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Fanning a Flame
Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.
– Herman Melville, from Chapter 1 “Loomings,” Moby Dick; Or, The Whale
Let me just say up front that this is not an essay about Moby Dick. I’m using the book to situate my own story, to serve as a starting point, and to launch this narrative into its much more modest than Melville’s telling.
I first read Moby Dick while I was working as a wildland firefighter in Yellowstone National Park. It was 1988 and, like Ishmael, I needed an adventure and a break from the disappointments of the previous academic year. While in Cedar City, UT, between the Affleck Park Fire and the Wolf Lake Fire, I picked up a copy of Moby Dick, so that I could begin re-studying for my master’s exams. As Ahab drove the crew of the Pequod toward its inevitable demise, I obeyed the orders given by the Interagency Fire Center, which governed the Yellowstone Complex of fires. Like Ishmael, I was relatively young, 25, and still quite naïve about the ways of the world. But this isn’t about Moby Dick; it’s about my summer in 1988.
In the fall of 1987 I moved from Utah to Wisconsin to pursue a Masters of English Literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. While there, I received my first “C” on a paper, written for a tiny little man who taught the 18th century novel (ugh) class. He liked to humiliate people: when he arrived in the classroom he carefully placed a heavy metal trash can against the door so that if someone arrived late he/she would be forced to crash into the room disrupting our painfully quiet class. We read Clarissa—1500-odd pages of epistolary novel (letters and more letters)—which tells the story of a man’s seduction and eventual rape of a young woman. Torture. How could I write a decent paper about such a book? I got the “C” and had to meet with the professor and revise my paper. For an honors student this was torture: first, the torture of reading the book and then the torture of meeting with the professor and revising my paper. In the end, I pulled a “B” and was quite grateful to get out of the 18th century alive. This was failure #1.
In the spring of 1988, during my postmodern literature class, I developed this horrible crush on C. Christopher Norden—he never would tell me what the “C” stood for. He had this sweet Virginia accent, spoke eloquently about Gravity’s Rainbow—a book I couldn’t even finish, let alone understand—and liked the Grateful Dead. Because I’m shy and undervalue myself, I tend to do stupid things to get people’s attention, like drink too much at parties. And I did just that on March 16, 1988, when I went to another grad student’s party with my friend Trudy. I thought Chris would be at the party, so I prepped myself with a couple of drinks; at the party I continued drinking because I thought he might show up at any minute; then, when he didn’t arrive, I convinced Trudy that we should drive over to his house. We arrived at his place on Johnson Avenue, across from Lake Mendota. I’d never been to his house, but I’d scouted it out before, so I knew where it was. He lived with several other students, mostly undergrads (go figure), in one of those 19th-early 20th century houses packed tightly together on the waterfront As its neighbors, the house was a rental and desperately in need of remodeling. (Un)fortunately he was home. We stayed and partied some more. I flirted. We left. On the way home we drove through a complicated intersection, which I’d driven many times before, but apparently I wasn’t in the correct lane or I turned on a red light or something the police office felt obliged to pull me over for. I was fine, but he decided I was drunk. Trudy had to find her own way home. My tomato-red Mazda GLC had to be towed. I was taken to jail.
Which was worse, you might ask, earning a “C” on a paper or earning a DUI? The four hours I spent in jail were not pleasant, I’ll say that. They took my rings, my earrings (the crystal ones I’d recently bought myself as a present for getting over another boyfriend), my knee-hi stockings (so I wouldn’t hang myself?), my shoes, and my purse. I guess they weren’t worried about the under-wire bra or the over-sized purple sweater. They put me in a cell by myself, thank god. But there was a woman in the cell next to mine who kept sobbing and moaning about how awful her life was. I almost joined her, but I kept together for a little while longer.
(Un)fortunately my parents were in town for the weekend. They were staying at my aunt and uncle’s house, so I called them. The phone was busy. I called again. Still busy. Maybe the third or fourth time, I finally got through. Now my sobbing started. My parents came. They bailed me out. They took me home. They tucked me into bed. The next day, and the next, and the day after that, and the following weeks and months, I relived the humiliation of it all. I lost my license for 6 months; I had to pay large amounts of money to the state of Wisconsin. And I had to explain over and over again why I couldn’t drive. This was failure #2.
