Video Games As Art

Sooo…I’m trying to convince this raven that, even though I’m not at the top of the food chain up here, I’m higher than he is.

It ain’t working.

Damn this bird. He’s reminding me just how little control I have over the critters around here…

At any rate, as you can guess from the late posting today, I have once again failed to go with my “Yellowstone Practical” theme.

Nope, not gonna do it today, either. Ah well, so goeth most of my plans…

I was watching podcasts last night with a friend of mine, and I got to thinking. As a general rule, “getting to thinking” is dangerous for me.  I should probably add, these were video game podcasts…and, yes, my friend (Billy) and I are very much nerds-of-a-feather.

Two things I miss up here, more than just about anything else: cooking and games. I love to cook…I live for cooking…and yet I have to eat three meals a day prepared by other people. I already have about three weeks worth of meals planned for when I get back…

Just below cooking, however, comes video games. I miss playing games…especially good games.

So, at any rate, Billy and I got to talking about games…and especially about games that mattered, games that had something to say. And, to those of you that scoff, I’ll reissue a challenge I gave a year or so ago: go play This War of Mine. Better yet, go play That Dragon Cancer. Only after that can you try and tell me that games don’t have anything to say. The first of those made me well-and-truly uncomfortable (in the best literary sense of that word), while the second made me cry like a broken-hearted six-year-old.

Now, look…I know that most games are mindless trash. I know that most games have no message beyond, “Me mash button…me kill…rawr!”  But – and this is the important bit – not ALL games are that way. In fact, as a writer, I have to admit that there are things a game can do that a written story cannot.

There is an immersion to games that no book, no matter how good, can match. With a book, you (the reader) are simply too far removed from the circumstances. In a game – err, in a well-made game – it is very much a personal, intimate thing. Think about it: as writers, we use dialogue and action to carry and move the story. Hell, most of the time, we use them for exposition and set-up just as much as we do for action.

In a game, however, you can use many, many other things to carry that message. Lighting, “set” design, color scheme, character design…

“But, but, movies!” I hear you scream. Nope, not the same. Think about it: in a movie, we need movement and action and dialogue in order to create tension.

Try this exercise: imagine a scene with one single, lone character walking down a dark hall. Pretty simple, when you get right down to it. In a book, I would need to have certain things happening in order to create tension. Whether those things were internal, like flashbacks or internal thoughts/monologue, or external like noises or movement, it would be something that was NOT integral to the scene itself, something “beyond” the dark hall.

In a movie, that problem gets nothing but worse. I would have to have a great deal of “external” stimuli in order to maintain the audience’s interest. Whether those stimuli were music, or dialogue with an off-screen companion, or sound effects, it would have to be (like the book) something external to the dark hall.

But in a game…but in a game…but in a game, I could put you walking down a dark hall and, if the perspective and set-up were right, do nothing else. With the intimacy and immediacy of the player experience, the simple tension of walking down a dark, unknown hall can make the experience terrifying.

I have, I should add, written for video games in the past, so I am not completely objective in this discussion. I love long-form writing. I love, especially, novels. Shit, you all know enough about me, by now, to know that I’m a wordy bastard, so novels are about the only way I can really sink my teeth into writing a story. But, and this is a big but, the options and imagination that game-writing opened for me were some of the best training I have ever had.

Apologies to all of my professors from college (err, both colleges), but I learned more about writing from those times I wrote for games than I did over all the years it took me to earn two liberal arts degrees.

Got paid better, too.

And, yep…if you haven’t guessed…we’re well into real-time, drunk-bloggin’ at this point. Just deal with it. I haven’t done one of these in a loooong time, and I needed the outlet. Returning to the the real world is right around the corner, and I’m pretty fucking sure I’m not ready.

Seriousness and business and work? Paying attention to shit over which I have no control?

I would much rather be heading off for one of my solo, off-trail hikes. When I’m off-trail, I own everything. Which, in the end, really just comes to the most simple of facts: if I survive, I did it right. If I die, I fucked up.

When you get right down to it, that’s what life is all about…isn’t it?

