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November/December 2005

Yosemite @ $7.38 An Hour: Seasonal Work in the National Parks

Our scribe-turned-pizzaman labors in the land of granite and pulls back the curtain on the seasonal-employment fantasy.

“Welcome to Hell!”

Thus spake my new boss, Eric, greeting me amidst the fiery furnaces of the Curry Village Pizza Deck. He can’t say it with a straight face, so I know I’m not entering any kind of real inferno, just one of many attractions here in Nine Circles Yosemite. Our particular ordeal entails feeding the insatiable beast, a centipede-like creature with 50 mouths and a hundred legs forever pressing up against the counter hungering for hot dogs and Bud Light and pepperoni pies.

And anyway, I’m pretty certain that Dante’s sweaty epic lasted more than a week, which is how long I’ll be here to experience one of the most-fantasized-about employment opportunities in the great outdoors: the summer job in Yosemite National Park. In prime tourist season, the employee rolls here nearly double. The increase reflects an influx of mostly young people, many of them hikers and climbers, most of them exuberant about the notion of a golden season scaling those legendary rock faces, tramping that backcountry, sleeping under those incense cedars. If I could do it again, I’d happily trade away the crummy summer jobs of my college years–washing K-cars at my dad’s Dodge dealership in the Bronx, juicing oranges at a Manhattan health club–for a season in Yosemite. It’s too late for that now, but I made the trip from my San Francisco home to try and glimpse the reality behind the dream.

There will be time to explore the nuances of that dream, but for the moment I have a job to do. Eric seems genuinely glad to see me. His crews have been chronically understaffed as of late, and he’s due for a break himself. He skips the ten-cent tour and brings me to the front window. “These are the pagers. The pizzas are in that glass box. I’ll be back. If you’ve got any questions, ask Boris.”

Just like that, I’m up and running. My job, in case you didn’t catch that, is to retrieve pizzas. You come to my window with a beeping pager and I give you a pie. The Pizza Deck is the heart of the platform-tent sprawl known as Curry Village, the home of Everyman and his family in the valley. The golden-agers gravitate toward Yosemite Lodge, the high rollers linger at the Ahwahnee, and the rest of the teeming masses come here.

Boris rocks the cash register next to me. I assume he’s Russian. The ennui that drips from his reply tells me I’m not the first to make this mistake. “No. You will never guess.” It takes a few stabs, but I eventually nail it: Slovenia. He’s not impressed. “You Americans don’t know geography.”

In time, our coworkers return from their breaks. “They didn’t show you around either, huh?” says Ivy, a sweet undergrad down from Arcata. During a lull, she lays out the basics. Behind the wall are the pizza makers–a handful of guys flinging cheese and unloading pies from the oven’s mesh conveyor belt to a crunching soundtrack of Pantera. The Pizza Deck backs onto a bar and grill, a taco stand, and a dining hall, all spigots feeding the same trough. Ivy shows me where we keep the hot-dog buns, salad dressings, and paper products that we’ll convert each day to mountains of trash. Out on the loading dock sit the dumpsters, closed with carabiners to keep the bears from gorging themselves. Our particular fiefdom includes the deck’s picnic tables. These we clear occasionally to reduce the amount of pizza crusts consumed by squirrels and raccoons, which patrol the day and night shifts, respectively.

It’s immediately clear this will be a colorful week. At 26, Boris is spending his fourth summer here. This three-month job constitutes the entirety of his annual fiscal strategy. Last year he took in $8,000, minus the $2,000 he paid his “agent” in Slovenia for processing his “student” work- exchange application and getting him a plane ticket.

Boris’s earnings finance his globetrotting, and he’s delighted with the current state of understaffing. He’s well beyond 40 hours this week, his $7.38 an hour bumped up to $11.07. At one point he turns to me and gleefully reports: “I make more than president of Sri Lanka!”

If you work in Yosemite, you probably work for the Delaware North Company, one of many private concessionaires that run everything from luxury hotels to garbage collection to whitewater-rafting operations in most national parks. Yes, there are other gigs in the valley. But National Park Service jobs are harder to come by, and the other, smaller concessions employ only a few handfuls of people. I came in with the blessing of DNC’s PR department, which set me up with a cabin, a meal card identifying me as Associate A7284, and a uniform. I arrived just after the height of the spring rush.

Before coming, I mentioned my mission to a friend. Jarratt, who worked his college summers at Yosemite, was only too happy to download me with bad attitude toward his former employer, reverse-engineering the company acronym as “Does Not Care” and “The Devil Needs Cash.” Given how jaundiced Jarratt’s perspective is on most other earthly phenomena, though, I didn’t pay it much mind.

But the fortress of my neutrality was battered during our mandatory New Associate Orientation, which starts the same way it does at Wal-Mart: with videos. The “Welcome to Yosemite” video. The soul-sucking “How to have authorized fun at work” video. You could forgive the off-the-shelf personal-hygiene video and even the self-pleasuring “We Are So Green!” video. But by the time they showed the GuestPathSM videos, with their emphasis on Creating Special Experiences One Guest at a TimeSM, the stench of corporate euphemism was building in my nostrils.

