A good many dramatic situations begin with screaming. ~Barbarella
When I was a little girl, maybe no more than ten, I remember telling my dad I wanted to be a hairdresser when I grew up. He cut me off before I could even explain how much I loved being at the hair salon. Before I could even tell him how glamorous I thought it was to be with other women all day at work. Before I could even say why I thought they were having fun. Before I could even say what I wanted to be. He snapped.
“No. You don’t.”
He turned to look at me while he was driving. I didn’t meet his eyes.
“You want to do something with your brain. Why would you want to spend your time with a bunch of women gossiping. C’mon. That’s bullshit. What else do you want to be, kid? Think.”
I was a bit awestruck by his tone. He was serious. Sounded a bit pissed off. Disappointed. This was a man who routinely confused me by telling me to not throw like a girl and that if I ate onions it would put hair on my chest. He clearly confused himself sometimes, I think, because he knew what to say to a son. A daughter was a bit confusing, I’m sure. As a child, I remember twisting and contorting my head the way that a dog does when it doesn’t understand something or when it hears an odd sound. Was throwing like a girl bad? I hated onions so why should I care about hair on my chest?
Years later when I was in college listening to one of my professors going off the rails with rage about “gender as a social construction,” I wondered what her dad said to her when she was a kid. If he said anything to her at all.
What did I want to be? My little brain spun. I had just watched the movie Legal Eagles, and I thought about the love story of Debra Winger and Robert Redford that blossomed in between the exciting court drama. So I said, “I’d like to be a lawyer.” My dad looked pleased. I had no idea what that meant, but being a lawyer looked like it helped you attract men from a bygone era who liked women in business suits.
At that time, I had never seen a woman in a business suit in real life, and it stunned me. Winger’s character wore her suit like a uniform. All the women I knew wore the aprons of early morning grocery bakers or those of house cleaners. Women I knew did the work of nine-to-five jobs that they hated, and Winger not only had a cool job, she had snagged the Sundance Kid. Hot damn. Being a lawyer looked great.
It shocks me now to think about how easy it was to say you could become something–anything–and somebody would believe you. We give children such latitude for creativity about their futures, and as adults, we watch those options shrink and become restricted by time and money. My dad looked pleased that I went from attending beauty school to studying for the LSAT in less than minutes. Totally realistic career arc.
He praised me with a “Good kid” look, and like a great dad, he kept it to himself if he had any doubts that I could ever follow that lawerly path. Nodded as if I was a woman who was destined to go to college. To law school. Nodded as if I wouldn’t be the next woman in the family who wore an apron everyday to work.
That question of what I wanted to be.
I carried that question for years. It sat on my chest for all of my teenage years, and then that it parked itself on my chest as my twenties loomed around the corner. Nothing felt quite right until I set eyes on a trail crew.
That. I want to be that, I thought.
The trail crew were the first group of people that I witnessed who worked outdoors who weren’t part of a chain gang or doing community service. These eight people walked into my life as the trail crew at Yellowstone Park. I had no idea that such a job existed. That people could be happy with the work they are doing. Enjoying your job. It was a cosmic boom in the universe for me.
The day I walked into the tourist welcome center and saw this crew, I was wearing my park-issued kitchen apron. A sous chef after her shift.
The Welcome Center was where tourists bought souvenirs and gathered information from rangers. It was a crossroads where people from all over stopped to rest and spend some time indoors. I loved making daily errands to mail letters or postcards to my friends back home, or to buy stamps. Being around the travellers felt really exotic and there were people from all over the world who visited the park. The Welcome Center was a much needed break from the relentless interactions of employee dorm life where no part of your life was private. Having been an only child, I didn’t know how to share living spaces with other people. Living in a building with strangers, including very attractive boys from California, was overwhelming at times. The Welcome Center was a great place to people watch.