What Could Be

I had this great plan to put up some details about various hikes I like, to keep going with the “Yellowstone Practical” idea. I even started a post on that for today…

As you can tell from the lack of a morning post, I didn’t really follow through. Not because I couldn’t have, but because something else rose in my mind last night. Now, I’ve mentioned before one of writing’s primary rules: when an idea comes to you, YOU WRITE IT!

Last night I, err, did not write it. I didn’t quite forget the thought, but I did have to spend the better part of today reconstructing it while I worked in the store.

At any rate, here goes:

I spent some time reading the news on my day off. I know, I know…that is always a mistake. You’d think I would know better by now, but nope.

Most of the crap I was able to ignore, but something stuck with me: the whole damned NFL-anthem-flag controversy. How the hell is this still a thing?

Look, I realize I am not the most grown-up person in any room (including a room full of kindergarteners), but even I can see how stupid is this whole thing. And by stupid, I mean everyone involved. I know we’re talking about the confluence of politics, culture and sports here, but isn’t there someone who can be the adult in the room?

Apparently not.

So, what the hell, I’ll throw in my two cents. Actually, I’ve got two opinions/thoughts here, so I’ll round it all up to a nickel.

First of all: I am a sports guy. All of my life I have been a sports guy. More than that, I have been a team sports guy. Team sports are the everyday embodiment of self-sacrifice. Well…at least…they should be. In all of the bullshit, dating back to last year, I saw very little conception of team-first. I saw an awful lot of “me-first”, but not much else.

I will, however, call out for credit those that did put team first, that acted like the whole was greater than the sum of the parts. I think the Seahawks nailed it last year when they linked arms as a team. Much as I detest Jerry Jones, the Cowboys this year got it right, as well.

Those teams that had no unity? Truly sad.

And the cowardice of those that simply hid away in the locker room and hoped to bury their heads? Beyond sad, beyond weak, and well into the territory of truly pathetic.

Right or wrong, at least the other guys picked a side. I’ll always take someone who picks a side, whether I agree or not, over someone who tries to ride the fence and please everyone.

Okay, so that’s the first bit. The less important bit. Now comes the second part…

By definition, no society, no country, no people is perfect. To dredge up an old quote, “All are judged and found wanting.” The United States is anything but perfect. The flaws in our society today are manifold…and, in many cases, obvious.

Hell, I write about many of those flaws: about the exploitation of the weak, about the vast, indefensible chasm between rich and poor, about the evil one human can do to another for the smallest of reasons, about the suffering and despair that suffocate so many lives…

But that doesn’t mean I don’t think and dream of better. That doesn’t mean I think we as a species, as a society, as a country are irredeemable. If I thought that – if I bought that deeply into cynical nihilism – it would be time to just plain give up, and that I refuse to do.

To redeem ourselves, however, we need aspirations. More importantly, we need aspirations that can pull us together. We need symbols, and dreams, that we can all share.

I cannot comment on other countries, nor other peoples, but to me the dream of what the US could be is one of those aspirations. But to get there we have to value in common the effort and work it will take to get there.

The American flag is just a bunch of fabric stitched together, in one sense. It is nothing more than a glorified bed-sheet tied to a stick. In another sense, however, it is something very different: it is a symbol of what could be. It could/should be, when you get down to it, something to unify, something to symbolize all of our aspirations.

See the problems…speak out on the problems…give your time and your money and your life to fixing those problems…but dream and aspire together. Value what could be together.

You and I don’t have to agree. We can argue and debate and oppose each other all we want, IF we both believe in and value where we’re going…value what could be.

If, however, we hold nothing in common – if we share no aspirations or dreams – then we are doomed to strife and discord. And, eventually, to the disintegration of the little that still holds the many, many different strands of the US – as a nation and as a people – together.  In the end, all we will have left is the regret of what could have been.

Yellowstone Practical: Hiking

Two weeks…that’s it. Just two weeks left. Now, besides all the other crap involved with going back to the real world, that means it’ll soon be time to turn this blog back to it’s original focus on writing.

