My Summer of Picturesque Purgatory Working in a National Park

Breathtaking views, friendly foxes, hungry bears, casual sex in communal showers—I saw it all in my months of working at Grand Teton National Park.

by Meg Mankins
Aug 31 2015, 1:00pm

Image via Flickr user Don Graham

Grand Teton National Park is the Marcia Brady of the US National Park Service family. Gorgeous, popular—2.7 million people visited it in 2014—and pristine, the expanse of federally protected land in Wyoming seems like it would be a wonderful place to work. At least that's what I thought when my friend, who had gotten a gig as a chef in one of Grand Teton's restaurants, texted me about a job there.

"It's so fun and beautiful," he typed. "You'll save a ton of money, drink a lot, hike, and steal company cars."

His text came while I was working late again, grading papers in my balmy, puberty-scented middle school math classroom in Oakland. I was in the process of wrapping up my fourth year of teaching and hated it. I was having a severe quarter-life crisis, trapped in a monotonous routine and convinced that life was passing me by. In other words, the proposition hit me at a time when I needed a shake-up and was vulnerable enough to accept a temporary job 1,000 miles away without hesitation.

I tossed my inspirational posters and dry erase markers into storage, then called Grand Teton Lodge Company to inquire about a summer serving position. The interview lasted five minutes while the manager hummed through my answers like a beatboxing human resources hype man. I was hired on the spot and soon off to see what wonders awaited me at Jackson Lake Lodge.

For years I had dreamed about living in an iconic park, a postcard view in every direction, surrounded by nature without the bad habits and distractions that were suffocating me in Oakland. Well here I was. Grand Teton National Park is spread across roughly 480 square miles. The Snake River winds through a sprawling valley floor blanketed with sage and wildflowers, bordering the snow-capped 40-mile Teton mountain range. There are over 60 species of mammals that reside within the park's bounds, including wolves, bears, otters, lynx, and bats. I could become Thoreau's bastard daughter with a smartphone, retreating into the wilderness to detox and repair. I expected to basically be transported to a "Life Is Good" shirt, to spend my days hiking, swimming, and sitting at a campfire alongside my stick figure dog. I'd work long hours, but the job would be less emotionally taxing than teaching, with low intellectual and emotional investments and nothing to take home at the end of my shift. Looking back, nothing could have prepared me for the summer that followed, but it ended up being some slightly demented form of heaven just the same.

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I drove into the park at dusk in late June, narrowly avoiding grazing bison and tourists who resembled Patagonia-clad paparazzi. It took nearly an hour to reach the employee village from the park entrance. Trucker pills fueled my anxiety and cold feet, but the surroundings quickly tranquilized any fear. I pulled into a turn-off alongside the river and watched the sun set and a full moon rise. A moose and her calf meandered lazily along the opposite bank. My body was the ultimate all-you-can-eat buffet for mosquitoes, but I was too enraptured by the view of my new home to swat them away. In French, the name Grand Tetons means "large teats," and taking them in that first night, I felt as mesmerized as a teenage boy with his first issue of Playboy. This was the ultimate nature fantasy come to life, and I would get to experience it daily for the coming months. Then, as if on cue, a longboarder gripping a red Solo cup skirted in front of my car, forcing me to swerve out of my fantasy and back into reality.

I witnessed an equal amount of scenic nature and depraved humanity that summer—wildlife and wild life, if you will.

When I arrived at the log cabin office, an employee supplied me with the standard bedding and directed me to my lodging. "The chick you're living with knows you're coming, so don't let her act surprised. You're replacing a porn star who was pretty popular around these parts," she added with a wink and old-timey tip of her visor. My room in building six was small, with a set of twin bunk beds and low dressers. My roommate, a student in her third year at a Christian college, had decorated the area with Captain Morgan bottles, paintings, and an acoustic guitar. The air was perfumed with the same Bath and Body Works spray I'd used in high school to mask the scent of my period. The staff's communal bathroom was down the hall; when I walked in I could see two pairs of flip-flops peeking out beneath the door to a shower stall accompanied by the sound of some girl either faking an orgasm or practicing her best moose call.

