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Cece Wildeman reflects on lessons learned during summers waiting tables in Yellowstone.
You get to know the park. Even if you landed a shitty restaurant or housekeeping job in Yellowstone, count yourself lucky — you’ve just been given several months to roam more than a thousand square miles in your free time. Swim in natural hot springs like the Boiling River, get up-close views of thermal features like the Grand Prismatic pool, and fish the Gardner and Yellowstone Rivers.
For those days when you need a little brain stimulation after listening to one too many tourons (tourist+moron), you can stop by a park ranger program to load up on knowledge about the plants, animals, and history of the park. And get ready to feel small when you realize how big Yellowstone really is: Look down into the Grand Canyon, listen for wolves on a 3-night backpacking trip in the northeast, taste the sulfur in the air at mud pots and geysers in the south, and feel snow on your skin while navigating the Beartooth Pass in June.
You can make lots of money. The most lucrative jobs in Yellowstone are probably the waitstaff jobs. If you score a job at a busy location you might hate your life at moments, but this can also be a goldmine. I worked both my summers at Canyon — Lake Yellowstone and Old Faithful are rumored to have busy dining rooms too.
About 3 million visitors come through the park each year, and there’s only a handful of places for all those hungry sightseers to eat and talk about bison. You’ll probably spend a fair amount of time making fun of their questions (“Where do the animals sleep at night?” “What time do they turn Old Faithful off?”), but just remember: These folks are paying your bills.
I saved about $3,000 in two months of waitressing at Canyon. The full season is four months, and if you can keep your cabin fever in check and put up with all your new best friends, the money gets better as the staff begins to run away / go back to college / get fired.
You meet people from all over the country and world. People come from all over to work in Yellowstone. This means when you leave your job at the end of the season, you can travel the world to see all your international friends. You’ll live in close quarters with the other employees at your location, and you’ll get to know them faster than tourists flock to watch Old Faithful burst out of the earth.
Yellowstone employees have something in common that keeps us in touch after our work in the park ends. Maybe it’s the sense of adventure that led us to the park to begin with, or maybe it’s all the nights spent drinking and bitching about corporate restaurant work, bad food, bison traffic jams, and confused tourons.
You live in dorms and spend your nights at the employee pub. A summer in Yellowstone can be a nonstop party. When you live in the woods, you’ll find you’re easily entertained. Just about any type of theme party does the trick: pirate party, ’80s party, toga party, Halloween in July. As the summer rolls on, people get a little weird and all sorts of creative drinking games become the norm. Take Ladle Bombs — a large ladle was taken from the restaurant kitchen and brought to the employee pub one night. At least three types of beer were poured in at once, someone was made to chug this concoction, and Ladle Bombs were officially born.
After enough Ladle Bombs and cheap mini-pizzas, brain chemistry changes and dancing rituals take hold. One of the best was the dance-around-the-candle. A couple of employees from Wisconsin procured a 3-foot plastic Christmas yard-ornament candle in Gardiner, and it became the epicenter of our employee pub. A circle would form around the candle, and we took turns showing off our best / most embarrassing dance moves in the middle, with the candle, while much cheering and hooting ensued from the surrounding circle.
And then there was the pink snowsuit. My tiny boss would frequently strip down to her bra and panties, pull on the pink child-sized snowsuit, and dance.
When the pub closed for the night, it was off to the dorms to drink beer, Bacardi, and schnapps minty enough to be mistaken for toothpaste. This is when a lot of barfing and hooking up took place, sometimes simultaneously. Three hours after the drinking stopped, we’d get up to work breakfast shifts and find ourselves deliriously tired, half-drunk, and giggling endlessly at the word ‘boner’ like a bunch of middle-schoolers in the throes of puberty. Then we’d don our uniforms, checkered button-up shirts and khaki pants that gave us mom-butt, and go out to greet smiling tourists. Finally, we’d haul ass to the back just in time to barf up last nights’ drinks in the bathroom.
You’re going to eat a lot of nasty food. The cooks in the Employee Dining Room (EDR) try hard. They really do. But there’s only so much gourmet “flair” (or any kind of flair) that can go into a meal made for hundreds. And there’s only so much pan pizza and hamburgers you can take. Most EDRs have a salad bar and a bowl with about 4 pieces of questionable fruit in it. You can always survive off the cereal bar.
When things get really bad and you catch EDRdia (the EDR-inspired form of giardia), you can always go to the RDR (the real dining room) and eat real food with real cocktails next to real tourons, at a real good price.
You will probably get cabin fever. When you live in the middle of a national park, towns like Cody, Wyoming, suddenly become really exciting. You dress up in a skirt and put on earrings to ‘go into town.’ When you get there you see about 174 things at Walmart that you want to buy because you haven’t bought anything in weeks. As you walk to Pizza Hut, scruffy teens hoot out their car windows at you, and you feel pretty. Then you get to Pizza Hut and you can’t even talk with your new best friends over the meal because it tastes so damn good.
You will experience the “Yellowstone Funk.” By the time you leave Yellowstone, you’re going to feel like you got trampled by a herd of bison. Between working, playing, and being perpetually hungover, you’re just bound to feel like shit for a while.
There’s also something extremely uncomfortable that will take over your brain and body when you leave the park. This is the Yellowstone Funk: the horrible feeling of leaving your new bff’s and the park you called home, and returning to reality, where people exercise their minds, pay bills, and get haircuts on a regular basis. You’ll be craving some serious alone time — because you won’t get any all summer — and probably some really good, fresh food, because the EDR meals can make you feel like you have food poisoning.