Err…

Well, at least I tried to have that as a focus. Didn’t always do all that well.

Having the opportunity to talk (a bit) about Yellowstone itself has been a nice change for me. Even if my current surroundings have taken away from the focus and time I need to write, it has been well worth it.

So, in the interests of getting back to basics, I’m going to not talk about writing once again.

Nope, I figured I would do a “public service” bit for the next couple of posts…talk about some of the best hikes/outings that are near to where I “live”.

One thing, however: although a great deal of my hiking has been off-trail, in places that haven’t seen a human in decades (if ever), I am NOT going to talk much about that. Off-trail hiking (and camping) can, frankly, be extremely dangerous if you are not experienced and prepared. I have friends up here – friends who are serious hikers & campers – who think I am completely insane for my little solo little excursions into the wilds, so I am not going to lead anyone else into my own life of…err…sin.

Today is mainly some equipment notes, specific to hiking at this altitude, and in this kind of terrain:

1) Water, water, water – you’re gonna dehydrate at eight thousand feet just sitting on your butt. If you go for an eight or ten mile hike? Yeah, running out of water sucks donkey balls. On easy terrain, and in mild weather, I plan on one liter of water for every nine or ten miles. If the day is hot, or the terrain difficult, I increase that by at least fifty percent.
2) Water addendum – even when you’re not hiking, have water. I use one liter Nalgene bottles so I can keep track of how much I drink in a day (three to four liters, on average, when I’m not hiking). Also, keep in mind that water does wash out salt and other minerals you need. I do not recommend Gatorade or other sports drinks…just make sure to bring food along that includes a few things that will help put back what you’ve lost. Even a simple handful of trail mix can make a big difference.
3) Boots – I recommend good, over-the-ankle boots. The stability and protection you gain can make a big difference in rough, uneven terrain. For on-trail travel, those aren’t quite as important, but folks should know that even the “maintained” trails here can have rough sections (downed trees, creeks & streams, rocks & boulders, etc…).
4) Daypack – get a good one, and make sure you set the straps right. Nothing sucks more than aching shoulders and neck ruining your hike. Trust me on that, it is fairly miserable. Also, make sure you have a pack that’s fitted out to carry a camelback. Having your water integral to your pack, rather than in bottles or canteens, makes things a lot more comfortable. Make sure, also, that you have enough space for all the shit you need to carry (more on that below).
5) Food – for a day hike, you don’t need to go crazy here. A couple of granola bars and a sandwich can be just fine. That being said, it can be a lot of fun to spend a while picnicking and relaxing at your hike’s destination/midpoint. I don’t usually snack while I walk (bears, you know…), so a nice lunch is a good thing for me. DO keep your food in sealed, airtight bags…and DO haul back out any remainder, as well as trash, in those airtight bags. Throwing open food and/or trash into your pack makes you nothing more than a mobile snack stand for the wildlife you didn’t think was right next to the trail.
6) Small, important things – a decent knife (no, you don’t need to go all freaking Rambo with some huge “survival” knife), something warm to wear just in case (sweatshirt, flannel, etc…), a decent map of the trail you’re on, and bear spray. No, bear spray is not a scam…I’ve had a bear walk past ten feet from my window. You need to have it with you.
7) Small, optional things – backpack hammock, camera, spare socks (far more important on longer hikes: there are creeks and streams that you can only cross by fording), and anything else you can’t bear to do without. Keep in mind, weight is not your friend when you hike – that pack that seemed so light when you started, can weigh a million pounds when you’re done.
8) “Oh, shit” kit – kinda optional, especially for trail hikes…but for my more aggressive treks, I always have this with me: waterproof matches, flashlight, compass, first aid kid (a tiny one) and small tarp.
9) Firearms – touchy subject to a lot of people. Back home, in the Rockies, I carry a pistol whenever I hike. Here in Yellowstone (or any National Park), carrying a firearm is perfectly legal…it’s just firing it that is illegal. If you carry a gun, and do fire it, you better damn well have a very good (read: life threatening) reason why. The rangers take that very seriously, and any ticket or criminal charge inside a National Park is a federal offense.
10) Cell service – just don’t count on it. No, really…you’re gonna run out of contact real, real fast. A cell phone is not a valid safety net up here. I know this is crazy talk in today’s world, but use common sense and preparation, instead.

