Making the Most

I am sitting at Lake Hotel in Yellowstone National Park, and I’m just so pleased to be here.

I’ve already consumed a cinnamon scone and a 12 oz shot in the dark with half and half, because today is a special day, and I’m treating myself.

The weather is terribly gloomy, and I’m in a big comfy chair looking at rain through a massive window. The mountains in the distance are completely obscured by flat, shapeless clouds. It is Saturday and Rafal is home with Lydia. Since March (when we returned to the park), this was my first chance to drive off on my own and carve out some time to write. Many roads–and this hotel–have just opened their gates for the spring season. Outside, I’d hardly call this spring weather. Just last Sunday the snow finally thawed enough to expose the sidewalk in front of our house for the first time since November. But this week brought a steady drizzle of snowfall that covered it right back up.

I’ve got to say that this weather’s been getting to me.

Usually, I pride myself on a sturdy ability to weather all weather with a smile. But this is my first time spending most of the year at 8,000 feet. Snow began accumulating here in September and it’s still here. We left from November through February for a gloomy few months in Chicago, and we returned in March to a record-breaking seven feet of snow. (And with that statement, the rain outside transforms into thick flakes). March and April were great fun, filled with cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, and reveling in the adventure. But May–with it’s propensity for spring fever–has been a little bit tough.

For a long time, Rafal and I have claimed “making the most of it” as our motto. So that is what we do. We drive down to lower elevations every weekend, and find adventure wherever we can. A few weeks ago, we biked 18 miles through the Tetons.

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After that we spent the weekend in Missoula: hiking, drinking Butterfly coffee, riding the carousel, and visiting with friends.

Last weekend we camped at Buffalo Bill State Park (just outside of Cody, WY) where the temperature climbed to 85 degrees!

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And just yesterday we drove down to Grand Teton National Park and hiked the 3.5 mile loop around String Lake. We saw numerous marmots, trudged through dense snow, lost the trail, and then found it again,

But most days are passed with Rafal at work and Lydia and I at home. I work out, write wikiHow articles, cook, clean, and mess around on the internet. Lydia and I play in the snow, visit with people in the village, eat snacks, enjoy naps, and take a lot of selfies.

(And with that, the clouds clear and the sun come out across the lake. The mountains are still invisible, but the warmth and glisten is magnificent).

The gates are open and the people have arrived. Grant Village is lined with fresh faces–both new and old, tourist and employee. It was nice to have Yellowstone all to ourselves for a while, but I welcome the company along with the sun.

Grounded

When I was 14–during the summer after 8th grade–I got into some trouble.

I had been sneaking out of the house at night to hang out with two neighborhood boys–occasionally smoking cigarettes or walking around town, though usually just watching TV in one of the boys’ backyards. I’d been bragging about these expeditions–at a place and time I definitely should not have been– and I got busted.

I was grounded for the remaining two months of break. I had to spend my days at my step mother’s sister’s (my step-aunt’s) place because I wasn’t allowed to be home alone. I couldn’t see my friends. I didn’t have the internet at home and I wasn’t allowed to use the phone.

Ever the optimist, I tried to look on the bright side. I had two months away from everyone (which, as a young teenager felt like an eternity). I had two months in which to transform myself into someone more beautiful and more interesting. I could start high school with a new look, a new outlook. I would be both mysterious and refreshed.

I’m not sure how I planned to achieve these transformative outcomes. I spent most of that time listening to Everclear and Natalie Imbruglia albums on my diskman and sitting in my step-aunt’s backyard reading Steven King.

But I did indeed refresh. I spent less time talking–the action that, in a way, had gotten me into trouble–and more time, not exactly listening, but more or less absorbing my surroundings, exploring my thoughts, oscillating between acceptance and escape.

Within the following six months, my life would change drastically. I would move out of my father and step-mother’s house and into a trailer with my mother and grandmother (a transition both dramatic and brave). My life would grow louder, more crowded, and more chaotic, yet immeasurably more comfortable. I would not listen to headphones or read novels or sit quietly in the sun. I would be happier, more free, both literally and figuratively less grounded.

