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Wide White: Delaware North Companies, Yosemite National Park, CA

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Delaware North Companies, Yosemite National Park, CA

This is part 4 of my summer job series. Click the following links for part 1, 2, 3, or 5.

Also, if you stumbled here while searching for information on jobs in Yosemite and want to know more about what it's like to work in the park, send me an email! You can also find currently available positions at Delaware North's Yosemite jobs page.

The best summer job I ever had is one I've talked about a number of times on this blog. In 2005, my last summer in college, I worked in Yosemite National Park in California for Delaware North Companies, the concessionaire who provides almost all services inside the park.

I first visited Yosemite on a road trip with a friend in 2004. I was hooked. When trying to figure out what to do for a job the next summer my attention turned to national parks. I researched a few and Yosemite seemed like a great fit, so I sent in an application.

My great-grandfather worked for the National Park Service in Yosemite in the 1930s. My grandma was literally born inside the park's hospital, which is now a clinic, and the houses she lived in are still used as homes for park rangers today. But it was more than that pulling me back to Yosemite. The 2 days I'd spent there were enough for me to know I wanted to spend a whole summer there.

I drove across the country, leaving my friend's graduation party in Maplewood, MN, and driving 26 hours before stopping in Austin, NV. Austin is literally in the middle of Nevada - their slogan is "Welcome to the middle of Nevada" - and boasts 340 people. It's referred to as a "living ghost town." I didn't care. I was stopped. I had used a few too many methods to stay awake on the drive out. I talked to a friend visiting Hawaii, which was 5 hours behind me. I took in a crazy display of Northern Lights in Nebraska (they saw them as far south as San Diego that night). During the day I read and re-read the only reading material I had, a welcome pamphlet telling me what to expect as a Delaware North employee in Yosemite. The reading offered enough stimulation to keep me awake. I only stopped for gas, otherwise I just kept driving.

I was scheduled to be in the park the next day and only had a few hours to go past Austin, or so I thought. When I got to Carson City I found out the mountain pass into Yosemite from the east was still closed due to the long winter. (It was the end of May.) So, I started through the Sierra Nevada Mountains just south of Lake Tahoe, made my way through a small snowstorm, and got to the west entrance to Yosemite, only to find that entrance closed as well due to flooding in Yosemite Valley, which is where everyone lives, works, and where most visitors spend their time. In fact, it was some of the worst flooding they'd ever had. So I had to double back to the city of Merced and find a hotel for the night.

When I showed up at human resources the next day I was an "unassigned hire," as most summer employees are were (I've been told by DNC they no longer hire this way; all new hires are hired into specific positions ahead of time). That means you don't know what you're doing until you get there and they fill positions as needed. You could be working as a housekeeper, scrubbing toilets, busing tables, serving fast food, etc. I was given my pick of jobs and decided to be a hotel porter. I headed back to get my ID badge and the woman behind the counter started making small talk. Something came up about me being from Wisconsin and being a cheesehead. A woman nearby overheard the conversation and mentioned that she went to school in Ashland, just 2 hours from where I grew up. As we talked she asked what I was doing for the summer and then if I really wanted to do that. Of course, I was open to other options. She asked if I had a background with teaching and with kids. I told her I'd been an education major until the previous semester and was the oldest of 11 kids. She asked if I'd be interested in giving tours instead, coming on board with the Interpretive Services department as a seasonal naturalist. She didn't have to ask twice!

And so began the best summer of my life. I was interviewed by Emily the next day, who worked for Julie, the woman I'd originally spoken with. Emily's first words were something to the effect of, "So I looked over your résumé and there's just one problem: I see you're a College Republican..." She had a smirk on her face and it was all good from there. Emily had also gone to school in Wisconsin at both UW-Green Bay and UW-Stevens Point, both within a few hours of where I grew up. She's originally from the Twin Cities and remains a good friend to this day. Her interview was mostly along the lines of, "Here's what the job entails, but don't feel like you have to take it if you don't want it." The job was highly competitive with students in that field and it was only open because an employee lined up to take it backed out at the last minute and they were scrambling for someone to fill the position. It really is amazing that we were able to connect the way we were.

I gave tours of the historic Ahwahnee Hotel, led amphitheater programs, took kids on nature hikes, ran an hour-long astronomy program, led campfires (guitar and hip cowboy hat in hand), and really just had a blast. In my free time I hiked as much as I could, over 200 miles by the end of the summer.