The Social Event Of The Season

It’s the end of the season up here. We’ve lost half the staff already. Over the next week or so, we’ll lose just over half of those who remain.

We’re pretty much gonna be down to…well…not enough people after that. I think I’m gonna have to start cooking for everyone…

We opened the season with some, umm, interesting evenings, so it’s only fair that we close it with one. With the best party of the year.

Now, keep in mind, in the dorms alcohol is technically allowed only inside the individual rooms themselves. Not in the halls, not in the lobby, not even on the pseudo-patio outside. And, no, please don’t get me started on the futile insanity of that particular regulation. Suffice it to say, that little rule is not the most well-obeyed one in the universe.

But, for our party, we decided to obey it. Hell, we decided to build the evening around it!

Six rooms, each featuring two or three different cocktails…and a whole lot of people who have lived and worked in close proximity for five months now.  And, no, I didn’t serve beer…well, not just beer.  Nope, I channeled my old bartending days and made limoncello bellinis.  It was a good decision.

Now, as to the party – there are pictures. Worryingly, there are pictures. There might even have been a “dick-wand”.

Ahem.

It’s back to work today, with a surprisingly mild hangover. Worse, it’s back to the real world in less than three weeks.

I’m not sure I’m ready for it.

I’ve written less than half what I wanted (let alone needed) to write up here…I’m just plain freakin’ done with tourists…I want real, honest-to-God internet in the worst way…I miss my friends and family…and…and…and I don’t really want to leave.

Hey, I’ve told you before, consistency is not one of my (many) failings!

Real life? Real cities? People? Traffic? Bills and the stress of everyday living?

Gah…I need to go on another hike.

The Silence Of Snow

There’s something about the forest – the deep, untrod forest – in a snowstorm. It is one of the quietest, most still places you will ever experience. The feeling isn’t one of death, or even of the wildlife seeking shelter. No, rather it is one of anticipation.

It’s almost like everything, like nature itself, is holding their collective breath.

I went hiking through the forest today…hiking in a snowstorm. A place that, just yesterday, was alive with elk, and with the predators stalking that herd. A place of noise and life and a certain amount of chaos.

Today it had that profound magic, that still silence…that anticipation. I loved it.

That hike got me to thinking. Thinking about the metaphors I am using in the current story, and about the messages I am trying to send. The Silence That Never Comes, to give the story its full title.

What would that wood feel like to someone who had never heard silence?  Who had no conception of peace, of quiet and still anticipation?

That is getting to the heart of the story…and to the scene that is building in the back of my mind. The scene of my protagonist – that kid who has known nothing but violence and cynicism and despair – in the middle of just such a storm, in just such a wood.

The vision is there…the knowledge of what I want – what I need – to include is there…now it just has to be executed.

That, by the way, is one of the reasons why I write: the challenge. The challenge of putting into effective words a feeling, and an imagination, so initially vague and formless.

And, more importantly, the feeling that comes when you get it right.

I’ve said before, but it bears repeating: to get it right, to nail a scene, is a feeling that has few peers. The closest I can come, at this moment, is that feeling when I summit one of the more challenging mountains here in Yellowstone.

Is it the view? Is it the effort? No, it is the elation that comes when you do something you know so many people have either failed at, or have refused to even try.

There is a drive to that, and a certain joy…and, to put this in terms of the underlying theme to all of Silence, a certain meaning.

Connor still has yet to really discover, let alone understand, that theme, that understanding…but there really is more to life.

Note – just to put everything in context, I figured I would offer some proof…would show just what Yellowstone looks like in late summer:

I Say “Potato”, You Say “Idiot”

Apparently the Emmys are on tonight. My apologies if you are one of those who find the autoerotic narcissism of Hollywood awards shows interesting, but I personally would rather remove my own spleen with a sharp rock than watch…

Not that I don’t do self-indulgence or narcissism, I just try to make it make it less…pathetic.