In some ways, Grant Village is like my step-aunt’s back yard that summer. In this place–the interior of Yellowstone National Park–I relish the privacy of transformation and the mystery of being absent from my old life.

(Of course there are temporal-emotional differences: I’ve chosen this space of semi-solitude; instead of two months, it has been two years; I connect to you through crafted messages, sent by way of a satellite up in the stars. It would be wrong to cast this experience as any kind of punishment, when it’s really a welcomed retreat. None-the-less, parallels arise.)

I spend this time watching my daughter grow to a soundtrack of house music, led zeppelin, and various children’s songs. I read memoir after memoir after memoir. I build fires, drink coffee, and gaze out at the world.

As the snow continues to accumulate and April turns to to May, I can’t help but think about life in the city, about the glory of return. I daydream about when I will be ready to emerge with a new look, and a new outlook, at once mysterious and refreshed.

I think about how much louder my life will be, how exciting, and how busy. When I’ll be able to do things the things I miss–like work in a theatre–and things that I have dreamed about–like putting Lydia in ballet. When I will undoubtedly look back–lovingly, longingly–in the direction of this simpler life.  I’ll be more free, and less grounded, but very much the same girl.

Until then, I’ll try not to get into trouble. Until then, I’ll savor the calm.

Life is Good

I haven’t been able to write all winter. So it’s time for me to embrace spring.

Looking out my window, there is glimmering snow in every direction–so bright I can’t handle the glare–but that doesn’t matter. This is what spring in Yellowstone is like.

Last time I blogged (last November), we were getting ready to leave the park for the winter. During our stay in Chicagoland, I worked on wikiHow articles, Lydia turned 2, and Rafal remodeled his parents’ bathroom. We spent a lot of time with family and a little time with friends. I turned 33. I said hello to sweet Carbondale and its inhabitants. I performed The Interior at Villanova University.

Then, at the beginning of March we drove westward across the country again. Just like last year, we stayed in Omaha, Cheyenne, and Jackson. But unlike last year, when we left Jackson, we drove north to Flagg Ranch, where we parked our car indefinitely and climbed into a mattrack truck. For the past two years (three for Rafal), we’d arrived in May after the roads had been cleared. This year, we rode atop seven feet of packed snow.

Getting back into our old apartment was delicious. I made food, Rafal made a fire, Lydia made friends with forgotten toys. The very next day, Rafal and I learned to drive snowmobiles, and by that weekend we were ready to ride as a family.

These days have been filled with records, tea, cross-country skiing, walks, finger paint, early morning workouts, West Thumb geyser basin, seeing friends, and sharing smiles. We celebrated Rafal’s birthday by hiking the Old Faithful geyser basin, sledding, and eating homemade peanut butter cups.

I can’t say how I would feel if I had been snow-locked like this for the past 3 months, but for the past 3 weeks, it has been so awesome. Such a pleasing contrast of warm, cozy comforts and rugged adventures: our life in Grant Village is good.

 

 

 

 

 

November in Yellowstone

Each season, our stay in Yellowstone grows a bit. The first year (when Rafal was by himself), it was five months, then last year six, and this year six and a half. Next year, we will stay more than eight.

So this is officially the first time we’ve experienced November in the Park. Growing up in a city and spending my entire adult life living in the heart of college towns, I wouldn’t have pegged myself for someone who likes isolation. But these past couple of weeks, walking around in Grant Village and not passing another soul (save for a fox, a coyote, an elk), the thought that there are only a handful of people for a miles and miles in any direction has brought a bright grin to my face. I feel tickled, and special, and safe. (Yesterday, a stark white rabbit crossed my path and I thought about following him off into the woods, but I did not.) With everything that is going on in the world, for better or worse, isolation feels so good.

