by your job. You'll push your limits and see what you can go without, to find strength and beauty instead. Even though a lot has changed, one of the best parts is knowing I have a family in California whenever I go back.
1. People will think you're a narcotics officers if you randomly approach them looking for drugs.