"Then" was 1980. It was after my freshman year in college. Jimmy Carter was president, a gallon of gas was $1.19, and the biggest shows on T.V. were The Facts of Life and Growing Pains. My closest friend since fifth grade and I heard about a summer work program in Yellowstone National Park at our junior college. We decided to take the leap. We struck out from Florida to parts unknown. We both applied to the program and were both accepted.
Our parents, reluctantly, gave their blessings to two nineteen-year-old kids to pack up and drive cross-country... to see what was around the bend. We worked for Yellowstone Park Service Stations, or "YPSS." The job? Pumping gas, a lot of it, doing tire work and tune-ups, and towing in motorists that were broken down in the park.
Let's take a walk back "then," shall we? Yellowstone, 1980. A different world: no internet, no 24-hour-news-cycle; and, out there, the inconveniences were multiplied. No T.V. or radio signals could reach. The news was letters from home, which took a week to ten days to arrive. We did get newspapers, but they were three to four days behind.
It was the greatest summer of my life.
To understand why you have to understand Yellowstone. Yellowstone is 3,468 square miles, most of it remote. It is the perfect place for a nineteen-year-old kid to get lost, and to see and experience another world... another way to live. This other world saw me hike hundreds of miles on marked and unmarked trails. There was also climbing, lots of climbing. I was awestruck. The highest elevation back home in Florida is 345ft above sea level. A month or so after arriving, I found myself at 10,698ft above sea level atop Electric Peak. Less than a month later, I found myself exhausted atop the Grand Tetons somewhere between 12,000 and 13,000ft above sea level. These climbs were some of the most spiritual moments in my life. I will carry them forever.
The roads in Yellowstone are shaped like a figure eight, called the upper and lower loops. The upper loop lassoes Mammoth, Tower Junction, and Canyon Junction. This section of the park is rugged, where you can see the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone and many other vertical rock formations. The southern loop has its notable locales, like West Thumb, Fishing Bridge, and Hayden Valley. But most notably Old Faithful. This area holds a special place in my heart. My work assignment back "then," the summer of 1980, was in Old Faithful Village. The majority of the lower loop is also referred to as the Central Plateau, and for a good reason. Many areas, including those around Old Faithful, have beautiful expansive green meadows filled with native elk in the summer. This is quite a contrast from the upper loop in the north. Both are very unique in their natural beauty.
And "Now:" A year ago this week, I found myself in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, for a three-day meeting. Other than a very brief four to five-hour pass through the lower loop in the late 90's this was my first chance to walk-about Yellowstone and the Tetons. A couple of days were set aside to do exactly that. The first day was spent hiking and exploring around the base of the Tetons and Curtis Canyon. There was very little climbing "now." There's a big difference between nineteen-year-old kid legs and fifty-eight-year-old man legs. Let us surrender the things of youth gracefully.
That day brought back so many good memories and moments of complete solitude. The next day found me driving north to the lower loop of Yellowstone and the Old Faithful area. After visiting the stations I worked at and the Old Faithful Inn, I was overcome with a sense of "where the hell am I?" Some of it looked the same, just as much did not. There were new buildings, new roads, new parking lots. USA Today with the appropriate date. What? And the service station that I earned my keep in thirty-nine years earlier was unrecognizable. "Then," there were over two dozen people working this station. We were a full-service operation and washed every windshield and checked everyone's water and oil. We were always busy installing tires and doing light mechanical work. Today, where the drive-in mechanical stalls used to be is a convenience store that looks like any other. This "convenience" store is run by three people for the entire summer. A windshield cleaning or oil change ain't in the cards. Worst of all, there was WIFI available.
Photo by Amy Hamerly
As I walked away towards Old Faithful, I was feeling my age and thinking about what I had just seen. Progress, I guess. But "progress" can leave you feeling empty. I took my seat around Old Faithful with a thousand or so other tourists. Everyone's anticipation took me back "then,": Yellowstone, 1980. And before I knew it, one of the greatest shows on earth began, and I found myself filled with joy and glad I was again present for something I'd seen hundreds of times before. And it was nice to be able to take a video of Old Faithful doing its thing and then send it to friends and family while still sitting in my seat.
Yellowstone is not about "now," with the new buildings that look out of place (to me) or about a service station that sells Red Bull instead of motor oil. It's not even about "then," really. Yellowstone is about what it has always been about: a unique, adventurous beauty unfound anywhere else. "Now or "then."
See it if you can.
As my father told me behind a misty eye as I pulled out of the driveway in May of 1980... "Go and see, go and do. Travel is our greatest teacher."
- Jeff B
Jeff is an FSU graduate who has had a 36 year career in the automotive industry. First running the family Nissan dealership and now as a consultant for NADA where he travels the North American Continent extensively. He has four fantastic children and is known by his family as "The king of useless trivia."