By August I had learned that I’d failed my preliminary exams. I had planned to spend the summer studying for my exams, which I took at the end of July. Instead, my summer was consumed by a low-paying job working a coffee cart for Victor’s Coffee & Tea on Madison’s State Street, lazy afternoons dipping in Lake Mendota, humid nights swilling beer and listening to local bands on the Union Terrace, and my growing infatuation with Chris. As I spent more time with him than my books, I believed I could learn about literature through osmosis: by sleeping with Shakespeare, or in this case, a brilliant if self-absorbed Pynchon expert. Needless to say, I failed my exams. I knew when I wrote my essay about The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which I hadn’t read, that I would be lucky to pass. Rather than “lighting out for the territories,” I claimed that Huck returned to small-town life with Aunt Sally or Mrs. Watson or whatever her name was. I’d totally missed the point of the book: Huck, like Jim, realizes his freedom, so of course he heads west. Duh. This was failure #3.
I stuffed a shirt or two into my old carpet-bag, tucked it under my arm, and started for Cape Horn and the Pacific.
– Herman Melville, from Chapter 2 “The Carpet-Bag,” Moby Dick; Or, The Whale
Okay, I won’t quote from each chapter of Moby Dick—that would be 135 quotes, and I don’t have that much to say, and I’m not obsessive like Matt Kish, who painted a picture for every page of the novel (the Signet Classics paperback edition with 552 pages)—but this part of Ishmael’s journey reminds me of my own.
After suffering these 3 failures, I packed up my stuff, left my car at my aunt and uncle’s house in Wisconsin, and flew home to Utah, where I returned to Bryce Canyon National Park to earn some real money and clear my head. It was my fourth season as a backcountry ranger. Because of my DUI, Chief Ranger George Buckingham was reluctant to hire me again; however, my immediate supervisor, Ken Kerr, convinced him that I would get my license back before too long (mid September) and that I was worth the investment. But George never let an opportunity slip to give me a hard time about it. If I radioed for transportation to/from a trailhead, he would pipe in with “Why do you need a ride 763? Weren’t you able to take an NPS vehicle today? Snigger, snigger.” My call number was 763. The ribbing was incessant.
Fortunately there were more pressing concerns than my DUI. That dry summer, all available personnel from national parks, forests, monuments, recreation areas, and historic sites throughout the country were programmed into wildland fire management activities. Though fires raged throughout the west, the fires ravaging Yellowstone received the most media attention and thus demanded the most financial resources. These were the largest blazes to attack the West in seventy years. The NPS “naturally burn” policy—letting naturally occurring fires, usually triggered by lightning, burn through uninhabited vegetation—was put to the test that summer. However, the summer of 1988 proved to be particularly dry and windy, and the so-called “let burn” policy followed twenty years of intense fire suppression in national parks and forest, which produced vast quantities of dead wood. I blame Smokey the Bear, who claimed, “Only you can prevent forest fire.” So we did and thus a small natural fire at the beginning of summer generated an explosive situation. When Utah Senator Jake Garn visited the park he declared, “We must save the jewel of our national park system!” By June, approximately 250 separate fires had sprung up throughout the 3,468-square-mile park; on September 8, 1988, Yellowstone was closed to all non-emergency personnel for the first time in its history. Within three days of my arrival at Bryce, Ken left to serve as a security manager on the Mink Creek Fire (just south of Yellowstone), and within a week our park, which in past years was obligated to send only four people to non-park fires, sent ten firefighters to Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana. George Buckingham became my supervisor.
It was nearly six o’clock, but only grey imperfect misty dawn, when we drew nigh the wharf.
– Herman Melville, from Chapter 21 “Going Aboard,” Moby Dick; Or, The Whale
This is not about Moby Dick; however, Ishmael’s journey from New Bedford to the Pacific Ocean parallels my journey from Bryce to Yellowstone. He had to wait around in New Bedford before he got on a ship. I waited in Panguitch, Salt Lake City, and Cedar City. This essay is about my summer in 1988.We both waited, making stops along the way to our final destination: the sea and whaling for him, the park and firefighting for me. So, like Ishmael, I waited.
On September 2nd, the Friday before Labor Day weekend, I joined the thousands of people mobilized to fight fire in the Yellowstone region. When I got the call-out, I was sitting at Logger’s Inn, a local pub just outside of Bryce, with some friends who had arrived from Salt Lake City for the Labor Day weekend. Just because I got a DUI, I didn’t quit drinking; I simply found other people to drive. Initially disappointed that I wouldn’t get to hang out with my pal Pam, I soon grew excited at the prospect of heading to Yellowstone. As I hurried through my packing, arranging, planning, and driving to Panguitch, I suffered another disappointment: I learned I would be going to Salt Lake City instead. As I drove through the night, my disappointment was lost in fear for my hometown. Emigration Canyon was burning—a canyon just a few miles from downtown and even fewer from my family’s house on the east bench.
