Who You Meet Hitchhiking the USA

Nemo's Encounters Hitching from Toronto to San Francisco

Tag: Yellowstone

Exploring the Life-Cycle: Hillary & Her Boyfriend, Bill & Sara

Day 11 – Yellowstone National Park to Victor, ID (82mi/131km)

One of the most useful aspects of hitchhiking is that it constantly forces me to leave my comfort zone, because hitching exposes one to a greater variety of people than I’m used to (I tend to surround myself with twenty-somethings). So I’m obliged to interact with and reflect upon novel concepts: the working class, incarceration, and today’s topic, ageing. So let’s begin with an age-group with which I’m thoroughly familiar: the early-twenties.

After a very pleasant hike by Fairy Falls and the drainage basin of the Grand Prismatic Spring, Agarina and I went back to the road to hitch a ride out of Yellowstone, and soon enough were offered one by Hillary and her boyfriend (whose name I never caught). H+BF were university students from Michigan who had come to work in Yellowstone’s hotels to make some money and explore the park, and thus far they were very satisfied with their experience: Xanterra, the company contracted by the National Park Service to run tourist accommodation in Yellowstone, treated the employees well, providing them with food, lodging, an employee bar, a 35-40 hour working week with two days off, and an entry-level salary of $8.75/hour for housekeepers (like themselves).  What’s more, if you ever got bored with the scenery you could request a transfer to another national park, because Xanterra runs tourist operations in many of the more famous ones, such as Death Valley, Grand Canyon, and Zion.

The conversation, like the ride, was brief, however, but not long after Hillary and her boyfriend dropped us off we got picked up by Bill and Sarah, a couple from New England on a driving day-trip through Yellowstone. They were in the area to visit their snowboard-instructor son (plus family) who lives and worked in Jackson, WY, and regaled us with conversation, PB&J sandwiches, and a little glimpse of what it means to be in your 50s and 60s (mysterious territory indeed).

Bill, for instance, had worked in a factory for thirty years, retired, then went back university at SUNY Albanay, obtaining degrees in history and political science. He admitted being surprised that he was the oldest student there, a topic he broached with humour: “what do you call all the professors around here? Kid.” He also mentioned a classroom incident during which a fellow a student started posing him questions about the course, to which Bill replied that he ought to ask the teaching assistant about that. But the student just laughed and kept on talking to Bill.

Sarah, on the other hand, was a practising psychotherapist, which entailed helping people change their lives and solve their problems (Sarah did the best she could). But you did learn a lot on the job: she estimated that about half her skills came from her formal, academic training, while the other half she learned by doing. All this we discussed while droving past the massive Grand Tetons and into Jackson.

And so with this little snap-shot of the life cycle: one younger couple, one older couple. But what fascinates me is that both pairs described and/or were engaged in many of the same activities: exploring a national park, working, and going to university. This reflects the fact that activities are not age-dependent, which I’ve often doubted, as popular wisdom dictates that you should travel when you’re young and work after that, but finish university as soon as possible.

In fact, this incident has made me ponder whether the common association between age and activity has much sense (excepting, of course, hot-tubbing with a history of cardiovascular problems: that’s just dumb). Perhaps a higher education system almost exclusively attended by the young betrays a society that tolerates intellectual stagnation in its older cohorts.

But quite apart from macro-social musings, hitchhiking has convinced me that upon reentering stationary life I ought to find myself friends of all ages, because this gives me perspective. Seeing people engage in the same activities from different stages of the life-cycle not only demonstrates that it’s never too late, but that life extends beyond the boundaries of the present. Again, obvious stuff, but after having spent five years surrounded by (and participating in) a university cohort that acted like the party was never going to stop, not so obvious for me.

But the party will stop, and I will age, and seeing Bill and Sarah gives me hope that you can make a virtue out of a necessity. That said, I needed to see them to believe it, and I’ll want to hang out with older folks a bit more, to gain some of that reserve that the elderly often recommend. And perhaps some restraint will do me good: people have been known to drown in the present.

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All names herein are fake {PN} – pseudonyms. This post is {NC} – no contact with respondents. For more information, consult The Ethics Board – Notice of Compliance.