So I’m gonna sit here, instead, and plan my final hike of the year. The hike that caused the backcountry rangers to tell me, very emphatically, “Don’t be an idiot.” The hike that caused my friend to preemptively put up “Missing” posters with my picture. “Just getting a head start,” he explained.

*sigh*

But it’s such a cool hike! So what if 15 of the 20 miles are through the most dangerous “Bear Management” region in Yellowstone? So what if there is no longer a trail of any sort? So what if it really only exists on old maps from the early 90s?

Yeah, yeah, I know…the rather large odds of a disastrous ending are not a good idea, but…well…c’mon…no one has done it in almost twenty years!

Wait, what was that I was saying about self-indulgence?

Ahem.

Now, if I was the protagonist of a story, this hike would kick off all kinds of danger and adventure. Kind of a “Into Thin Air”…although preferably with a happier outcome.

But, no, I’m not a protagonist. I’m not the lens through which adventures and lessons come. I’m just a guy who looks remarkably like a Happy Meal to a pre-hibernation grizzly.

Our characters make bad choices so we can advance the plot, so we can have conflict and tension, and so we can – frankly – experience a bit of repeated schadenfreude at their expense.

And, even when they die, they live on…

That won’t work so well for me. There’s a popular book up here called “Death in Yellowstone”. One of my cashiers took great delight in explaining to me, in great detail, just how many of the screw ups in that book I am repeating every time I take off on my solo, off-trail hikes.

I’ll still plan the damned hike – oh, will I plan it! – but instead of doing it before I leave here in a few weeks, I am going to return this winter and do it when everything is sleepin’ the winter away.

How’s that for a compromise?

Hey, I said I wasn’t a protagonist, I didn’t say I was smart!

Pop-Tarts & Beer

I had an eye infection today: I just couldn’t see doing anything.

Now, keep in mind, my normal “I Hate Humans” Monday involves a hike of somewhere around 16 or 20 miles. Occasionally, more.

Today?

Today, I went four miles and stalled out for a picnic lunch. Sat in the shade and stared at a meadow.

I even pretended to write for a while.

Then pretending to write began to feel too much like work, so I decided some napping was in order. Remember that backpack hammock I mentioned a couple of posts ago? Yep, in that. Hey, if I can’t see the bears, they can’t see me…right?

Now, I’m sitting in front of the store to do some actual — err, well, semi-actual — writing. And, yes, I did extend the hike a bit…but ten total miles is still more of a stroll than it is a real hike.

But, and this is important bit, I have to call it a hike…if ain’t a hike, I don’t get my favorite post-hike snack.

And, if you’re wondering, today’s snack is strawberry-flavored, washed down with a nice pale ale. The people behind me are having granola bars and water…I feel so much better about myself as a human being!

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some pretending to do…

From The Prosaic To The Profound

I was walking through Sears, back when there really was a Sears. Just walking through to go into the mall and do that most pointless and prosaic of activities: shop.

Still on my first cup of coffee, still disgruntled from being out of bed after having worked late the night before. I’m in the electronics section, not paying attention to anything in particular.

Then it strikes me: why the hell is the World Trade Center on fire?

I stop a minute, to watch one of the hundred or so TVs all showing the same thing. The sound is up, but — as usual— I just ignore the idiot talking.

An image, blurry and indistinct, of a plane. Of that plane flying into the second tower of the already burning, already doomed, WTC.

Then I did start to listen.

It sounds trite, it sounds like cheating to use a phrase so often tired and overworked, but everything really did change that day.

As ever, I keep myself and my own politics out of this blog…very intentionally. But…but…but, there’s always a but.

But, that day started a chain of events, and of stresses, that are leading very, very directly to that civil war here in the US that I think is so inevitable. Inevitable, and coming nearer.

Leaving aside Iraq and Afghanistan and the rest of the world, the US is beginning to tear itself apart. And this one won’t be the relatively simple two-sided affair of 150 years ago. No, this one will be seven- or eight-sided, with economics and geography and sociology creating a pool of hate, resentment and blood that will put the struggle of North and South to shame.