After spending all night waiting in Panguitch and driving to Salt Lake City, we arrived in the early morning hours of Saturday, September 3rd. The valley was engulfed with smoke. The air stunk of burning wood. And despite the time of day, the sky was dark like dusk. It was the air of winter inversions: when the cool air traps the smog in the valley, and the National Weather Service issues red air warnings: “Stay indoors unless you have to go out.” My eyes stung. As we drove up Parley’s Canyon, to access Emigration Canyon from the other side, the air cleared somewhat, and we could see the flames racing up hillsides behind million-dollar homes.
Our National Park Service (NPS) crew was the sixth crew the Color Country Region of Utah had sent out on interagency fires that summer. We also were the first crew to arrive on the Labor Day blaze in Emigration Canyon. Since fires are usually named for their place of origin, this one was called the Affleck Park Fire after the campground in which it originated, even though most of the burn was over the ridge in Emigration Canyon and at the top of Red Butte Canyon. We later learned that the fire started in the Affleck Park Campground: some campers neglected to extinguish their campfire before departing their site. Only half of our twenty-two-member crew had been on fires before and none of us had worked together as firefighters. Our crew leader was Calvin Jones, an interpretive ranger out of Zion National Park. He assumed authority over the situation and set us to back burning (intentionally setting fire to deprive the oncoming fire of fuel) and digging hurried fire lines with Pulaskis (a combination digger and ax), while he called in water and slurry (fire retardant) drops to combat the really hot stuff. It was exciting but scary. So we were glad when the Boise Hotshots arrived and took command of the fire.
Hotshot crews, as their name implies, are top-notch firefighters with the U.S. Forest Service. They spend the entire fire season—often six months or more—fighting fire and thus quickly become professionals in their work. The Forest Service tends to view the NPS as less able-bodied when it comes to firefighting. There are a number of reasons for this attitude, but the fact is that park employees generally spend less time battling fire and thus have less experience. So on the second day, when the Boise Hotshots actually requested to work with our brand new NPS crew, I felt privileged indeed. By the end of the week I was digging line with this rugged bunch and cracking jokes about the “green” crew from Florida dragging along behind us. I felt like Ishmael in “The First Lowering,” when he’s finally given his chance to prove his worth.
Within ten days, the Affleck Park Fire was contained, or kept within established boundaries, though not yet controlled, or brought down to mop-up stage. Our crew was called off the fire and other crews were brought in to do mop-up, basically cleaning up any spots that remained hot and removing any lingering fuel from the area. In spite of the excitement of the Affleck Park Fire, which I only appreciated in retrospect, I was so obsessed with getting to Yellowstone that the 10 days working my butt off in Emigration Canyon—camping in a grassy area that would later become the Mountain Dell Reservoir; worrying about the prisoners called in to assist us; and showering in some make-shift tent set up for the women—were a kind of torturous waiting game. I just wanted to head north.
As we waited for news of our next destination, we played hacky sack on a tarmac near the Salt Lake International Airport and watched a crew of Native American firefighters huddled around a small transistor radio listening to Bobby McFerran’s song, “Don’t worry, be happy.” We started singing along with them. The song became the anthem for our firefighting season. Eventually we were flown on a 22-person plane to Cedar City, where we spent two luxurious days in the Best Western: swimming, sunbathing, reading, and relaxing. After two days of uncertainty, of orders given then retracted—I received separate orders for Idaho, Southern Utah, and California, all in the space of two days—I at last received word that our crew was destined for Yellowstone. Of course, rather than flying us up there, they put us on a bus. I learned why people joked about the government’s catch phrase: “hurry up and wait.”
When gliding by the Bashee isles we emerged at last upon the great South Sea; were it not for other things, I could have greeted my dear Pacific with uncounted thanks, for now the long supplication of my youth was answered; that serene ocean rolled eastwards from me a thousand leagues of blue.
– Herman Melville, from Chapter 111 “The Pacific,” Moby Dick; Or, The Whale
Ishmael had far greater concerns—the “other things” cryptically mentioned here—than I had when we drove into Yellowstone through the West Entrance on the morning of September 13th, 1988. I missed the bear spotting out the bus window and tried to close my eyes to the creepy sky, colored by smoke and haze. We were detailed to the Wolf Lake Fire near Mammoth Hot Springs: the northernmost village in Yellowstone and site of spectacular terraces formed by geothermal activity and deposited calcium carbonate. Although I couldn’t see my own South Sea through the smoke that day, I was pleased to be there.
