Five decades ago, they spent their summers working at Yellowstone National Park’s Old Faithful Inn. The experience transformed them — and bonded them for life.
Ginny Valenze has been to Yellowstone National Park many times, but she hadn’t entered the park through its East Entrance in five decades until last August. As she wound her way through the Absaroka Range and headed toward Yellowstone Lake and the geyser basin beyond, she had to fight back tears.
“I hadn’t seen that view in basically 50 years,” she said. “It took my breath away because I was immediately transported back to being that young — very naive in many ways — 22-year-old who was out to see the world, and I had to pull the car over because it was such a time-travel moment.”
Valenze was on her way to meet some of her favorite people, and she knew they’d gladly join her on her trip down memory lane. In 1972, Valenze, a northern New York native, worked as a waitress at Yellowstone’s Old Faithful Inn. She was one of dozens of young people from all over the country who helped run the historic hotel that summer — or several summers, for many of them — carrying tourists’ luggage, welcoming guests or selling souvenirs at the inn’s gift shop. They worked hard and made the most of living in one of the world’s most spectacular places, going on hikes, mountain climbs or fishing trips. Some fell in love with the West, while a non-negligible number fell in love with each other. Many formed deep friendships that would last a lifetime. “That, to me, is the real important thing — the relationships,” said Dave Huffman, who worked five summers at the inn as a bellman. “I refer to these people as my Yellowstone family.”
Every two years, this tightknit group gets together for a reunion at the inn, a century-old log hotel, which is located a stone’s throw from Old Faithful Geyser and is a tourist attraction in its own right. Inevitably, the 1970s pictures come out, on phone screens and in photo albums, and it’s apparent that the intervening decades have left their mark. Gone are most moustaches, and the hair is now trending shorter and grayer. The exuberance of youth has dimmed somewhat, and laugh lines have grown deeper, but the broad smiles are still there. The 2022 reunion was particularly significant because it was a 50th anniversary for many, and since the 2020 gathering had been scrapped over COVID-19 concerns, a number of attendees hadn’t seen each other for at least four years. So when they got together on a mid-August Friday night in a large room of the nearby Old Faithful Snow Lodge, the mood was ebullient, the chatter loud and the anecdotes free-flowing.
“I remember when the Shah of Iran came here, he had three semis,” said Gary Gebert, a former University of Oklahoma football player once known for an exceptional ability to transport large amounts of suitcases.
“This gentleman is prone to hyperbole!” said his friend and former bell captain, Al Chambard.
Chuck Lewis, a loyal reunion attendee who hadn’t been able to make the three-day drive from Mississippi because of a shoulder injury, was participating through a video chat on a phone that was passed from group to group. “Hi Chuck, we really miss you!” someone shouted.
At some point, a voice broke over the din to announce that it was time for the required group photo. Spouses and other relatives stepped aside, and three dozen 70-something Old Faithful Inn alums — including Lewis, still on screen — beamed at the camera.
My mother said to my sister, ‘You have to decide: Do you want to make more money or do you want to have fun?’
These days, Yellowstone’s hotels increasingly rely on overseas labor because the longer tourist season no longer matches the dates of U.S. colleges’ summer breaks, said Leslie Quinn, an interpretive specialist for Xanterra Travel Collection, the concessionaire that now runs Old Faithful Inn and other Yellowstone lodges. (Quinn said lodges now also count on retirees to fill jobs that are not physically demanding. He stressed that reunion attendees “know it’s open to them!”) In the early 1970s, however, the park’s hotels were staffed primarily with American college-age workers, who learned of the Yellowstone gigs from various sources. Some of the hotel hands were the heirs of a family tradition. For example, Christine Wood, who started waitressing at the inn in 1971, was inspired by her parents and sibling. Wood’s mother, a former waitress at the Old Faithful Lodge, met Wood’s father in the late 1940s when she was hitchhiking and he picked her up in his garbage truck. They later took their children to the park on vacation, and Wood’s mother encouraged their oldest daughter, Cindy Lombard, to pick a summer job there over a better-paying gig at a local grocery store. “My mother said to my sister, ‘You have to decide: Do you want to make more money or do you want to have fun?’” Wood said. Cindy heeded her mother’s advice, and it was a foregone conclusion that Wood would follow in her sister’s footsteps, which she did as soon as she turned 18.