That is, however, not the topic of today’s post. Today’s post is here to pay my respects to those who are no longer around to type their idle and cynical thoughts sixteen years later. To the three thousand who died that day, and to those who died in the days and months and years since.

I’ve mentioned before that Naval History is a passion of mine. It is actually a mite more than that, and I have many good friends who were, and still are, in harm’s way.

A good friend was an officer aboard a destroyer that day, was headed back to port after a training exercise. No one believed the captain, at first, when he announced what had happened, announced they were heading back to sea.

My friend did not see the US for another nine months.

Another friend, ostensibly a “support” specialist who typically would live “in the rear with the gear”, was attached to an SOF element. He never saw home again.

Two examples.  Two examples of the dozens I could give.  Two examples just to offer some perspective. I could talk about the friend who never said “No” to a deployment, who is now paying with his soul for eight straight years of war and stress.  Of another, an accountant by trade, who did enough to make even the most hardened and cynical of veterans sit up and take notice…and has never said a single word about it.

I am, I have said before, a libertarian. I don’t care what are your politics. I don’t particularly care what you do, so long as you don’t hurt anyone else. But today…today I talk about what I care about.

Don’t tell some random person “Thank you for your service.” Don’t throw five or ten bucks at some feel-good charity like Wounded Warrior.

Be real, do something real.

Give your time, give your passion. Money helps…oh, yes, does money help…but so much more do people help. The disconnect today between the military and the rest of the population has never been greater…and that is part of the problem.

Go to a VFW and talk. Don’t offer platitudes, don’t talk about yourself…buy some drinks and listen. Listen to those who know, those who lost and who understand the reality. Listen and learn, and make sure your children learn.

Give your time to a charity/clinic helping those with PTSD. I don’t care if you’re cleaning the fucking toilets, do something to help. I have too many friends, too many loved ones, who still hate and fear the nightmares to give two shits about your pride. Just help.

Throw a fishing trip, or a tailgate party, or a backyard barbecue, for those in your area who served, and those who are still serving. Don’t go to your Rolodex, don’t go to your own pool of friends, go to theirs.

And, by the way, the spouse who is still at home, who is trying to do it all, is just as much a hero…do not overlook them. Those still in the sandbox and the rockpile do not, of that I can assure you.

I am going to do something I have never done before: I am going to steal from someone I admire.  This has nothing to do with politics today, with the White House today.  I have my own opinions thereon, but they have nothing to do with this.  Read the letter…read the letter and feel.  Whether you agree with his politics or not is of no import; this man knows.

From: Kelly LtGen John F
Date: November 12, 2010 10:23:20 PM EST
Subject: FW: My Boy

Family and Friends,

As I think you all know by now our Robert was killed in action protecting our country, its people, and its values from a terrible and relentless enemy, on 9 Nov, in Sangin, Afghanistan. He was leading his Grunts on a dismounted patrol when he was taken. They are shaken, but will recover quickly and already back at it. He went quickly and thank God he did not suffer. In combat that is as good as it gets, and we are thankful. We are a broken hearted – but proud family. He was a wonderful and precious boy living a meaningful life. He was in exactly the place he wanted to be, doing exactly what he wanted to do, surrounded by the best men on this earth – his Marines and Navy Doc.

The nation he served has honored us with promoting him posthumously to First Lieutenant of Marines. We will bury our son, now 1stLt Robert Michael Kelly USMC, in Arlington National Cemetery on 22 Nov. Services will commence at 1245 at Fort Myers. We will likely have a memorial receiving at a yet to be designated funeral home on 21 Nov. The coffin will be closed. Our son Captain John Kelly USMC, himself a multi-tour combat veteran and the best big brother on this earth, will escort the body from Dover Air Force Base to Arlington. From the moment he was killed he has never been alone and will remain under the protection of a Marine to his final resting place.

Many have offered prayers for us and we thank you, but his wonderful wife Heather and the rest of the clan ask that you direct the majority of your prayers to his platoon of Marines, still in contact and in “harm’s way,” and at greater risk without his steady leadership.