Fortunately, my first day in Yellowstone was rest and relaxation (R&R), so I sought out a hot spring (or hotpot) within walking distance of Mammoth village and spent the afternoon soaking away the tight muscles and accumulated ash from working Affleck Park. A massive bull elk approached the hotpot on the other side of the river and watched me soak. I watched back. After a while, he wandered off. The elk were in rut; males vied with each other for female attention, throwing back their heavily antlered heads, bellowing, and often tussling with other males. They seemed to be everywhere: on the road, in the parking lots, on the narrow strips of grass between the buildings. One morning, as I waited for our bus ride to the helibase (where we’d wait for the helicopter ride to Hurricane Ridge), I watched two males fight over a female. No blood was shed, but the riotous bugling and the fierce knocking of antlers mesmerized me.
After my one day of R&R, I began work on the Wolf Lake Fire. It was three days after the first snowstorm and three days after the park was reopened to the public. The fire season in Yellowstone was essentially over, but I was to be part of the mop-up operations: making sure the edges of the fire were cold, putting out hotspots within the burned area, and cleaning up fire lines. This was the job we’d left others to do in Affleck Park; now it was my primary job in Yellowstone. The job stinks. Literally. Firefighters turn over burnt terrain, trying not to burn the bottoms of their boots in blankets of steaming ash, which sometimes means hopping quickly through the billowing stuff, pumping water onto the really hot spots, and turning over the smoking ash with a shovel. Mop-up creates a wet, pungent slop that penetrates everything: clothes, eyes, nasal passages, throat. For the three weeks I was firefighting, the smell never left me. To this day, I dislike the smell of water poured onto campfires.
It was a boring job and one the government later turned over to the marines, because they’re cheaper. Over 4000 military personnel assisted with the Yellowstone fires that summer. Some days, I had to remind myself that I was in Yellowstone and fighting one of the greatest fires of the century. At 5:30 a.m. we’d be yelled out of bed by one of the women on the other Color Country crew, and then we’d hustle to breakfast, chow down, grab a lunch of ham sandwiches and junk food, then haul butt to the fire cache, where we’d sit, freezing, until the bus came to take us to the helibase. Because we were working in northern Yellowstone in mid-September, I wore mini-mittens inside my work gloves and carried a parka in my pack. If people weren’t too sleepy, we’d play some hacky sack to stay warm. Once at the helibase we’d wait some more: “hurry up and wait.” I imagine we spent probably 30% of each day waiting for something: transport, food, orders to work, etc.
Initially frustrated by the “hurry-up-wait” regime, I came to enjoy the time in between sleeping, eating, and working. While waiting I could read—something I hadn’t done in a long time. I sat in the dirt by the helipad and read Moby Dick, immersing myself in whaling lore, cetology, and lengthy descriptions of everything whale. I got lost in the adventures of the Pequod, Ahab’s internal struggle, and the sense of powerlessness the crew felt. I could relate to that. One day our crew was flown by helicopter to our assigned ridge above the Mammoth valley. It was the scariest flight of my life. Had the choice been up to me—and it wasn’t, because I was a government employee, a hired hand, a slave to the fire—I would not have climbed into that 4-seater, would not have lifted off the soft turf, would not have watched snow plaster the foggy windshield, would not have flown close to the wall so as to avoid updrafts, and would not have deposited three cold and terrified firefighters on a forested ridge high above the Gardiner River. But I had taken a pledge to fight fires for the NPS until they no longer needed me. Much like the Pequod’s crew, who pledged to find and kill Moby-Dick, I grew increasingly fearful of the “quenchless feud” (Chapter 41).
After that scary flight in, we worked for a few hours, turning over stumps and logs looking for hotspots. The snow turned into a cold rain, which was worse. Water and ash clung to my boots, making my work on the steep slopes especially difficult. I slipped and slid through muck, scrambling for footing on any remaining roots. At the end of the day, as usual, Calvin passed along the order to hike out. I’ve never been so glad for a trail and reasonably sure footing. As the light faded from the cloudy sky, the snow resumed, gently coating my parka and covering the mud and ash from the fire. We made our way back to Mammoth Village just as the sun set over the mountains ringing the valley. I remembered why I joined the NPS in the first place: the adventure, yes, but also this—the serenity of a backcountry trail that carries me away from the sounds of man. On the trail, nature controlled me, not some bureaucracy that dictated when and where I should go. I balanced on the edge of the coin: at once exciting and fear-inducing, two sides of the same doubloon.