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The above is based on Nemo’s Anonymized Fieldnotes – Day 11, part 1

Day Three in Yellowstone: Paramedics, Housekeeprs, Tourists, and Shutting Down Nature

America's Finest Geothermal Features support McGill Quidditch

America’s Finest Geothermal Features support McGill Quidditch

Day 10 – Most of Yellowstone, from the centre-north down to the south-west

I’ve never experienced nature without people in or around it, which is a funny thought given that nature usually makes me think of “not people.” But it’s clear that my experience of nature requires humans, a reality brutally underlined by the recent closure of the US Federal Government, which has shut down all national parks in America.

Indeed, without money for rangers, housekeepers, fuel, electricity, and all else that makes Yellowstone tick, it’s no exaggeration to say that nature is closed. For starters, right now you can’t watch Old Faithful do its thing. Well, strictly speaking you can, but unless you’re willing to dodge the few guards left behind and brave the wilds, you won’t reach the geyser, because Yellowstone is no longer the safe place we’ve come to expect. Without paramedics, for instance, if  you start hyperventilating on the trails you’ll have to walk it off, because nobody’s coming.

Someone, like the fellow Agarina and I met in the red cross/ranger station at Old Faithful, who was a firefighter paramedic for thirty years plus had ranger training, will not be coming to save you, because there’s no gas money for the truck. Wages and pensions are besides the point, not to mention the fact that this gentleman quit his previous job in order to follow a dream: traversing the hills and vales of Yellowstone, helping those in need.

So that’s one reason why the park is closed: asthmatics would die on the trails. But the ripples don’t stop there. See, without rangers and paramedics, and thus without tourists, the hotels and shops of Yellowstone have nothing to do. That means that Matthew (who everyone calls Alabama), a guy who cleans up public places in the Old Faithful complex, is no longer there. He was on the payroll of Xanterra, the company that runs Yellowstone’s hotels, which now has no use for its labour force (largely made up of young folks and foreign workers), so all those people are out of jobs and perhaps out of the country.

And speaking of out, let’s not forget the tourists. Many come from far away, like the three Chinese nationals that gave Agarina and I a ride to our next trail-head. It’s a good thing that the younger woman with near accentless English, her mother, and the driver (a gentleman from Shanghai) all showed up before the federal government boarded up the windows, because right now they’d have no chance of seeing this iconic piece of America.

Now I admit I’m angry, and it’s for two reasons. First of all, politically speaking I can’t imagine why a government would simply give up: I realize that the US is a patchwork of international, federal, state, and municipal-level institutions, and that the police is still going to work, but shutting down the administrative apparatus of the state is one step away from anarchy. And if you have any doubts about how much fun that is, ask a Somali about their country.

Second, this government shut-down kills the dream of Yellowstone: the ideal that humans can treat the non-human environment with dignity, restraint, and respect. Because what is a dream but an aspiration, and what is an aspiration but an exaggeration? And it’s no stretch to say that an exaggeration needs examples, which in the case of respectful environmental behaviour was always Yellowstone: an area where one could see the results of exaggerated care to leave no mark on the non-human world.

So Yellowstone is an idol; and an idol gains its strength from its worshipers, in this case those who want a better future for humans and non-humans alike. But now there’s no money left to maintain the idol, so the altar goes unserviced and the pews go unfilled.

And thus you end up with an empty temple. The tragedy isn’t that the temple no longer exists, since it obviously does: stone takes a while to wear down.  Rather, the heartbreak comes from the lack of participants. Because when there’s no one there to worship, and when there’s no one there to believe, the faith and belief (in this case, in good human-nature relations) do like the people: they disappear.

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All names herein are fake {PN} – pseudonyms. This post is {NC} – no contact with respondents. For more information, consult The Ethics Board – Notice of Compliance.

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The above is based on Nemo’s Anonymized Fieldnotes – Day 10, part 2

Matrimonial America: Hank & Katherine, Harry & Julia

Day 10 – Most of Yellowstone, from the centre-north down to the south-west 

I often mention that you meet all sorts of people when you hitchhike, and the matrimonially engaged in particular fascinate me, probably because I haven’t seen an awful lot of healthy marriages. But today it was impressed upon me that conjugal America is not only alive and well, but also full of inspiration. Here’s how it happened.

My paean of matrimony begins with with Hank and Katherine, who gave Agarina and I a ride in the bed of their pick-up truck up and with whom we visited the Petrified Tree. Since we were riding in the back we didn’t really have the chance to converse with the two, but, after dropping us off and before leaving, Hank and I chatted a bit, and the Oklahoman exhorted me to “git-r-done” with regards to travelling now, during my unmarried youth. This was an awkwardly ironic piece of advice, as Hank was currently sightseeing with his wife, and because I myself was hitchhiking the USA with a friend, who could just as easily been a spouse (or a parent or an uncle or a child).