For reasons still unclear to me, our human instructor then launched into a lengthy history of Delaware North. We learned that the Jacobs brothers, three Russian immigrants, founded the company in 1915 by selling popcorn and peanuts in movie theaters. Since then, we learned, they’ve diversified into one of the nation’s largest privately held companies, with interests in riverboat gambling, swap meets, sports arenas, and more! The chairman and CEO, Jeremy Jacobs, is one of the world’s 40 richest men! His net worth is over a billion dollars! That’s “billion” with a b! Since 1993, Delaware North has been expanding into parks “like crazy!”

Over the course of my week, many a disgruntled employee would, like Jarratt, level charges both petty and grand against “the man.” And while I had no good reason to believe that the accusations were untrue, it also struck me that if you thought the river was too cold, or the granite too hard, there existed a convenient target for your discontent.

My cabin is in a complex called Lost Arrow, a set of 40 or so cookie-cutter huts and a couple of trailers sitting on asphalt against the backdrop of Yosemite Falls–an internment camp with a million-dollar view. People fly halfway across the world to glimpse the vista I behold when I get up in the night to pee.

On a noose, dangling in the doorway as I enter the cabin, is a Mr. Burns action figure, from The Simpsons, with the letters “DNC” written across his bald pate. It is comforting that my employers didn’t try to cherry-pick me a roommate who had even a neutral attitude toward the company (or maybe they just couldn’t find one). Raymond is a lost arrow, to be sure. He’d come from a farming town outside Fresno two years before with his first girlfriend. But a year later she switched campgrounds, and loyalties, for a platform tent across the valley and a new sweetheart. Raymond hasn’t gotten over the shock, but they worked out a truce: He never goes across to Curry Village, and she never sets foot in Lost Arrow.

On a hook above his bed hangs a pair of climbing shoes, which he wore the one time he tried climbing. Raymond calls himself a “shut-in,” using strategic self-deprecation to head my judgment off at the pass. But the description is accurate. Everything he cares about in Yosemite is inside those 10-by-10 walls: phone, DSL hookup, TV, and collection of slasher films on DVD. His weekend begins on Tuesdays, and on those days there is not a single time when I return to the cabin that he is not there, AC on, surfing the Web or watching some grim piece of cinema, or doing both at once.

Luckily, Raymond isn’t afflicted with the need to export his misery, and I inadvertently benefit from his paralysis. Since he rarely ventures outside the cabin, he has no use for the beater bicycle leaning outside the door. Riding the bike, I can get anywhere in the valley in under 15 minutes, thus sparing me the pain of waiting for the shuttle.

My mobility allows me to explore the other employee subcultures. Behind Yosemite Lodge is an agglomeration of trailers known as Trainwreck, reputedly full of hardened lifers. Huff and Terrace are considered the most civilized locales; residents of these facilities must sign a paper agreeing to the 24-hour quiet policy or be shipped elsewhere.

On the other end of the social spectrum is Boys’ Town. The prevailing ethos in the colony of platform tents adorned with Billy Idol posters and Tibetan prayer flags can be summarized in two words: Par Tay. This year, the snowmelt-engorged Merced River has flooded the campsite, and the sandbags that line its paths suggest you’re walking onto the set of a ‘Nam musical. But the plastic palm tree sitting in a mud lagoon tells you that at least it’s a comedy. The easy social scene that characterizes valley life is most pronounced here. Meeting someone twice is sufficient grounds for a conversation. By the third exchange, you’re old friends. After a few days it feels as if I know more people in Boys’ Town than I do in San Francisco. You might even call it collegiate–if they have colleges where nobody ever cracks a book, and every night is the day after the last final, and enrollment brings honorary membership into the High Sierra chapter of the Future Alcoholics of America.

For summer employees, then, Yosemite Valley is a wilderness, just not in the way you might expect. It’s a wilderness of human distraction you must negotiate to have a meaningful time. There is no map. You have to learn the landscape on your own, wending through Sucky Job Flats and out of El Canon de los Lowlifes before you find the path to Lake Satisfaction or maybe Mt. Redemption.

There are people who successfully negotiate this wilderness. Take Graham and Cody. When I track them down at the rafting stand one morning, they’re prepping the inflatables–hosing down rafts in the warm sun, checking for leaks, and making sure none of their peers is water-soluble. They’re dressed in shorts and T-shirts and sandals. I ask Graham if they have to wear uniforms once the season begins. “This is my uniform,” he says with a coprophagous grin.

Graham and Cody will spend their summer launching tourists into the Merced, and collecting rafts and rafters at the take-out. On their days off they head to the Wawona golf course, and at least once a summer they string together a 3- or 4-day backpacking trip.

I met Cody and Graham through their college pal Dan, who had sat behind me on the bus in from Merced. He just graduated from the University of Vermont, and is hoping to get a rafting-stand job. A few days after arriving, I stop into Human Resources to get a better grasp on the job scene. It seems the union’s system weighs seniority and conduct, then doles out the prime gigs accordingly. The upshot is that the chances of a newbie scoring a job leading horse-packing trips or staffing the High Sierra camps are slim to none.