Warmest climes but nurse the cruellest[sic] fangs: the tiger of Bengal crouches in spiced groves of ceaseless verdure. Skies the most effulgent but basket the deadliest thunders: gorgeous Cuba knows tornadoes that never swept tame northern lands.
– Herman Melville, from Chapter 119 “The Candles,” Moby Dick; Or, The Whale
The “cruellest fangs” for Ishmael are the storms, and in this case, a Typhoon that strikes the Pequod. The cruel fangs for me were man-made. I slept in the lodge employees’ dorms, in my own room, with a hot shower down the hall, and fell asleep to Melville. However, I heard stories about bears wandering into fire camps; fights breaking out between cooped-up men; and the rape of a woman by one of the prison crew, the Flamingos.
I first heard about the prison crew on the Affleck Park Fire, where they were assigned to fire truck duty—duty that kept them far away from the non-incarcerated firefighters like me—because earlier in the summer, one of the prisoners had raped a woman in a Yellowstone fire camp. Thus they earned the nickname “Rape ‘n Goes.” I’m not sure what happened to that prisoner (I assume he was removed from the crew), but apparently the Rape ‘n Goes Flamingoes ended up on the Affleck Park Fire. I never saw these men, though I feared them.
Then came the marines. After they arrived, Calvin, warned all of us women not to wander about at night alone. I thought he was over-reacting, but if I had to walk a long way, like to the supply tent, I would get someone to go with me. My only interaction, if you could call it that, with any of these men (they all were men) was on trail. One day our crew was hiking up to the ridge top where we’d been working on the burned edge: turning over soil and spraying warm areas with water from our fire-fighting backpacks, affectionately called “piss-pumps.” We were taking our time, hiking only as fast as the slowest person in our crew. All of a sudden about 60 marines came barreling up alongside us, virtually running up the slope. By the time they got halfway up the hill one of them had to stop. When I passed him up he was leaning against a tree trying to catch his breath. His superior was standing by encouraging him to catch it faster. If they had walked slower instead of trying to impress everybody with their macho stamina they might have had more energy left at the top to do what they were supposed to do. Within their first three days on the fire several of them were taken off the line because of careless knee and tool-induced injuries. When their leaders told them “Your tool is your weapon” I was surprised more of them didn’t cut their toes off with their Pulaskis. After seeing them in action that day, I kind of felt sorry for them.
Apart from prisoners and marines, there were plenty of other men around. Nice ones too. I remember Joe—I think his name was Joe—from the National Guard, who greeted me with a six-pack of my favorite beer at the conclusion of the Affleck Park Fire. During one of our rides up Red Butte Canyon in the back of an army convoy truck, I had mentioned that I wanted nothing more than a Miller after our last day, so, as I was coming off the line for the last time, he handed me a garbage bag filled with beer bottles and ice when I climbed out of the Army truck. I’ll never forget that first sip of beer. Miller never tasted so good—and never will. At the time I thought he was just being nice; now, I imagine he may have had a little crush on me.
There were so few women on the fire that most of us knew each other by name. I became good friends with Angie, from Golden Spike National Monument. (Un)fortunately, because she had paramedic training, she was immediately transferred to Grant Village to assist with their medical needs. I never really clicked with the other women on my crew, so I missed her. Most women in the fire world end up in the office as clerks or in the kitchen as cooks. The few who actually fight the fires usually don’t get past basic fire line duty. Our crew was rare in that we had 6 women on a 22-person crew. The Boise Hotshot crew had one woman, and she worked for six months alongside twenty-one men. I remember thinking she had balls. I’d think about her lack of privacy every time I had to tell my squad boss I needed to change my tampon in the woods. Well, I wouldn’t tell him that, I’d ask permission to “use the facilities” then I’d muck about in the dirt, trying to find an unburned bush or big stump to hide behind while I did my business. Unlike me, who only spent one menstrual cycle on the fire, the lone woman on the hotshot crew potentially spent six and probably spent most of her firefighting time camping. As I said, she had balls.
