by Jim Macdonald
Did you know that when I took the following picture that I was in the middle of an argument?
The shot of ice on Yellowstone Lake might serve as a metaphor for something going on in our lives, but really that was just a coincidence. Yellowstone is so large and so beautiful, but we seem to take pictures only of the most beautiful, symbolic, or happiest moments. The rest we edit out. And, of course, that doesn't just go for Yellowstone; it goes for everywhere. We tend to put the best face on things except for those rare moments of despair.
Often, I think about that because there is so much of our experience that we edit out. When telling you about my day, I don't tell you about the five feet I took to open a door, I don't tell you what it was like to use the bathroom, much less the few moments before and after that. I don't share with you things that are so common, so taken for granted, that they are incidental to the experience.
However, in Yellowstone, I am so astounded by this place that I don't think there's much that's ever incidental. When I think of even the bathrooms in my dormitory rooms, there is something that interests me to think that the same grandeur and beauty coexists with something as mundane as a sanitation system. As someone who worked there among employees who are largely behind the scenes, I find myself thinking of all the wonders of the world in this place that are hardly noticed. My mind just turned to a woman I used to work with named Nancy from Indiana; she and I worked together for several years in Grant Village, even for a short time in the same apparel department on the same shift. She was the nicest person I think I've ever met. And, while I'm sure pictures of Nancy in Yellowstone exist, I doubt you'll ever see them, and none of us will be privy to so many of the special and not so special moments that Nancy had in Wonderland. Yet, to me she was one of many largely unseen wonders of Yellowstone.
When you visit Yellowstone, you will of course be drawn to things you have seen in photographs and several surprising features you haven't. Yet, I bet you will also notice the buildings, the power lines cut between acres and acres of lodgepole pine forest. You'll notice the electric infrastructure, the sanitation system, whether your cell phone works (and for most of you, it will), where the gas stations are, and of course the places you can buy those souvenirs. Yet, we don't photograph the souvenirs; we don't remember the cash register where we bought the keepsake. We probably won't remember much about the person we bought our gift from. We won't talk about our trips to the bathroom, though we might talk about the food. Our pictures will show bison, Old Faithful, elk, and bears and wolves if we are lucky. It will show pictures of our loved ones smiling into the camera.
One summer back in 1996, I wanted to film the Yellowstone you don't see. I wanted to film the workers and people standing behind the shot taking the shot. It was too big a project for me, and people were stunned to have a camera pointing at them. They thought they were in my way, and of course were shy to be shown in their vulnerability. I was too shy to organize interviews with my co-workers, and I was too busy with the intricacies of my romantic relationship to spend time working on such an ambitious project. I almost managed to document my own death at the hands of mosquitoes on the DeLacy Creek trail at Shoshone Lake, but I survived that and can only now look at the footage and laugh.
I wish I could hear people's unusual or mundane stories in Yellowstone; it's just my perverse preference. I don't want to know about them anywhere else. Did you write some of the grafitti on the bathroom stalls at the campground? Did you trip on a trail in the woods? Who did you know, and what were they like? Was there a bird you were fond of, a pine needle that you can't forget? I remember walking through the Xanterra dorms having to avoid toxic bat excrement coming from the rafters. I remember the day that the security guard Ira caught a man trying to shoplift cheese by concealing it in his spandex. I remember beating Kim Hunt, who later won a million dollars on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, at ping pong and also losing many times; I remember some other things Kim shared with me that wouldn't be appropriate here. I remember feeling drowsy driving along Yellowstone Lake in mid-afternoon sun. But, so rarely do people share these stories? They don't take pictures of puddles in the parking lot, the steam evaporating almost as fast as it dropped. They don't paint pictures of sparrows or storm drains in Yellowstone.
I think I wish for that story to be told because I think the myths we can tell about Yellowstone can be more compelling. We labor under the delusion that Yellowstone is a wilderness; we don't know what to do about our place in the narrative or with things that are difficult or painful to share. So, we don't know how to talk about the experience beyond one of discovery and exploration, wonder, surprise, and excitement. No tale of Yellowstone would be complete without a chronicle of all of that in heavy doses, but that's not the whole story. What happened when the small earthquake erupted followed by everyone being mildly amused? What were you talking about when you saw a minor eruption of Steamboat Geyser; why did you bother to remember what the name of this geyser was? What was it like to see lawns in Mammoth Hot Springs? Did you ever almost run out of gas while on a mountain pass? I remember once pushing a Jeep down Signal Mountain in the Tetons so that the clutch could be popped.
What goes on in the space between frames? Please share.