Others were lured to Yellowstone by friends, but most of Wood’s contemporaries got to the park on their own initiative. The Yellowstone Park Company, which ran the park’s hotels at the time, sent applications to colleges across the country and placed advertisements in local newspapers. Kathy Harrison heard of employment opportunities in the park through an article in the Los Angeles Times’ travel section. She applied, but to her dismay, she was rejected. “I wrote back, and I said, ‘You’re making a big mistake,’” Harrison said, “and like, two weeks later, I had an offer.”
Leaving home for a summer in the park was a big leap for some. Connie Smith had prior experience with hospitality work as she helped her parents run their hotel in the small southern Oregon city of Ashland, but Yellowstone was a whole new world for the then-19-year-old. “I never got out of my small cocoon where I lived until I got out here,” she said. The women’s dorm was located behind Old Faithful Inn, and it wasn’t rare for Smith and her friends to come across bison on their short commute. “We’d have to wait until there were two or three of us, then make a lot of noise to run to get past them to get to the door to the kitchen,” she said.
The bellmen lived in close proximity to a different species: Their quarters were located near the top of the inn, in a section of the hotel named Bat’s Alley for its nocturnal, winged residents. Bat’s Alley was pretty much “party central” in the early ‘70s, Huffman said. “You were not supposed to have any females, any alcohol,” he said. “Of course, that was totally ignored. The manager would occasionally have to refund the room rates to people that slept under Bat’s Alley, which did not make management very happy.” Employees spent some of their time off chasing outdoor adventures — and a good portion of it chasing each other.
“Nobody had children,” Chambard said. “We were footloose and fancy-free.”
We are running out of runway. It’s the simple fact of getting older and life.
The dating frenzy eventually caught up with one of the bellmen (who shall remain unnamed). A group of women would often get together in the dorms to discuss their day — and their dates — over a pack of Oreo cookies. And so it was that Harrison told her friends about the line a serial dater had used on her. “I don’t remember exactly, but it was basically, ‘The stars and the sky are put to shame by the sparkle in your eye,’” she said.
It turned out that Harrison wasn’t the first to hear the line, as her friend Margaret Levy recounted: “And a girl said, ‘But he told me that!’ And then another said, ‘But he told me that!’” The women good-naturedly presented the offender with an “Oreo award” for his misdeeds.
Some dates — or nondates — had more successful outcomes. Michael Olds and Shauna Haywood had each worked many seasons in Yellowstone by the time they met in the summer of 1977. They played on the same volleyball team, and one night after practice, Olds asked Haywood on a date — or at least he thought he did. But Haywood thought she had simply agreed to giving Olds a ride to the movies, and that he’d only asked because she had a car.
“So we went down to the movie,” recounted Olds before crossing the Firehole River on a leisurely reunion hike. “I paid for the tickets. She didn’t like that.”
“It wasn’t a date!” she said.
Haywood insisted on paying for candy to even things out. Whatever that first night out together was, they quickly got on the same page. They were married within a year. The Olds both credit their common experience in the park for providing a solid foundation to their relationship.
Others experienced a different kind of transformative change. Some Easterners moved out West and never looked back. Some funded their college studies with the tips they earned, while others acquired skills they parlayed into jobs and careers. Away from home and the expectations of parents, they were able to experiment and get a clearer idea of who they were and what they wanted to do with the rest of their lives.
“I was kind of a shy, reserved guy. I hadn’t dated much before I came to Yellowstone,” Huffman said, while walking along the path circling the Old Faithful area geysers under a blazing sun. “My years at Old Faithful, I really do view them as my coming of age.”
Sometimes it was Yellowstone itself that was the instrument of change. Much of the park is located above a 50-mile-long magma chamber responsible for the area’s geysers and hot springs, and Wood remembers going on a backcountry hike with a friend one day and having an epiphany as she sat in silence “on top of a volcano.” “It was just kind of the bigger picture of how my life was so insignificant in the scope of Mother Nature and that my life would be the blink of an eye compared with what was going on under the surface,” Wood recalled. “I think I lost a sense of self-importance.”
These were dear, dear friends, I mean all of them, but we sort of went different places and went on with our lives.