Since the park service had to provide separate bathing and sleeping facilities for women, the six of us had an entire floor of the employee dorm to ourselves: lots of hot water and private bedrooms. Also, we often received equipment that the men didn’t. One foggy night several of us procured a van and drove over to the main supply tent a few miles outside of Mammoth. There I hoped to find the much sought-after brush jackets, which would keep us warm in the snow. Alas, they had none, but what I found was much more enchanting. Within the canvas walls of the hasty commissary sat two young men, warmed by an electric space heater, listening to the Grateful Dead. These were the men who gave out supplies. I wanted to stay and chat and listen to the music. If only I had had the time, but we had to get back to the dorms before lights out.
Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf; a sullen white surf beat against its steep sides; then all collapses, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.
– Herman Melville, from Chapter 135 “The Chase—Third Day,” Moby Dick; Or, The Whale
The sea rolls on, despite Ahab, the Pequod, and its crew; the winter snows extinguish any lingering flames in Yellowstone, doing what roughly 25,000 firefighters could not do. In spite of our best efforts, after three years whaling and three weeks firefighting, Ishmael and I discovered that nature controls humans, not the other way around.
On my birthday, September 23rd, we received a radio call that people from Color Country 6 were being demobilized (released from the fire and returned to regular government duties). I was going home! We were hiking into our assigned area when we were informed that half of our crew would be sent home. Since we were already on duty we got paid for a full day of work. Before I headed down the mountain, I left my hacky with Mike, so that the folks left behind would have something to relieve their boredom. Poor saps. By that evening I was on another flight back to Cedar City—this time from Bozeman.
Obviously, wildland fire suppression is not an inexpensive or efficient enterprise; the government spent roughly $120,000,000 to fight fires in Yellowstone that summer. Personally, I received two flights to Cedar City that summer and lodging in Cedar City (2 nights) and Yellowstone (14 nights)—I don’t count the nights I spent camping in Emigration Canyon. Plus, the government fed me over 4000 calories worth of food every day. And the money was really good: I earned $3000 for 3 weeks of firefighting. Not bad for a GS4 seasonal park ranger! Fortunately, my pay was not contingent upon catching a whale.
When I returned to Bryce that summer I enjoyed a few moments of stardom. Everyone wanted to hear about my experiences, so I regaled them with stories of my firefighting adventures. Even though I saw none of the raging fires that made it to the nightly news, and I performed no heroics to brag of to my peers, every time I talk about Yellowstone I add another chapter to my story. Each one is a spark, fanned by an audience, and fueled by the telling. Like the forest after a fire, my world is rejuvenated by my storytelling. I feed the flames. I keep the fire going.
The drama’s done. Why then here does any one step forth?—Because one did survive the wreck.
– Herman Melville, from the Epilogue, Moby Dick; Or, The Whale
Like Ishmael, I survived to tell the story.
After that summer I hunkered down in Utah for three months of intensive study and successfully passed my masters’ exams in January 1989. Success #1. Seven years later (I believe that’s about average) I finished my PhD in English at the University of Utah. Success #2. That same year, 1996, I married my best friend—not the guy from Virginia—and began thinking about a family. Success #3. And later, Success #4 and Success #5. Today, I can list my successes more easily than my failures. I take this as a lesson in progressive maturity.
Twenty years after the summer of 1988 I visited the park with my eight-year-old daughter Maggie. We made the same journey I made then: we drove north through Idaho, east into Montana then Wyoming, arriving at West Yellowstone where we spent the night. The next morning, May 15th 2008, we drove east into the park, through Madison Valley, past grazing bison, and stopped to see Norris Geyser. We followed the Gardner River north until we saw some cars pulled over for what I cynically thought was another silly “buffalo jam”—people jamming up the road to catch a glimpse of animals that park residents see every day. But then I realized that I was a tourist too and decided to stop. Fetching my binoculars, I followed the tourists’ gazes and spotted a lone wolf off in the distance. Grey wolves were reintroduced to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem beginning in 1995. Today, the wolf population is so successful that limited hunting of wolves is permitted in the outlying areas. Although I didn’t see a bear on this trip, I did see a wolf and count myself incredibly fortunate to witness the evidence of our ability to repair some of the damage we’ve wreaked on the environment.
As we drove further north to Mammoth, I could see new growth everywhere: wildlife, grasses, flowers, shrubs, aspens, and lodgepole pines, to name a few. This last species, the lodgepole pine, actually relies on fire to regenerate; the cones cannot release their seeds without the application of heat. Thus fires are essential to the rejuvenation of the forest. I tried to explain this to my daughter, but she had fallen asleep in the back seat.