So this first encounter with wedlock was fairly typical: a married man re-assuring his young, unmarried counterpart that bachelorhood was enviable. But the battle for hearts and minds was far from over, and after an hour of rainy waiting we hopped in the pickup truck of Harry and Julia, a couple from Idaho on a sightseeing day-trip in Yellowstone. Almost immediately the pair told us that they had six children, twenty-eight grandchildren, and a forty-seven year marriage; and, of course, stories. Harry, for instance, was no stranger to adventure’s call: in his youth he had planned to hitchhike the USA with a friend, but that was put to rest once his father got wind it. Instead, after high school Harry served four years years in the army,  (stationed in the former West Germany), receiving his discharge just before Vietnam got serious.

This timing, it turned out, was a blessing, since immediately upon leaving the military Harry started courting Julia, which ended in marriage. I’ve already described their fertility (it turns out that they’re Mormons, which explains the baby-making, statistically speaking), and it’s worth noting that Harry supported the family by working as a sales manager in a quick-dry cement company for thirty-five years; a rock-solid career from a bygone era.

Of course, you don’t raise six children without developing a habit for moralizing, and this Agarina and I experienced first-hand. After we explained our travel-plans, Harry noted that he hadn’t heard matrimony mentioned anywhere, at which point we had to clarify that we were not romantically engaged, and that Agarina had a boyfriend. This elicited genuine surprise: the boyfriend was okay with her travelling with me like this? More importantly, did our parents know that we were soliciting rides the length and breadth of America? When we answered in the affirmative, Harry said that if Agarina was his own daughter she’d get one ride only: from Harry, right back home.

Most impressive, however was the wonderful affection that flowed between the two. Take Julia: as we drove she was perpetually snuggled up against Harry, and whenever he said something even remotely family-unfriendly (ex. the phrase “fart-sack” to describe the mummy-style sleeping bags they used in the army) she gently chided him. On his end, Harry always opened doors for his wife, and, due to the inclement weather, constantly held an umbrella for her, whether or not it rained on his own head. But most charming of all was the fact that whether they were walking, watching a waterfall, or waiting, Harry and Julia, grandparents of twenty-eight kids, always held hands; insanely adorable (zomg).

All this to illustrative why, in a day saturated with great views (the Petrified Tree, Yellowstone Grand Canyon, the Dragon’s Mouth, Mud Volcanoes, Mammoth Hot Springs, and Old Faithful), I was most impressed by the heartwarming display of affection that two people could have for one another after forty-seven years of couplehood. Nor do I attribute this to growing up in a single-parent household: I’ve witnessed plenty of married couples fail to show even a fraction of the love that Harry and Julia gave each other during the four hours that we spent with them.

Now to be honest, when it comes to my own chances of happy matrimony I’m fairly pessimistic: romantic relationships have consistently brought out the douchiest and most self-centred parts of my personality, which is not something I’m keen on. But I’ll be dammed if seeing Harry and Julia lead by example didn’t convince me that there’s hope out there for long-term, dyadic, monogamous relationships, i.e., marriage.

Harry and Julia showed that after forty-seven years of matrimony you can still treat each other with a gallantry befitting the title “eternally betrothed;” and it is an inspiring sight to behold. As a side-note, I would add that for this reason they are the best ambassadors for the Mormon faith I’ve yet to encounter. But, most importantly, this couple from Idaho taught me that marriage is most enviable when each person is trying to be the best that they can be; a far cry from the self-serving contract I have come to expect.

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All names herein are fake {PN} – pseudonyms. This post is {NC} – no contact with respondents. For more information, consult The Ethics Board – Notice of Compliance.

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The above is based on Nemo’s Anonymized Fieldnotes – Day 10, part 1

Day Two in Yellowstone: Our Gear, Our Bear

Day 9 – Hiking the Northern Reaches of Yellowstone (some 8mi/13km traversed)

Our second day in Yellowstone was spent hiking through the park’s northern reaches, and I have little to report as Agarina and I mostly encountered fauna. But we also had to stay alive, which involved food, water, clothing, and carrying it all. These I will now discuss, in the hope that they may help future travellers.

