Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Confiscated Bus

Since several of you faithful readers have requested old Yellowstone stories, I thought I'd pull a few out of my memory bank. They come from a slightly different perspective than Doug's.

My near 10-year stint in Yellowstone National Park as a seasonal employee was divided between the National Park Service and the Yellowstone Institute. While it was a difficult decision to part ways from the drably chic green and grey uniform and Smokey Bear hat of the NPS, the Yellowstone Institute (YI) offered me a degree of freedom and creativity better suited to my temperament. At least that’s what my NPS supervisor implied. As naturalist-guide for YI, I provided instruction for week-long seminars that combined education with recreation. In the summer we hiked, and in the winter we cross-country skied and snowshoed Yellowstone’s backcountry trails and frontcountry “must-sees”. The group size was capped at 12, usually couples, good friends, and a few families. No two groups were ever the same, some bonded more quickly than others, and a few just never clicked. After five days of close traveling, long conversations, wining and dining, there were few secrets.

I attempted to give them a healthy dose of Yellowstone history, geology, wildlife biology, birdwatching, and track and scat identification---not in a classroom but out in the field. I taught as we hiked and skiied, with group members constantly asking questions. At the end of the day, nothing could beat the combination of physical exhaustion from hiking or skiing 10 miles paired with first-hand sightings of backcountry geysers, fish-diving osprey, hunting coyotes, howling wolves, rutting elk, bears ravaging a carcass or marmots sunning themselves. I was always thrilled when someone asked a question I could intelligently answer (score one point on the Evaluation!!).

In the winter we traveled in a special “snowcoach” van adapted with tracks for oversnow traction. During the summer season, I drove a 12-passenger bus with the Yellowstone Association Institute logo. With a headset, I could still do running commentary as we cruised mile after mile through Yellowstone, from Mammoth to Old Faithful to Lake to Canyon. On the fourth day with one particularly great group, we had just completed an early morning hike to Shoshone Lake on the DeLacy Creek Trail. We skipped stones on Shoshone Lake and reflected on our solitude before heading to Old Faithful where we would meet the masses. Enroute to the granddaddy of all geysers, I was jabbering about the stage coach robberies that occurred here in the early 1900’s; and how tiny Isa Lake at the top of the Continental Divide flows ultimately into two oceans (Atlantic & Pacific) backwards----the Continental conundrum. We compared the still-evident effects of the 1988 fires that nearly wiped out Grant Village with untouched areas and discussed how fires grow and move.

Just before the turnoff to Old Faithful a sign was posted indicating a mandatory inspection for all commercial vehicles conducted by Wyoming Highway Patrol. Being the law-abiding citizen that I am, I pulled off, unaware of my impending fate. I was greeted by several familiar NPS law enforcement officers, folks I had known when I worked as an interpretive ranger at Grant. I asked if I could drop my group off at the Visitor Center to watch the eruption and return for the inspection in a few minutes. They agreed and off we went. I checked to see when the next prediction was, and requested my people to retire to the Bear’s Den watering hole after they wandered around a bit and I would rejoin them there as soon as I completed the inspection.

When I returned, I assumed they would be checking for seat belts, emergency flares, spare tires, contraband items, etc. Instead they asked to see the CDL documents for the bus, and I explained that the bus was not required to carry a CDL license because it only carries 12 passengers. This response fell on deaf ears, and they asked to see my CDL license. Whoops, not only did I not have a CDL license, I had also forgotten to bring my lowly regular driver’s license with me that day. One officer told that me I could be slapped a fine but because they know me they will perhaps let that slide. The larger matter, of course, is that the bus (and me) are not CDL.

I was beginning to feel as if I was being incarcerated and I asked if I could call (on my cell phone) my boss in Mammoth. He confirmed that we did not need CDL documentation, the seat belts had been switched over specifically to address this issue, the busses held a maximum of 12 people. It seemed black and white to me and I passed this along to the NPS rangers and patrol officers. No luck. I then tried explaining that I was responsible for these 12 people, we were staying in Grant that night and I needed to transport them there. Could I at least use the bus for that purpose and then turn it in? An emphatic NO! I asked how I was now supposed to get my people to Grant (nearly 20 miles away), and continue my program the next day. The response was a rather curt “I guess that’s your boss’ problem now.” My temper went off the charts. Their arrogance was astounding.

I was resigned to losing my vehicle, and had to figure out how to transport my group back to Grant Village for the evening. Then I could work on how we would travel the next day. I updated my boss and asked him if he could drum up a vehicle.

Several hours passed since I last saw my group when I stormed into the Bear’s Den. They were well-lubricated and not looking at all worried. “You better start catching up with us” one of them yelled and “fill us in on what’s going on”. I told them I couldn’t join yet, but was getting closer. I started phoning people I knew with CDL licenses who might be able to save my day. There was a major event going on in the Park and all extra bus drivers had been pulled in from days off. I had to get 12 people to Grant NOW before they succumbed to alcohol poisoning. We finally hooked up with the regularly scheduled Lower Loop bus tour an hour later and joined 30-some sleepy-eyed park visitors who had no idea what they were getting themselves into. My now wildly-crusading mob started relating the story of the confiscated bus to everyone else on the tour, with nice touches of embellishment, considering they didn’t witness most of the action. Two of my group were U.S. Postal employees, and one of them awarded me her U.S. Postal straw pith helmet. She said if anyone deserved to “go postal”, I did.

Once at Grant, I released my group until morning. I told them that I was not sure what to expect in the way of vehicles, but that we would do our darndest. Actually I think I used other words. I called my boss again, who made significant progress and had an action plan. It’s amazing what a call to the Assistant Superintendent’s office will do. I didn’t get my bus back, but we could borrow the “official” NPS van from the Asst. Super’s office. Super! We would rendezvous at 7:30 pm half way at Canyon for the hand-off.

The next morning, I picked up lunches at the restaurant as usual and pulled into the regular meeting place. I instructed people that we were now riding in the Assistant Superintendent’s vehicle and “milk the hell out of it”. I parked in all the best spots (backing in as required by the NPS) and nobody questioned a thing. I remembered to take my driver’s license. I drove right by the Inspection Station and waved. At the end of the week, I received some pretty rave evaluations.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Luke is surprised that you didn't run anyone over before that van was confiscated...I'll bet you thought about it!

I can just picture your face...and hear the words you were saying under your breath!

Go Nancy!