It's tough to convey how much that summer meant - and still means - to me. The skills I learned in public speaking and leading large groups are still with me today. I learned to value nature more than I ever had before. And to this day I often wish I could be back there working in Yosemite. It's not uncommon for people to go there for a short-term job and never leave. I've been back twice since, both times with my wife. When we went this summer, it was at her request. She's hooked too. I occasionally check Delaware North Companies' job listings to see if there's anything out there that matches my fields of interest.

Being a history major and a bit of a research nut, I quickly became the resident expert on the Ahwahnee Hotel, doing what I could to clean up any bad history in existing materials and adding any new material I could find. I'd run over to Emily's office and ask, "Have you ever heard this before?" I hope to stay in that hotel some night. It costs around $400 a night and they have 96% occupancy year-round, but I'm determined to make it happen, even if it's just for a night! I spent too much time studying and being in that hotel to not sleep in it just once.

I was not a fan of the astronomy program. In fact, I protested having to do it quite a bit. Emily really pushed for me to do it though, regardless of the fact that the stars held no interest for me. So I researched and worked to hone a program that I thought I could deliver. I went into that first program with a piece of paper with all of my notes and a little flashlight in case I needed to refer to it. I presented my program and at the end, I had told the group of people present every single fact I knew about the sky. That was it. There were no more things that I knew about the sky. Nobody could ask me a question because I wouldn't have known the answer. A woman came up to me when it was over and asked, "Are you an astronomy major?" And so did another. I couldn't believe it! As flattered as I was, I felt like I'd fooled them!

Of course, you can't always fool everyone. One night I had a man who worked for NASA on my astronomy program. His wife made sure to keep him relatively quiet, but he wasn't without his interjections. I think I sweat bullets through that entire program after finding that out, sure I was getting each fact wrong.

Of course, working in a place full of tourists we had to deal with normal tourist stupidity. But honestly, when you're working in a place that beautiful, it makes it a lot easier to deal with. I know that sounds cheesy, but it's totally true.

I had a number of crazy weekends. The craziest was probably the weekend I went to visit my friend in Sacramento. I left as soon as I got off work and arrived late. We stayed up all night and went to church together the next day. I left that evening and decided at the last minute to head to Los Angeles to see my uncle and aunt. It was about a 5-hour drive but I figured I could make it. I stopped to sleep a couple of times and pulled in the next morning. I visited with them for an hour or so and then left, driving through LA and then to Pasadena to see the Rose Bowl. I went on to Joshua Tree National Park, where I did a few short hikes, and then headed back towards Yosemite. By this time it was the evening before I needed to be back. I had to work at noon the next day. I pulled over to sleep along the highway and woke up much later than I'd wanted. In spite of the fact that I was cutting it close, I still decided to make a couple of detours to see some things I'd been meaning to see, including the Devil's Postpile. Visitors to the Devil's Postpile are required to park and take a shuttle in to see it. I knew I had no chance of making it back in time and was able to convince the rangers at the gate to let me in since "I work in Yosemite." I made one more detour that would almost be my downfall. To make a long story short, I got stuck in sand on a trail meant for dune buggies and spent a half-hour or so jacking up my 4-cylinder 1994 Mazda Protege and propping it up on sticks and rocks to get it out of the sand hole I'd dug myself into. I made it to work about a half hour late and I don't think anyone believed me at first when I told them all of the places I'd been that weekend.

I miss my time out there. That's a time in life you only have once, where you're single and have this whole park to just explore. It's something I wish everyone could have the chance to do once.

There are other stories I could tell, of a Harley ride to King's Canyon and Sequoia National Parks with my uncle, of a couple of crazy hikes up to Half Dome, of a 35-mile solo day hike that was nothing short of insanity, and of the friends I made while I was there. But I'll save those for another day.

I have nothing but fond memories of this job. I've often recommended it to others and have yet to see someone take me up on it. I suppose the pay could be better. The hotel porter gig would have been $7.50. As it was I was paid $10 an hour. Of course, this was a few years ago and I'm sure pay has gone up since then. Employees do have to pay union dues, which is especially frustrating for a summer employee. I thought it was good pay for summer jobs out there, though I know there are better-paying jobs elsewhere, especially when considering the cost of getting out there in the first place. But you won't find another job that provides that kind of a wild, adventurous, inspiring experience.

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Anonymous Kandi declared,

The way you connected with Emily (and Julie, before her) was a God thing.
Cool story, Joey. you are truly blessed to have had these experiences.

1/13/2011 12:37 PM  
Blogger Keithslady declared,

I love this story. I'm glad you had that wonderful life experience. I'm also glad we got to share a week of it with you. You were a great program host.

1/16/2011 2:59 PM  

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