Let’s start with nourishment. Here’s a list of what Agarina and I have consumed thus far: dried nuts, dried fruit, fresh fruit, fresh veggies, bread, rice, canned beans, dried lentils, oatmeal, agave nectar, red chilli paste, mustard, power bars, peanut butter, jam. The keen reader may have deduced that I follow a vegan diet (for ethical reasons), and I want to make one thing clear: you can hitchhike the American Midwest and hike strenuous mountain paths on a vegan diet – with an omnivore‘s expenses.

Simply put, canned beans are your best friend: they keep you happy, full, and protein-ready. Bread, tomatoes, dried nuts, and three bananas will not suffice: without beans (or tofu) you’ll feel weak and malnourished after a couple of days. Tofu spoils quickly, however, so your best bet is canned beans, which are found (plain or baked) at every grocery store and nearly every corner store in the country. And a word to the wise: the Subway veggie patty/garden burger is vegetarian but not vegan; a regrettable (if delicious) mistake.

Now it is true that cans weigh you down, so for Yellowstone Agarina and I bought dry lentils and rice. These (and the oatmeal) we boiled over a butane camp stove, since lighting wood fires is often prohibited. With red chilli paste, fresh lime juice, and an avocado, the lentils and rice become a nutritious and filling meal, in the middle of the wilderness – no jerky required.

But vegans also need to hydrate, and for this we carried a 750ml/25fl oz bottle each, which we refilled at gas stations, McDonald’s, hoses, etc. That said, for over-night hiking I bought a Katadyn filter, which removes all water-borne pathogens in temperate climates (tropical waters carry viruses that pass by this particular filter size, so you need to either boil the water, give it a chemical treatment, or purchase a more expensive filter). The best thing about a portable filter is that you can load up on fresh, mountain-stream water whenever the thirst hits you (which is often since we climb hills with 35kg/77lb backpacks) without needing to lug around jugs of H20.

Sartorially speaking, I carry several types of clothing: everyday wear (two pairs of shorts, one pair of jeans, two t-shirts, one long-sleeved shirt, one sweater), undergarments (five pairs of socks and underwear), and all-weather garments (a windbreaker, a water-proof poncho, a hat, a scarf, and some thin gloves). Add as well a comfortable pair of hiking boots, flip-flops, and formal wear (white dress pants and three white, button-up shirts), because you never know when you need to lead by example.

For over-night stays in bear country pyjamas are crucial, because you can’t sleep and cook in the same clothes, lest you smell delicious during the night. So for nappy-time I wear a pair of long-johns, a long-sleeved shirt, and super-thick socks (plus my dress-shirts when it gets really cold). All this (plus me) in a sleeping bag, on a foam mat: this latter is crucial because it keeps the cold away from your back, and while people can grow accustomed to sleeping on the ground, nobody gets used to pneumonia.

When it comes to backpacks, I carry a new, internal-frame backpack, while Agarina bears an old, fifteen-dollar, external frame beastie bought from a thriftshop, for financial reasons. On this subject, we both agree that she should’ve deprived herself and purchased a fancier pack, because nothing frustrates your (hitch)hiking experience like than a bad backpack. It cuts into your shoulders, doesn’t transfer the weight into your legs and hips (knotting instead your back) and, worst of all, it breaks: just ask Agarina how frustrating it is to stop twelve times during a hike to sow up a torn shoulder-strap.

All this by way of illustrating one way of (hitch)hiking, and to give the reader an image of how we looked when we sighted our first bear in Yellowstone. While walking we noticed two hikers in an awkward spot thirty feet up the nearby hill, parallel to the trail. I stopped to look at them, and one of them motioned up the hill with a walking stick, but did not move. Alerted, we climbed up to their level and headed towards them.

When we got closer the same hiker motioned down to the trail, and we immediately understood why we were taking the scenic route: on the trail below, beneath a tree, a black bear was eating a deer-sized carcass. This was pretty exciting: I had never before seen a bear in the wild, and a wild bear had never before seen me.

So we stared at the creature for a good ten minutes, thanked the hikers who had warned us, and went on our way, because life doesn’t stop for a lone bear. Except for when it does, and in those cases you best have a good-quality backpack that won’t tear: it can mean the difference between a bear-paw to the liver and a cool story.

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All names herein are fake {PN} – pseudonyms. This post is {NC} – no contact with respondents. For more information, consult The Ethics Board – Notice of Compliance.

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The above is based on Nemo’s Anonymized Fieldnotes – Day 9

Day One in Yellowstone: Getting Elked, Ranger Rob, Boaz & Tal

The beasts of dale, glen, peak, and vale support McGill Quidditch (in this life and the next).