When I’m not out walking, I’m inside shaking like an autumn leaf. I suppose the cool outdoor weather calms my nerves, while the crackling fire in my apartment lights my fuse. (Incidentally, I have been getting really freaking good at starting and maintaining wood stove fires, and I’m proud of that.)

The World Series had me on edge (go Cubs!). The election this Tuesday has me really on edge (go Hillary! I already voted!). The situation at Standing Rock has me on my third edge (f*ck that horrible pipeline). And we leave for Chicago in SEVEN SHORT DAYS. So I am all out of edges: just a smooth, jittery circle. Or perhaps more of an oval, as I feel pulled in two directions (deep peace and tense anxiety) from one moment to the next.

So I’m taking some time to push myself to write, to find some grounding in my own words, to seek balance. Every day I let my other work, or my household work, or my work out on the mat take precedence during the brief moments of Lydia’s nap (or her daily dose of Daniel Tiger). I unintentionally skirt my self-expression. So today—even when I feel like I have nothing to say—I am making myself say something.

In these types of moments—when I feel off balance and devoid of deep thoughts–I find the best thing to say is “thank you.” So that’s what I aim to do.

I am thankful for the small community we have here and the fun Halloween we shared.

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Harry Potter, a Fortune Teller, & a Care Bear walk into a bar . . .

I am thankful for my fitness group & my writing group who both help me to feel connected to the world (and to my goals).

I am thankful for my sweet toddler, who is learning and growing at lightning speed.

I am thankful for my partner, and for this journey we are sharing.

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Finally, as ever, I am thankful for Yellowstone.

 

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photo credit: Lisa Stoorza

See ya in nine days, sweet home Chicago. The Kos family is heading home.

 

Persephone Bakery

I am sitting outside at Persephone Bakery, like any old regular Jackson Hole person, drinking my favorite coffee (Intelligentsia Jackson Hole Blend) and eating an incredible chocolate brownie. I’m thinking about what I want to do with my life, as though I’m not already doing lots of things.

Just a few days ago I was walking with a friend and we were talking about a former Yellowstone Interpretive Ranger, we’ll call her Sarah, who is working at the Grand Canyon. Sarah is shuffling herself around from park to park, in search of the illusive “permanent position” (not unlike an academic job path). And my friend says, “It’s so funny, the things we tell ourselves we need.” Because Sarah was happy in Yellowstone, but she’s in pursuit of a career dream she’s decided upon.

Yesterday I spent much of the day texting with an old friend from my graduate program, discussing love, life, and career. And since we spoke I can’t help but feel compelled to start seeking out academic job calls, as though a job I don’t even know if I want will complete some part of me that shouldn’t even be missing.

I’m always looking ahead to the next thing, the next move, the ultimate plan. Why? I am in a beautiful place. I get to spend every single day with my husband and daughter. I get to move in an air of mystery. If I lived in a town I’d just spend more money and feel more stressed. If I lived in a town I’d probably be dreaming up ways to return to the woods.

A graduate student friend of mine recently wrote on Facebook (I’m paraphrasing), “Don’t you ever wish you could just be in a cabin in the woods? Just your spouse, a fireplace, and some snow.”

Technically I don’t live in a cabin. But I’ve got the spouse, the fireplace, and plenty of snow. I’m far away from most everything, tucked away in some world-class woods. And today (the cherry on the cake), I get to sit here by myself, drinking my favorite coffee, outside on a warm fall day.

Outlet Cabin

I am sitting in front of a large gas fireplace inside the famous Snow Lodge at Old Faithful. This is the only lodge that stays open all winter long. My favorite writing spot—Lake Hotel—closed yesterday for the season. Today, I was dismayed to find that the Old Faithful Inn was closed as well (earlier than last year).

So I made my way over to the bustling Geyser Grill—the only place still serving food–for a mediocre cup of black coffee, and now I’ve found this peaceful place in the Snow Lodge lobby, with almost no other people around.

