In the summer of 2001, I finally got out. I watched Houston fade from my rear-view-mirror as heaving sobs relaxed into silent tears. My watery descent surprised me. I hated Houston, couldn’t bare spending one more day in that claustrophobic city, but the planned escape was too much to handle and overwhelming to a 23 year-old homebody—I cracked, inconsolable as my best friend drove us away from our sprawling nemesis. We spent months planning the event, packing and mapping and more packing. Pots, pans, winter clothes, summer clothes, hats, scarves, shoes and toe socks—we anguished over our wardrobes keeping fear at bay until mine erupted, saturating my loyal Biff (BFF, i.e., best friends forever). Three days later, my emotions a certified health hazard, we fashioned ourselves proud employees working for the laundry department in Yellowstone National Park.
Upon our arrival, the Resident Coordinator of The Bunkhouse, a weathered-woman named Jo, informed us we’d be rooming with our supervisor. Loaded down with luggage, my Biff and I piled our bags and suitcases into a tiny spot in the corner, terrified as Jo continued describing our would-be roomy. “This woman’s a real clean freak so don’t mess anything up. She’s not expecting any more roommates,” she said, fumbling with her hands while scanning the room. Jo’s quavering voice persisted throughout the season, but in that moment, Biff and I read it as fear. Fear of the New York cab driver walking in on us, the supervisor who’s not expecting roomies, The One Who Likes Things Tidy. “You two okay?” Jo asked. We stood in place, my bladder about to pop but I dared not use the bathroom. “It’s either this or I’ll have to separate you.” At this point, Biff lost her war face. She’s always been the strong one, durable and adaptable, The Bulldog, so when tears bulged from her eyes I knew we were done for. Two girls from South Texas, young and sweet, pretty and cute, road-worn and tear-stained—Jo took pity. We gathered our luggage and stashed our bags in the broom closet until Nervous Jo found us a room of our own.
I never lived in a dorm during my college years, but I imagine The Bunkhouse is a worthy comparison. A housing unit for laundry employees, the old wooden building sits on the edge of the north entrance to the park in a small town called Gardner (Montana that is). Two weeks into our five month stay, Biff and I quickly realized The Drunkhouse was a more appropriate name. Yellowstone employees come from all walks of life, but the majority are twenty-somethings enjoying a break from college. Most sign-up for entry-level positions such as room attendants, servers, cooks, or, of course, laundry workers. Every hotel, restaurant and corral sends their dirty laundry to one place, and it was our job to sort through it. Glass, used condoms, dirty diapers and bloody tampons were daily specials on the Sorter’s Table. Those who survived working the laundry usually spent a big chunk of their paychecks on Moose Drool, the highly-recommended local beer. We found ourselves closer to the town bar than any geyser or hiking trail, and I soon quit laughing each time I passed the alcoholic’s anonymous flyer tacked to the bulletin board in the lobby. I also questioned why smoking was still permitted in the building. Given the absurd levels of knock-yourself-unconscious, where-the-hell-am-I drunkenness Biff and I witnessed, we were both more than willing to smoke outside. By the end of our stay, we often slept through the fire-alarm as it blared through the night yet again.
After two weeks on the floor, that’s laundry talk for sorting, loading, hanging, pulling and folding, I was graciously moved into the uniform room. I now had the pleasure of greeting incoming employees from all across the globe. They arrived in busloads, the internationals hailing from Africa, China, France, Germany and beyond. The Africans were the friendliest, arriving in two buses, their loud enthusiasm and wide toothy smiles calmed my frazzled nerves as I slowly checked them in. The line extended far beyond the door, and only one of them spoke English. I kept him close by my side. The Chinese appeared shell-shocked, quietly waiting as I doled out uniforms and directed them to the dressing room. Most emerged with their feet hidden under polyester slacks and their hands bunched together around their waists. “It’s fine,” they’d smile and nod. I’d hand them a smaller size and repeat the process. The French were a bit snooty. Most knew their American sizes but complained more than any other group, asking for a different style, a better fit or shirts made with 100% cotton. I also noticed a strong foot odor in the air, so much so, I was forced to prop open the front door. The Germans were polite but quick to move on, and I must admit to being slightly intimidated by some of the women, their facial piercings and tattoos accentuating their hardened faces.
Working in Yellowstone changed my outlook on people, and while the uniform room reaffirmed certain stereotypes, The Bunkhouse stripped away layers. Among the drunk college students, the greasy hippies with ratty dreads, the bearded fishermen and the creepy old guy with the weird skin disease, The Bunkhouse offered surprises. I became good friends with a loud-mouthed punk who secretly harbored a soft-side. I listened to war stories from a drunken Indian and talked politics with a right-wing jock from across the hall. I cleaned up after a peculiar young girl from Chicago with ringlet curls and a love for tuna fish, milk and The Counting Crows. I enjoyed dinner with the Indonesian guys downstairs rumored to be in hiding from a serious gambling debt. I sat on the couch in the front lobby watching a small fuzzy screen with my newfound friends, speechless as another plane hit the Twin Towers. Yellowstone went into lockdown and tears filled the eyes of everyone I encountered, Americans and Internationals alike. I stumbled out of the crowded lobby in search of my good friend, not Biff, I’d just talked to Biff; I needed to find the clean freak, the cab driver from New York. I needed to give her a hug.
Nearly fourteen years later, I have yet to forgive Jo for robbing us of our roommate destiny. Biff and I remain close friends with our cab driving supervisor, a spunky gal who permanently made the move to Gardner but long ago quit the laundry. We recently paid her a visit, paid a visit to the Bunkhouse as well. The old wooden building looks the same, save for the no smoking sign posted out front.