The employee village was comprised of folks somewhere on the transient spectrum: students, retirees, carnies, hippies, and international employees on short-term J1 visas. Approximately a third of the staff were foreigners lured to Wyoming with the promise of seeing America. J1s, or "Banging Bulgarians," as many referred to them, worked the worst hours in some of the lowest-paying jobs, and mostly stuck together, including at the employee dining hall.

Workers didn't have their own kitchens due to an overabundance of bears near the village. Supposedly, the curious creatures would try to knock down cabin doors at the first whiff of Easy Mac. There are bear attacks and related deaths every season in the Tetons and Yellowstone, but interest often overrules risk. While driving to a trailhead one day, my friend and I got trapped in a "bear jam," the Tetons' form of gridlock—that's when a bear sighting leads to a mess of parked cars, open Prius doors, National Geographic–wannabe photos snapped with DSLRs, and kids getting too close to the animals for comfort.

Bison trotted along roads and across pedestrian crosswalks, offering a hairier interpretation of Abbey Road. While drying off on a riverbank late one afternoon, I befriended Narcissus, a beaver I named for his habit of gazing at his own reflection in the water. He sat admiring himself until the sun retreated and the reflection disappeared. After sundown, the cries of peeper frogs echoed through the woods; they served as background singers for howling coyotes. Most folks' favorite animals were the two foxes that lived in the village and were fed a diet of raw hot dogs by an older chef. If you were lucky, they'd trot alongside you on your walk to work. If you were unlucky or had hot dog–scented body odor, they'd nip at your ankles relentlessly.

I witnessed an equal amount of scenic nature and depraved humanity that summer—wildlife and wild life, if you will. "You're skinny and pretty, girl. You're in," my coworker commented between slapping ladles of honey mustard on plates during a dinner shift. Men in our demented adult summer camp threw out pick-up lines to any woman within a two-mile radius. "Camping" or "showering" was code for sex. The there were village regulars, as well: Randy, the alcoholic mailman who hit on any girl under 21; the "Bulgarian Barbie," our resident village hottie with an affinity for Akon and bending over to pick up invisible objects; Miss Kate and Moose, sisters in their 60s from Florida who were incredibly funny and ruthless at poker.

With all the long hikes, camping (wink), and swimming, we spent so much time around each other that I learned more about these people than some friends I'd known for years. The expansive park was our playground and we made the most of it. One of my best friends, Ivan, was a J1 from Bulgaria. He called me his crispy muffin after a customer at the park diner demanded I re-toast hers one morning. We regularly chugged Dr. Pepper from the dining hall soda fountain and joked our way through brutal 15-hour shifts, subtly trolling customers who acted like the menu was written in hieroglyphics. I taught Ivan to drive on winding dirt roads, kicking up dust and disturbing the peaceful environment by blasting The Marshall Mathers LP at top volume.

Image via Flickr user Mark Gunn

During one of the hottest days of summer, a group of us went rock jumping. We waited our turn as a family filmed themselves one by one on a GoPro. After they left, we jumped and swam for hours, a perfect view of Death Canyon in the distance. Floating in the middle of the lake, listening to my friend Sara talk about her childhood, I was totally content. It was enough to just be there with her, accept this temporary environment, fast intimacy, and be present without distraction. I felt completely at ease with her, and realized that I didn't feel the same with people back home. I rediscovered the value of being alone that summer, especially when sneaking off on hikes to covertly smoke weed (a federal offense on National Park Service property) and swim at my secret spot.

On my last day, my closest friends and I took canoes out on Jackson Lake. We paddled to a deer-inhabited island, swam in freezing water for as long as we could stand it, and sunbathed topless until too many families got a PG-13 view. I ate a final greasy burger and hiked up to watch the sun set behind the "teats" that remained as mesmerizing as they'd been on that first night. Yes, the job was exhausting and demeaning at times. But I miss being surrounded by nature—hiking to the point of exhaustion, relieving aching muscles in the river, and sleeping deeply beneath visible stars. I miss the freaks I connected with there, the openness I felt emotionally and spatially, and the agency I reclaimed in my life. An old lady from my restaurant died a few months ago, though I still don't quite believe it. In my mind, those same people are still there, frozen in time, feeding the foxes, witnessing "bear jams," staying up all night telling stories. Despite the shitty work and countless oddballs, we occupied a very special place in time reserved just for us that can't be replicated. At times it felt like purgatory, but looking back, it was closer to paradise.

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