Thank you all for the many kindnesses we could not get through this without you all. Thank you all for being there for us. The pain in unimaginable, and we could not do this without you.

Semper Fidelis

John Kelly

Knob Polishing: Or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love Norovius

“Honey, how was your day at work today?”

“Just peachy. I had to polish everybody’s knobs.”

Okay, so I probably shouldn’t find this as funny as I do. Ah, hell…who am I kidding? I found today hilarious…mostly because I was off work and didn’t have to actually experience any of the miserable crap.

A bus load of tourists, you see, came in carrying norovirus. Now, if you don’t know that particular little bug, it is…umm…pretty damned unpleasant. Take Montezuma’s Revenge and strip away all the fun and laughs and you start to get a picture of the results of norovirus. An optimistic picture.

And apparently this thing is passed by, well, pretty much everything. Just touching a surface can pass it to the next person who touches that surface…

So, today, every single employee at the store has been basically bathing in hand sanitizer from head to toe every two-and-a-half seconds. In between those baths, they’ve been wiping down every square millimeter of the store…including having one person clean every single latch and door handle in not just the store, but also the dining room and the dorms – hence my (juvenile) joke above.

I should point out that I took a random, extra day off today. And, yes, I did schedule it before this whole thing hit…even I’m not that cheesy!

As soon as my boss came into breakfast wearing gloves, and telling the kitchen that they had to go to “norovirus protocols”, I grabbed my pack and decided to go spoon with amorous bears instead.

I’m a goddamned history major, what the hell do I know about “protocols”?! I’m pretty sure the guy who does the prostate exams is a protocologist…and I don’t need that, thank you very much.

Keep in mind, I’m also the idiot who ignores common sense, and perfectly good trails, so I can go see what’s on the other side of that big hill over there… That means, of course, that I am currently sitting out in front of the store, at a public picnic table, and typing away.

I think tomorrow might suck…

C’mon, Sign Up…You Know You Want To!

There’s a month left. That’s it. A month left in the half-year I signed on for, up here.

What the hell happened? It seemed like such a looong commitment when I signed the contract.

Hell, a month ago it still seemed like a long commitment.

“Nah, not gonna think about afterwords. There’s plenty of time.”

Ahem.

By my estimate, I’ve hiked about a thousand miles total…I’ve had close encounters with five bears (three grizzlies, two black bears), and more distant encounters with half a dozen more…I’ve had to make my way around more bison than there are pigeons in NYC…and I’ve dealt with enough tourists to well-and-truly renew my loathing for Homo Touristus.

So, after all that, I figure it’s time I gave some thoughts and/or advice for anyone considering doing something like this (whether in Yellowstone, or elsewhere):

Overall/general stuff

First and foremost: do it. The opportunity to live in a National Park is the opportunity to know and understand that Park in ways that no tourist ever will. You will see and do things that most people never realize is even possible.

Second: be prepared. No, really…be more prepared, and plan better, than I did coming up here! I left behind things – for reasons of space – that never should have been left behind (more on this later).

Third: understand what you are in for…the environment up here is a whole lot like a mix of freshman year in college and summer camp, especially for the first two months. Relax and go with the flow, get to know your co-workers – the socializing and friendships you build are tied with experiencing the Park for importance in why you came.

Specific stuff

Okay, so you’ve signed a contract with one of the concessionaires in the Park system and you’re committed to coming. Here you go, the important shit.