But here, as everywhere, letter-of-the-law fairness is balanced by the magic of human networking. Graham and Cody got their gigs through a connection with a professor at Vermont. The morning I stop by, Dan is in the rafting office, being interviewed. And lo and behold, he eventually is able to squeeze between slim and none and get himself hired.

But even a dream job requires certain tradeoffs. Before the crew can open the raft stand, the Merced has to warm up to 45°F, lest tourists be exposed to hypothermia risk. But the water is still in the high 30s, and it could be weeks before the stand opens. Inevitably they’ll run out of prep work soon, which means they’ll have to take temporary jobs in order to get paid. “%#*^ that!” says Cody, who’d already spent a few weeks as a Curry Village janitor before his rafting job started. “If that happens, I’ll just head up into the mountains until it’s time to work.”

And the rest of us working stiffs? I spend my week jerked back and forth by the park’s relentless contrasts. Riding my bike, I pass a traffic jam of Winnebagos on my right, and to my left get a clear shot of a heavenly beam of light bouncing off Half Dome. I spend the morning in rubber gloves, picking trash out of some disgusting bin, then follow it with a nap beside the Merced River’s luminescent khaki glow.

This tension between heartbreaking beauty and heartrending ugliness is woven inextricably into the park’s history. Pick up any book on the subject, and you won’t get far in before it reveals itself: The Ahwaneechees who weren’t killed or driven out of their homeland were dragged off to languish on some Central Valley reservation, long before the interlopers marred the landscape in the ways we know today.

Still, the valley’s enduring magic is that you can view it through this lens and still be stirred by its beauty. Before work one morning I go to the visitor center and plan a hike for my day off. The loop starts up the Four Mile Trail to Glacier Point, then circles down on the Panoramic and John Muir Trails–14-plus miles, all told.

It’s as rewarding as any I’ve done. So over-trodden, so over-photographed, and still so stunning. The first trail is even paved, and has been for the better part of a century, and yet none of this can touch the ragged beauty of the place. If you’ve hiked here, or on any epic trail for that matter, you can supply your own details. Make sure you get the lighting right, a thousand different angles on a half-dozen waterfalls, a little bit of rain for drama, an endorphin-filled afternoon, souvenir blisters, and then feet kicked up on a bear box in the moonlight, beer bottle in hand.

Kelly works the bar next to the Pizza Deck, and on my last day she asks about my hike. Just over 5 feet tall in running shoes, if there’s some aspect of Kelly that isn’t cute, it manages to escape my attention. Counting on easy points, I tell her about my 14-miler. Does she know the route? She does. In fact, she’d just run the entire trail that very morning. I double-check to make sure I heard her correctly. Yes, she laced up at 6, and made it back to camp by 9:30.

I later learn that Kelly is kind of a local hero, having just won a 33-mile race nearby. She got up early to run because she’s working the entire shift today, from 11:30 a.m. until the last of the drunks are sent home. And while her stamina is legendary, it seems to require that kind of effort to seize the Yosemite experience most of us hope for. One big obstacle is the split shift, which starts at 11:30 a.m. and ends at 10:30 p.m., with a 3-hour break in the middle–a scheduling black hole that swallows up most hiking or climbing aspirations.

As for Associate A7284, it doesn’t take long for the novelty to wear thin. By day 3, I feel my first spontaneous upwelling of loathing at the idea of setting foot on the Pizza Deck. It isn’t the busyness; I take a certain comfort in the extended ADD reverie, stocking condiments, running for hot-dog buns, or chasing squirrels out the side door.

Nor is it the less-than-godly hygiene of the place, or even the mediocre pizza. It’s more what I would call the Koyaanisqatsi Effect, a deep nausea brought on watching this giant sloppy machine spew out unhealthy fodder hour after hour. As a shift wears on, the pizzas start looking uglier and uglier, and the beer looks more and more beautiful. By the end of the week I want to stick my head out the pick-up window and scream at the top of my lungs, “SOYLENT GREEN IS PIZZA!”

There’s a spot on a ledge, not even a 45-minute walk from the deck, where you can sit and look out and not see a manmade object beyond the soles of your boots, not hear a sound above the thunder of the waterfall. It’s no big secret, the Devil’s Bathtub. Raymond could Google it from the cabin and find it. It’s a quiet little spot two steps off the beaten path, a favorite of employees who come to sunbathe in their spare time. As the summer progresses, the rocks absorb the sun’s heat, and the water that runs down the curved granite and pools in the bottom can get downright tepid, hence the name.

Sitting there, just above treeline, surveying the rock walls and conifers around me, it wouldn’t take much effort to convince myself that I’m witnessing the valley as it looked 200 years ago. But even that is more effort than I want to expend. I don’t need to cook up any fantasies to experience the healing effects of this dignified view. In a few short hours I’ll catch the 4:15 bus to Merced, back into the maw of civilization. For now, to surround myself with trees and clouds and rocks and waterfalls is to quietly leach some of the poison of civilization from my soul.

And then there’s only one question left to ask: “Can I have that to go?”

Larry Gallagher normally toils as a journalist to fund his musical ambitions.

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