Yellowstone is becoming our own personal play land again, and as the season comes to a rapid close, I find myself emotional, having really fallen in love with this wonderland. Perhaps you’d think having spent so much time here, I’d have seen all there is to see. You’d be wrong. This place is just beginning to unfold for me.

This weekend we hiked to a backcountry cabin. “Outlet Cabin” lies 4.6 miles down Dogshead Trail, or 7 miles down the Lewis Channel Trail. These two trails together form a loop, and the cabin sits near their junction. (We hiked the full 12-mile loop last October when Ruby came to visit.)

Outlet Cabin is a place for backcountry rangers to stay when they are out on assignments. NPS workers (like Rafal) can borrow this place when not in use by the rangers.

We didn’t know what would be in this cabin, so we packed everything we might need. Things like food, a stove, sleeping bags, and so on. With all of our gear plus an adorable toddler strapped to our backs, we were each carrying around 30 heavy lbs. We trudged through tall grass and lodgepole pine trees, over crushed obsidian sand, and made our way down Dogshead Trail to the cabin on Shoshone Lake.

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As I walked, I recalled that famous quote by Dorothy Parker: “I hate writing, I love having written.” Each step like a word in a sentence, there was no other way to get where I was going. Just like writing an essay, the only way out was through. “I hate hiking,” I thought to myself, “but I love having hiked,” and my feet kept moving.

When I caught sight of the cabin, I let out a cheer. This gorgeous wooden A-frame would be our home for the night. Our packs were so heavy and we were excited to take them off! We were ready to enjoy our lunch! I bounded onto the porch for a picture.

And that’s when we noticed the lock. A padlock hung from the cabin’s front door, with no other ways to get in. We had been in touch with the appropriate rangers. We’d made a reservation. No one had told us we needed a key.

Fortunately, Rafal has a radio. He radioed in our situation. A nearby ranger offered to take a boat across Lewis Lake to the mouth of the Lewis channel, and begin walking the Channel Trail towards us with a key. We dropped our gear, ate a quick snack, and set off down the Lewis Channel Trail. After about 2 miles of walking (along the gorgeous channel) we met up with Ranger Tim who gave us the key to paradise. We gleefully skipped back the 2 miles towards our new home.

Inside the cabin was even better than I expected. A fully stocked dwelling with solar lamps; propane lamps and stove; a wood stove and plenty of firewood; pots and pans; spices and cookware; candles, cards, and dice; mattresses, sleeping bags, and pillows: the works. It all felt secret, and special, like we’d gained entry into a private ranger world.

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As I am prone to do, I thought a lot about Jack Kerouac. I thought about the summer he spent working as a fire lookout, living off canned government-ration food. I wondered if his place looked like this. I wondered if he felt this special burst of joy, if he felt like a part of something old and important, if he felt giddy, like I did, to be in this home away from home.

Rafal built a roaring fire in the woodstove, and I made a dinner of “tasty bite tacos.” We brought mattresses down from the loft (so Lydia wouldn’t fall) and made a bed in the middle of the room.

I thumbed through a Ranger Project Log: a nice thick notebook bound in green fabric. I read entries detailing when rangers came and went, and what kinds of projects they did while they were here. Things like trail work, cutting down trees, and maintenance on the cabin itself. One of those entries ended like this:

“I’ll leave you all with this thought: all those who man this backcountry cabin remember—what we do in the front country is the necessary evil. What you are doing back here is how it all started, how it was meant to be, you are doing the real rangering. So enjoy every day of it.”

Obviously, I am not a ranger. I am not even an NPS employee. But sitting there in that cabin, soaking up its ancient energy, I knew that I was a part of something important. The park service itself is far from perfect (it is a white boys club now as it always has been, and these “protected lands” were, of course, stolen in the first place) but it is an element of our government that I can get behind fully—setting aside beautiful places, encouraging adventure, respecting nature, allowing at least some pockets to remind us what “wild” means.

Furthermore, I felt like my role was essential. I didn’t feel like “just a wife” (as I sometimes do). I realized that by populating Yellowstone with families, by raising children here, Yellowstone becomes a home, a community, an ecosystem within an ecosystem. This is part of the NPS legacy too.