As significant as they were to one another, the Old Faithful alums didn’t much keep in touch as a group after their service in the park ended. “These were dear, dear friends, I mean all of them, but we sort of went different places and went on with our lives,” said Sally Thompson, who got “a real job” after her last summer as a hostess at the inn in 1972. But when a friend visited her in the early 1980s, they started reminiscing about their Yellowstone days and wondering about what had happened to the rest of the Old Faithful crew. So Thompson typed up a letter and sent copies to a handful of addresses she had on hand. She asked the recipients to forward the letter to others and share snippets about their time in Yellowstone and their current lives. The responses kept coming — and coming. Soon Thompson found herself using her law office’s copy machine after hours to crank out more letters compiling the information she collected. “More people started responding, and it was obvious people wanted to get together,” she said. The first reunion took place at Old Faithful Inn in 1987, and subsequent ones followed roughly every three years and then every two years. “The first few reunions were frantic because people hadn’t seen each other for so long, and there was lots of screaming,” Thompson said.
Reunions typically last three days and include a fishing trip, fireside chats, card games and evenings at the Bear Pit, the inn’s bar where a couple of attendees worked back in the day. The reunion is also an opportunity to reconnect with the place itself. The incomparable beauty of Yellowstone is one of the reasons many return time and again, and once here, some walk alone amid nearby geysers and the early morning mist, while others join in small groups on night hikes to Observation Point (reunion dates tend to coincide with the timing of full moons) for an unobstructed view of Old Faithful and the inn. Increasingly, it seems, reunion attendees spend time in their former workplace. With its massive stone fireplace, deck and galleries, the hotel is full of cozy spots where one can relax, read a book or try to spot the occasional bat. “I just feel at home here,” said Thompson, sitting on a couch overlooking the lobby. “This is an extended living room for all of us.”
One highlight of every reunion is a Saturday night outdoor bash meant to replicate the parties of yore, complete with fire, music and Yucca Flats, a concoction of limes, oranges, maraschino cherries, and substantial quantities of sugar and vodka. “It’s actually very tasty,” Chambard said. But this year, external forces seemed to conspire against the organizers. First, the National Park Service denied their request to hold the shindig in the usual location by the Firehole River, a spot now reserved for current employees. Harrison offered to host the party at her recreational vehicle site at Madison Junction, but by late Saturday afternoon, dark clouds had taken over the sky, and many reunion participants decided to skip the 20-mile drive to the campground. Only a few brave souls made it, and it was just as well because rain was pouring down and space under Harrison’s awning was limited. “This is pretty pitiful,” Chambard said, chuckling. “I’m gonna die of hypothermia.”
No Yucca Flats were produced, and people munched on crackers, smoked salmon and Twizzlers. Someone somehow got a fire going, and Huffman and his older brother, Cliff, who also had worked in Yellowstone more than half a century ago, were roasting hot dogs side by side in their rain jackets.
At some point, Valenze said, “You know what’s really weird is that when I look at everybody, I don’t see 70-year-olds.” Still, time’s march is inexorable, and mortality has naturally become a more common topic of conversation.
Huffman said that at an informal gathering in 2021, “there was a group of us talking, swapping tales, and one of us said, you know, we should really write this down because all these stories are gonna die with us. It just really resonated with me.” A retired family law attorney, Huffman got to work, and in September of last year published “Coming of Age in Yellowstone National Park,” which he describes as a work of “historical fiction” about his Yellowstone summers that is about 80% true.
The group lost several members in recent years, and an “RIP” mention now appears next to their names in the newsletters, which are still going around. According to tradition, reunion attendees throw a pinecone into the fire for each departed friend. “We all joke now that we don’t want to be the pinecone at the next reunion,” Huffman said.
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Valenze said that as they get older, she and others are more motivated to make the effort to attend every reunion and visit each other whenever possible. “We are running out of runway,” she said. “It’s the simple fact of getting older and life.” She has long believed that her soul belongs in Yellowstone, a place where she said she feels “at one with the universe.” The idea of cremation makes her squeamish, but she said if she decides to do that, she wants her ashes to be scattered in Yellowstone. She’s not the only one to have made this plan.
“At our last reunion, we found out that there were at least six or seven of us who wanted to do that,” Valenze said, “and I said jokingly, ‘Well, we’ll all be together again, then.’”
About the author
Nicolas Brulliard Senior Editor
Nicolas is a journalist and former geologist who joined NPCA in November 2015. He writes and edits online content for NPCA and serves as senior editor of National Parks magazine.