The beasts of dale, glen, peak, and vale support McGill Quidditch (in this life and the next).

Day 8 – Seven miles out of Mammoth Hot Springs, then another seven-mile/eleven-kilometre hike through the back-country

One week after setting out from Milton, ON, Agarina and I arrived in Yellowstone. This was the dream around which the rest of the journey had grow: how to get there cheap-like (hitchhiking), where to sleep (a tent), and where to go afterwards (west). So waking up in Yellowstone National Park was deeply satisfying, the type of thing you would rap about: all the haters can suck it, we slayed that (yee-uh). The morning did, however, start with violence. The following is a citation from the day’s log:

“We awoke near seven AM to our tent rustling and something hitting it. At first it didn’t seem like all that much but then something hit the tent hard, a big, blunt object, coming straight down above our heads but sliding down the fly of the tent, because the fly sloped outwards. I realized something was wrong, so I grabbed the little pocket-knife and opened the tent door…

When I stuck out my head I saw a full-grown cow elk stomping with one hoof on our tent, right where our heads would be if the sloping, wet fly didn’t deflect the blow. When the elk saw my head pop out of the tent it bolted some ten feet away, looked at me for three seconds, then started grazing as if nothing had happened.

Needless to say, Agarina and I were in a deep state of ‘what the fuck just happened?’”

While in retrospect this is an amusing event, at the time I was utterly bewildered, having tasted a bit of what it means to live “at one with nature.” And now I can confidently say to return-to-the-Earth folks that they go right ahead: I’ll stick to Starcraft and gluten-free croissan’wiches. This encounter also made me realize how woefully unprepared I was for nature’s wrath: upon feeling threatened my first instinct was to clutch a three-inch blade. What, was I going to stab an elk with a pocket-knife? Henceforth bear pepper-spray became my weapon of choice (but never, NEVER spray that inside a tent).

So after a morning filled with elk and excitement, Agarina and I packed up, strapped on our bags, and climbed up to the Mammoth Hot Springs ranger station to secure back-country permits. We were aided by Ranger Rob, who showed us a safety video, gave us camping spots, and suggested being loud when going around corners (to signal potential bears of our presence). He also told us how he went from plain old “Rob” to exciting (and moustached) “Ranger Rob.”

After finishing university Rob started working in Erie, PN, which he wasn’t too keen on. However, one summer in the early 90s he visited Yellowstone and fell and love with it, so much so that he quit his job, found gainful employ in a Yellowstone hotel, and for the next three years took out back-country passes every weekend, learning the park like the back of his hand. Then one day his boss at the hotel mentioned that the park rangers were hiring: Rob applied, got the job, and that was fifteen years ago.

After this story, armed with trail maps and permits, Agarina and I set out to conquer Yellowstone. First, however, we had to get to trail-head, and since this was seven miles of road-walking away we figured we’d hitch. So we waited for forty minutes until we got a ride from…

Tal & Boaz, a married couple in the IDF (she was in the navy and he was with the medical corps) on a month-long USA vacation. After initial efforts to learn their names (Hebrew names are crazy difficult for me to remember) we discussed a smattering of subjects. For instance, it took coming to America to gain some perspective on geographic size: you can cross Israel from east to west in two hours (not so with the States). Their son too was into hiking, which he indulged during his post-military-service tour of the world (apparently something of a cultural ritual for young Israelis). Finally, Boaz said that with my 35kg/77lb backpack I could be in the infantry: this was extremely flattering.

Tal & Boaz dropped us off at the Blacktail Creek trailhead and Agarina and I finally set about hiking. We encountered little volcanic activity, but we did lose some flip-flops fording a stream, saw tons of antlers (elk shed them every year) and noticed that Yellowstone is full of shit. I mean large, happy, animal fæces in various stages of drying, from crusty white to fresh green-brown. Since the goal of the park is to preserve an intact ecosystem nobody deals with the turds, which, while commendable, is not something you see on the postcards.

After a seven-mile/eleven-kilometre hike we reached our campsite, cooked dinner, and hung our food from the nearby bear pole. Then, we crawled into our tent, snuggled into our respective mummy-bags, and fell asleep with the setting sun.

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All names herein are fake {PN} – pseudonyms. This post is {NC} – no contact with respondents. For more information, consult The Ethics Board – Notice of Compliance.

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The above is based on Nemo’s Anonymized Fieldnotes – Day 8

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