On the day I discovered the trailcrew I remember thinking that I had never seen so much gear in one place. They were chatting and packing things in small plastic bags like first aid and trail mix. One man, who was impossibly fit with arms that showed muscles I had never seen on a dude who wasn’t a football player, walked around taking inventory. Another woman with equally sculpted arms, was counting tent stakes. Who are these people? I remember thinking. And how do I become like them? Where are they going? How do you get that job?
It was love at first sight.
I asked the cashier, a woman from Illinois who lived on the same floor as me, who they were. Without a beat, she rolled her eyes and spat, “Fucking trailcrew, man. I always have to sweep twice after they leave because they get dirt and peanuts everywhere. You know what fucking maniacs management can be about food on the floor. Don’t people come to Yellowstone to see the wild life? Surely they can enjoy a fucking field mouse eating up the shit these hippie fuckers leave on the floor. Management is bullshit about the mess they make.”
Just then we watched two trail crew dudes spill half a pack of M&Ms and peanuts on the floor, and my dorm mate exhaled loudly.
“They say there aren’t any wolves in Yellowstone. They haven’t seen how these fuckers live. So gross. The kind of people that leave dirt on the floor.” She shook her head slowly.
For every once of rage and contempt that she felt for them, I found myself falling in love. Who were they? What do they do? I noticed that they were wearing the same ridiculous name tags that they made all Yellowstone employees wear. Your name and your home state were in large letters next to the logo of Old Faithful, and you had to wear it one inch above your heart. I spent the entire summer explaining to people that my last name was not Georgia, and that I lived in Atlanta. I would count to three, and listen to them say how shocked they were that I didn’t have a southern accent. I’d then suffer through some anecdote about Jimmy Carter (fans or critics), Gone with the Wind (yes, I had been to Margaret Mitchell’s house), or Ted Turner (can you believe he’s dating Hanoi Jane).
I’d suffer through these conversations with The Tourons, as we affectionately called the people who could get us fired by complaining to our managers, who wore the blue pins with white letters. There were fewer of them, and they all had wear black pants and white shirts. This was the George Bush The First era, and young people had no rights and nobody gave a fuck about your thoughts or seeing you. Listening to older people say stupid banal shit was just part of the job. Your only duty was to tell them not to go near the bison or the elk.
These trailcrew people, however, seemed like the escaped living among The Tourons. They were heading into the woods and getting paid for it. Totally blew my mind. Once you hiked three miles away from any trailhead, you lost 80% of the Touron population, and the ones you did see were people you wanted to meet. I did a test once with a small group we met in the backcountry, and I mentioned Ted Turner dating Jane Fonda. Without a beat, one of them quoted Barbarella and another shared how much they loved her in Barefoot in the Park. Didn’t say a word about Ted Turner.
These trailcrew people with their strong arms and tans were on the same payroll as me? It blew my mind. I remember seeing a list of jobs where you needed a college degree or Wilderness First Aid training, and I did not check those boxes when I applied for a summer job. I stuck to the jobs where you had to wear an apron.
“What do they do?” I asked my cashier friend.
“They fix the trails and shit and load up their boots with mud to leave it all over my floor. When they aren’t making a mess on my fucking floor, they’re cutting down trees that block the trails. Then must eat all the food that they haven’t spilled on the floor. Fucking hippy pigs.”
We watched a guy shovel a handful of sunflower seeds into his mouth and a third of them fell on the floor. He shoveled more into his mouth and didn’t bother picking up what he dropped.
“For fucks sake,” the cashier said.
I knew I wasn’t going to get a good answer from her, so I decided to do my own research. I told her goodbye, and I took a seat on the government issue couch by the fire. I watched one of the girls use her bandana to wipe the sweat off her hairy armpit, and then she rolled it up to pull back her hair. Genius!
These people in that lobby cracked a whole new world open to me. I watched them put on their packs and file out the door in single file with their eyes on the mountains ahead.
That, I decided right then and there, was living.
This is a draft that I have in the works of a book chapter. It’s not finished, or really even edited. But it’s done enough for today. A little writerly celebration after a great week of finishing a project at the jobby job, beginning another, and getting a bunch done for bike hobby job. Getting these 1790 words down is a miracle.