As I was thinking this, my sweet daughter raced past my feet. She was a fountain of effortless joy in this cabin: laughing, singing, bouncing on pillows, and waving a fly swatter in the air like a flag. The three of us drank tea and reminisced about the summer behind us. Lydia never stopped moving, or smiling, until she snuggled into me and fell asleep.

The next morning, we had coffee and oatmeal and walked down to the lake.

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When I saw this fog, this sunshine, this water I cried out a great “Thank you!” allowing a new mist to fill my eyes. Yellowstone is truly amazing. I feel like I’m just getting to know the real her, and I am grateful.

Summer Recap

On my refrigerator in dry erase marker, there is a countdown. Today, it reads “33 days until we leave.” Each day we talk about the things we are anticipating—family we want to see, places we want to eat, the weather, and the city, and the change—but at the same time we feel anxious and almost caught off guard. There is still so much we need to do. This season seemed to vanish before us.

It has been an incredible summer, and I didn’t find nearly enough time to write. So as the weather turns cold and we begin packing up, I thought I would try to recap some of our adventures.

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TRAVELS

We visited every single border town at least once this summer (Gardiner, MT; Jackson, WY; Cody, WY; Cooke City, MT; and West Yellowstone, MT). We also stayed in a friend’s apartment in Big Sky, MT and rented an Airbnb in Bozeman. In each of these places, we ate, shopped, hiked, and took in the sights.

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We spent 5 days in Missoula with good friends! I got my tattoo colored in. We stayed with Amber and Jake. Lydia had a playdate with Tom and Leticia’s daughter, Amelia. Tata bought some new records, we had an awesome nacho party, and we drank lots of butterfly coffee.

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Recently, we spent a week in Salt Lake City, Utah. Rafal took a class on Backflow Prevention (don’t ask me), and at the end of week, passed the difficult exam. We stayed at the Hampton Inn (thanks NPS), swimming in the pool and eating the free food. Lydia and I had lots of fun while Tata was in school. We hiked the Mill Creek Canyon with my old friend Clint. We had breakfast with Kelsey and Marcus at Sweet Lakes Biscuits and Limeade. We went to the children’s museum, and the aviary, and we did a little shopping. Best of all, the three of us drove out to Antelope Island on the Great Salt Lake to watch the sunset.

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ADVENTURES

For Father’s Day, we rode the tram in Teton Village up to 10,400 feet. There we had high-elevation waffles and did a 5-mile hike through the snow (wearing shorts). Then we rode a gondola back down.

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In July, we brought Lydia on her first overnight backpacking trip down the Blacktail Creek Trail. Unfortunately, Lydia and Rafal were ahead of me on the trail, and I missed the junction for our campsite, hiking about 3 miles too far. Rafal was panicked and so was I. I saw a group of German hikers and asked if they had seen a man with a baby up ahead, and they said “no.” Later, Rafal saw this same group and asked if they had seen me. They said, “yes!” I turned back and Rafal started down the trail to meet me. I was so happy to be found! And we were so happy to be together.

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We did so much hiking! We did Elephant Back, Mystic Falls, Specimen Ridge, Storm Point, Solitary Geyser, Norris Geyser Basin, the South Rim Trail, Grand View Point (in Grand Teton), and so many others I can’t even remember them all.

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GENERAL

We bought a Subaru! We played kickball and went to potlucks. We had lots of visitors! Lydia learned about a billion new words. I did a lot of yoga (and lost a lot of weight). We walked around Grant almost every day, and Lydia played in the lake. We spent many evenings in front of the fire.

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Tomorrow the low is 15 degrees, so I think it’s safe to say that summer is over. We are stacking firewood and making plans. I am awaiting the arrival of my new down coat. For the next 33 days there is nothing to do but pack, snuggle, and watch the snow fall.

Another season is in the books. Every day this feels more and more like home.

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