  1. Pack smart. By that, I mean don’t pack shit you don’t absolutely have to. Whether you are driving up, or flying in and taking a shuttle to your new “home”, space & weight are very much at a premium. On one hand, I didn’t pack a whole lot of crap…but on the other, I could’ve left behind half of what I brought in favor of a couple of those things I left behind.
  2. Amazon is your friend. Basics like laundry soap, shampoo, toothpaste, etc… can all be bought at (or near) where you’re working, but you’ll save money and frustration by just ordering it. This also means, of course, that it makes no sense to pack that stuff in the first place. Just bring enough for a week or two, then order what you’ll need for later.
  3. Do your research on the Park. You will be confused and out of sorts for the first month, so have ready a small list of the stuff you want to do in those first weeks. There is so much to do, and so many returnees who are already “experts” on the Park, that you will be overwhelmed…give yourself some structure to start with, then you can go free-form after you’ve settled in and mastered the basics.
  4. Do random shit. In spite of #3 above, when someone offers a midnight hike to somewhere you’ve never heard of, or there’s an easy group stroll to Bumfuck Falls, do it! You will regret neither the time nor the energy…even if the hike/trip/excursion isn’t your thing, the time getting to know your fellow inmates is worth it. As time goes by, you’ll have all the time in the world to do the “killer hikes”, or solo fly fishing trips, or camping outings, or whatever else draws your fancy.
  5. Don’t judge. The folks you work with will, in the main, be either young college kids or older, (semi)retired folks. The young kids are gonna go get drunk every night…and sometimes the older folks will, as well. Go with ‘em. Relax and enjoy life. Keep in mind, you will be working with international kids with varying levels of English and different habits, as well as with gay folks, social misfits, and even a few people so socially awkward (or just plain nuts) as to make you uncomfortable…deal with it. You have your own life, let them have theirs.
  6. An RV or trailer beats the dorms, every time. If you have the means, just go with me on this. I have my own room and my own bathroom, i am a hundred yards away from the employee dorms, and I still regret being this close. That being said, the best parties ARE in the employee dorms! (Ahem…there’s a future post there…oh, yes sir, is there a future post in that)
  7. Believe the horror stories. The “long-time” returnees will tell horror stories about weather and animals and rangers…and pretty much everything else you can imagine. Believe them. I can, err, well, confirm a lot of those. From getting three feet of snow in late June, to almost getting eaten by the biggest fucking grizzly you can imagine, I can most definitely now add my own “wisdom” to those stories.
  8. Be prepared to suffer for your fun. The hours can be long, and the work surprisingly hard. Specific to Yellowstone: the altitude can and will fuck with your system. It will also make your hangover MUCH worse…and, if you have even the tiniest of social bones in your body, you will get a hangover or two…
  9. Cell service, cell service, cell service. It’s still chancy, but it’s better than nothing. Research the main provider in whatever Park you’re going to – here in Yellowstone it is Verizon. Since I have Verizon, I get decent download speeds at night…in the day it ain’t worth it, since everyone and their five cousins are all hitting the same cell tower that I am.

And, finally…that which I dearly wish someone had given me before I left for Yellowstone: the packing list!

  1. You’re (presumably) a big kid – figure out your own clothing situation. Believe people when they tell you it can snow in mid-fucking-July.
  2. Bring separate shoes for work and play: I originally used the same pair of boots for work and hiking, and I walked through ‘em in three months.
  3. Bring a good daypack. You will either never hike a bit (about 10% of folks), or you’ll hike your ass off. A good daypack, and plenty of water, makes all the difference.
  4. Bring camping stuff. Your know: a tent, a good sleeping bag (small, for backpacking, and cold-weather-capable for, well, snows in June), a backpack stove, that kind of thing. One additional pice of advice: get a good backpack hammock and tarp. Trust me on this – it can actually take the place of a tent 75% of the time, and is a hell of a lot smaller and lighter.
  5. Don’t bother with a bike. I love riding…for the last couple of years, I’ve done a lot of it. Riding in a National Park just plain sucks: you can’t go on the trails, so all you have are the roads…and the most dangerous things in the park system are the tourist drivers.
  6. Equipment is more important than clothes. Since I got here, I have either been given (by my company) or bought (at discount) something like ten t-shirts, a couple of fleeces/sweatshirts, and a bunch of other stuff. I could have left a lot of stuff at home in favor of some equipment that I badly miss right now…
  7. Bring a laptop that has TV shows and movies loaded on it, or on a removable hard drive. You absolutely cannot count on the internet (trust me on that!), and DVDs take up a lot of space. A big 500 GB, or 2 TB, portable hard drive packed with music and videos will make you the most popular kid in school.