With a title like that, I knew I had to read the book. Downing shares his adventures as a college student in the summer of 1990 working in the world’s first national park. After laughing my way through the book, which was definitely filled with tales of desperate misadventure, I contacted Downing to see if he’d be interested in an interview about what is probably one of the best summer jobs I could think of. Thankfully Downing agreed to look back at his first summer in the park and relive his memories with me.
MNN: How did you end up spending a summer working in Yellowstone National Park?
Scott Downing: As I cut grass and assembled picnic tables for Michigan’s Missaukee County Parks Commission one summer, I dreamed of more exotic locales. Foremost amongst those flights of fancy were Lake Huron’s historic Mackinac Island and Lake Erie’s roller coaster capitol Cedar Point. Both of these resorts boasted Great Lake access and employees from such distant and strange lands as Ohio and Indiana. During my job quest, I visited Ferris State University’s placement center and stumbled across a Yellowstone interview signup sheet. After being startled by the opportunity, and then desperately interested in the possibility, I was soon honored to be employed cleaning cabins and scrubbing toilets in the world’s first national park.
What did you think of the park when you first arrived?
I was utterly stunned. Given that I had arrived at the north entrance of Yellowstone at 3:30 a.m., I had no idea of the terrain around me. When the sun rose I was amazed to find myself dwarfed by the snowcapped Electric Peak and nearly unnerved by the Yellowstone River as it careened through a boulder-strewn obstacle course beside the blacktop.
How was it working in a big outdoor playground like Yellowstone?
It was paradise. The next new day always seemed to bring something wonderfully unique and previously unimagined to us. From Old Faithful eruptions to viewings of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone; from wilderness hikes in bear country to mad trash bag sledding down Avalanche Peak; from whitewater rafting to rodeos, the greater Yellowstone area was never a dull place to be; except, of course, when we were required to work our way through the equivalent of a years worth of personal-home housekeeping in the course of a single, 8-hour shift.
Did your appreciation for public spaces like national parks grow after spending a summer in YNP? Why or why not?
Yes. After being perpetually dazzled by the variety of Yellowstone, I began to pay much more attention to the many other offerings the National Park Service holds in their charge. Now, I can’t conceive of a trip without first consulting a map to discover what natural or historic national parks may lay along the way. National parks are said to be one of America’s best ideas and I wholeheartedly agree. In my own backyard Michigan’s Sleeping Bear Dunes and Pictured Rocks National Lakeshores are two annual must-sees on my family’s list. Isle Royale National Park is still, unfortunately, on the wish list.
How did your work at YNP impact your college life and career decisions?
Working in Yellowstone may have played a role in my decision to transfer from studying math to majoring in history. It has been a dream of mine for some time to parlay that history degree into a job with the National Park Service.
What three pieces of advice would you give a college student preparing to work at YNP for the first time?
Go everywhere. Do everything. Do it safely. Call your family.
Make friendships that will last a lifetime, preferably with people who own cars. Buses and hitchhiking have not been recommended forms of travel since the time of the dinosaurs.
Don’t be afraid to explore the park. Do be afraid of approaching bison and other creatures with teeth and/or credit cards.
Thank you Scott for sharing a little behind-the-scenes look at a summer job in Yellowstone National Park.