Sept. 4, 2020 | By Kristen Richards | Photo by Anil Jergens
My best friend Grace and I pulled into the northmost Yellowstone parking lot in a 1998 Camry a week after graduation. Outside, the June air was cold – we were at almost 8,000 feet, after all – and we dragged our belongings into a dorm that looked startlingly like a summer camp cabin.
I had found the job working for the company Xanterra in Yellowstone National Park way back in January amidst my senior year at a boarding school in New Hampshire. Xanterra seemed to offer the perfect opportunity to gain work experience and also live in a national park for three months. Room and board were subtracted from my paycheck in a way that convinced me I had gotten free housing for the entire summer. It was the perfect storm, and I itched to get out of New England and explore – Yellowstone posed the idea of the wild like no other.
Yellowstone, the first national park founded in 1872, is essentially a tourist attraction within a vast landscape of wilderness. There are hot springs, 11,000-foot peaks, backcountry hiking trails, canyons, geyser basins, and, of course, far too many lodges, hotels, restaurants, and parking lots. I lived in both realities, wilderness and civilization. By day, I served mashed potatoes to antsy tourists and scooped ice cream; by night, I ran wild into the backcountry, fleeing the disrespectful civilization that had been built in the middle of the mountains, on stolen land. I liked to sleep so far in the woods that the only light was from the stars.
I view that summer as an incredible opportunity to experience the divide that separates the wilderness from civilization. To get away, my friend and I bought backcountry passes and hiked deep into the wilds of Yellowstone. (Yes, they do exist!) We hiked off trail to find obscure and neon orange hot springs to dip our toes in. We camped under the biggest tree I have ever seen during a lightning storm and rested next to a river so clear I am sure it has never tasted the trash of uncaring tourists. We hung a Yellowstone map in our rooms and planned out routes in our heads during long kitchen shifts. We hiked more mountains than I can count, on tired legs and tired minds, and only at 10,000 feet did we feel alive again, rebirthed away from civilization. Lightning struck, snow fell, and the sun burned us. The beauty encapsulated by the wild, however, made me question the creation of these lands and what drew me to them.
That summer, I was benefiting from the very idea I rejected: national parks supporting consumeristic America. Tourists flocked to the gift store to buy t-shirts and paid $35 entrance fees and yet working for Xanterra, a company within the park, I was playing into the constant consumerism every day. I am grateful for the summer I worked in Yellowstone, as it allowed me to see more than just idealistic beauty in the national parks. It made me think and question the history of stolen land within the park, and how we can go about returning it and acknowledging the past. How do we free the wilderness from the capitalism and greed that corrupted it? How do we make it wild again?