Part One: The Tetons
Four years ago, I quit my good-paying, respectable job as an acquisitions editor in Kansas and started working at a gift store in Grand Teton National Park. The job was only temporary — a summer gig before I started graduate school in California — but it would, ultimately, change the direction of my life.
I wanted to go somewhere beautiful because I was sad. That spring, I’d gone through a breakup and was suddenly overwhelmed by sadness for all I was about to leave behind when I moved: my friends, my home, my memories. I decided I needed to go somewhere else — somewhere new and completely unfamiliar — lest I spend my summer in premature mourning for Kansas. I started researching and soon stumbled upon a website that advertised jobs in beautiful places all over the country: national parks, organic farms, horse ranches. One posting was for a job at a gift store in the Tetons. Without thinking twice, I dashed off an application. When I received a phone call saying they wanted me to start in August, two months before my first day of grad school, I did not hesitate to say yes.
I’d never been to the Tetons before. Once, while driving to Yellowstone with my friends, I spotted the Teton Range poking up from the horizon, a row of silver teeth. Even then, I felt drawn to them. Little did I know that in a couple years I’d be sleeping in a dorm room on the shore of Jackson Lake, Mount Moran and her sisters of the Teton Range standing guard over the lodge and all of us confused twenty-somethings who worked there.
When I got to the lodge, I was visibly shaking. What if I didn’t make friends? What if I was bad at my job? What if everyone thought I wasn’t outdoorsy enough? I saw a few of the employees in the parking lot; they looked like models from a Patagonia catalog: suntanned, muscled, beautiful. In Kansas, I was part of the rock climbing club, but I still felt like a novice. I’d never seen a bear in the wild and had only been backpacking once, during a trip to Yosemite, and I cried when a rattlesnake popped out in front of me on the trail. I was girl from Kansas and figured everyone would be able to smell it on me.
Because I was a midseason hire, I began work my first morning in the park. A girl named Anna taught me how to operate the register and introduced me to the gift store’s merchandise: coffee mugs, retro posters, and an endless variety of T-shirts and hats. It seemed crazy that people might want to buy some of the things we sold: glass hummingbirds so delicate that more were broken than not, wood carvings so large they would require their own suitcase (and came from China — it said so on the bottom), and $20 cedar boxes that were meant to contain a wish. There were some arguably cool things — turquoise jewelry, glossy postcards of wolves, huckleberry caramels so tasty that the gift shop girls would take turns buying a handful and sharing — but mostly it was junk, the kind of knickknacks destined for Goodwill.
Aside from the women I worked with — two girls around my age and a crew of white-haired retirees from the South — I was too shy to make friends right away and found myself spending most of my time alone. I ate lunch on the picnic tables by the lake and spent my afternoons on the beach, reading, journaling, or just staring off at Mount Moran. After the immediate wave of loneliness receded, I learned to accept this solitude and let it ebb and flow on its own accord. I let it carve away at my homesickness and fill me instead with gratitude — for the place I was in, for the opportunity I had to be there. The park taught me that it was okay to be somewhere new, to feel alone and scared, so long as I was paying attention, so long as I was open to learning from it. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was a lesson I would return to again and again in the years to come.
On my days off, I went hiking. I had never hiked alone, and the nervousness of being out by myself quickly turned into a bliss I’d never experienced. Alone, on a trail, surrounded by trees and mountains and sky, I felt for the first time that I was truly on my own, a free agent in the world. My life was mine, and I could do with it what I pleased.
Of course, just as I started to feel settled within myself, I met a guy — a musician from Arkansas — and fell into the type of quick, making-a-movie-together puppy love that is, I would come to find out, fairly common in seasonal work. Once you’re open to it, falling in love in a national park is as easy as finding a seashell on a beach. All you have to do is look around.
When I left the Tetons, I did so just as heartbroken as when I left Kansas. I’d grown to love the mountains and had become attached to the singer from Arkansas. Working at the gift store was tedious and exhausting, but it gave me access to a host of things I would miss: quiet afternoons journaling by the water, the squeak of a whistle pig as I walked to the dining hall, sitting on the dock and watching the sky grow heavy with stars.
My time in the Tetons had been a life-changing experience, one I figured I’d never have again. I assumed that after grad school I would start my life as an adult. I would find a teaching job and teach creative writing. I would look back on my time at the gift shop as if it had been a brief dream between two waking days — a fun escape into the clouds, but nothing more.