It was August 2000, year of our lord. The Kreitner family was in Yellowstone for around five days, taking our sweet time with a park that, if it is not America’s largest, is at least the densest as far as attractions go. While most parks tend to specialize in either amazing creatures, beautiful scenery, or interesting geological phenomena, Yellowstone excels in all three.
Anyway, one day we were visiting yet another batch of geo-thermal pools and hot springs. We were standing on the boardwalk the park service constructs above these features, allowing you to walk right out and over them and to see into their crystal-clear, colorful depths. I was leaning over the railing, probably trying to wrap my mind around the concept, if not the word, of the “abyss,” when my beloved Yankees bucket cap fell into the boiling, sulfuric water. I started bawling, knowing, having watched the parks video, that many people die every year by accidentally falling into the thermal waters or deliberating reaching in to retrieve some cherished artifact which they know, in the opposite case, would do the same. I loved that hat, but did not want to die. Broken-hearted—I had lost another cherished Yankees hat the year before after I left it in a Broadway theatre where I had been forced to endure some one-woman play about the Titanic—I repaired to the car and eventually flew back to New Jersey, thinking there wasn’t a chance in the world I’d get the hat back. A good stoic, I was already learning to move on.
After dinner at the Red Robin near the Newark International Airport (a returning-from-vacation Kreitner tradition), we got back home and my parents checked the messages on the machine. I was called in to listen to one. It was from a man named Carl Love, who said he had been visiting a geothermal pool in Yellowstone when he saw a hat floating in the water. He got his fishing pole from his car and yanked the hat out. When it had cooled down, he checked the inside and found our phone number there. If we would just give him our address, he’d mail it back.
I don’t know what happened to that hat. I probably lost it in some much less illustrious way or finally threw sentimentality out the window during a rare purge of my closet. Perhaps it did not survive my self-granted promotion from "Yankees fan" to "Ramones-listener."
Anyway, I have been pen pals with Carl Love ever since. I’d send him letters from camp, postcards from my travels around America, England, and elsewhere, and he would send me his family’s generic typed Christmas letter with a personal handwritten note at the bottom. Carl lives in Boulder, Colorado, most of the year, but for 30 years or so has worked and lived in Yellowstone for the whole summer. Every year I love reading his stories about life in the park, especially his close encounters with grizzly bears. We’ve never met, though I nearly had the chance when I was in Denver for a few days two years ago. I could have taken the bus to Boulder and surprised him at his house—one of only a few addresses I've ever bothered to memorize—but for some reason I opted to spend another day exploring Denver.
Fast forward to this spring. I sent Carl a postcard from somewhere in the South, saying that Brahna and I were on a four-month trip across the U.S. and that we would probably be in Denver sometime in May. When we decided later that a dip down through Colorado wasn’t in the cards, I was pretty disappointed, figuring I’d lost my last chance to meet the man who is technically (and in more than one way) one of my oldest friends. I was thrilled, though, when my parents told me on the phone that they’d gotten a letter from Carl Love, asking them to tell me that he would be going up to Yellowstone on May 11th, and that he was sorry we couldn’t meet. Coincidentally, Brahna and I had specifically chosen not to go to Colorado in May so that we could spend more time in Yellowstone and its environs. My dad found his phone number online, but, because I’m me, I didn’t call it until the morning of May 11th. It rang and rang, no answer, no voicemail. Another Google search found his name in a church bulletin, so I called the church. A very nice lady, amused by my story, confirmed that Carl had left that morning. She did give me the helpful information that Carl worked at a store inside the park. Beyond that, I'd have to do some old-time investigating.
The decision to make it home for Grandpa's funeral contracted our time in Yellowstone from four days to one, and anyway it seemed like tracking a man whose picture I'd never seen in a park as big as Yellowstone was a lost cause. We started at the northern entrance to the park, where informal interviews at several gift shops led me to the personnel office of one of the two companies who are contracted to run concessions in Yellowstone. They, probably illegally, told me that they had no record of an employee named Carl Love, but wished me good luck. At least I now knew which company he worked for.
Several dozen bison, one grizzly bear, and a few geysers later, we decided to stop for lunch at Canyon Junction, near the famed Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and Yellowstone Falls. One of the stores in the complex was still closed for the season, though I saw sealed boxes inside waiting to be unpacked. While Brahna surreptitiously heated up our leftovers in the microwave of the other store, I asked the oldest employee I could find whether they knew of one Carl Love. Indeed, she did, she pronounced him lovely and a real old-timer at the store next door, the one that hadn't yet opened. That that store should be his home-away-from-home made sense, I realized, since he had just arrived in Yellowstone the day before, and the store seemed ready to open in just a few days.
In any case, since this story is already getting too long and, quite honestly, there is no great climax to it—no Oprah-worthy moment where I meet and hug Carl Love and perhaps experience some kind of grand realization about my own life and that of my late grandfather—I'll just wind it down here. She didn't know where Carl was at that moment, though she did say I could try the motels in West Yellowstone, about 30 miles or so out of the way. Time was short, though, and we still had a lot of park to get through before retiring for the night in Jackson and catching our sunrise flight the next morning. I scrawled out a little note for the woman to give to Carl when she saw him. I explained the situation, about how we just missed each other and how Brahna and I were flying home last-minute. In the back of my mind, I thought about the possibility that we would try to find him again the following week, after flying into Jackson and driving back through Yellowstone towards our next destination. When the time came, of course, we had somewhere we wanted to be and didn't make the stop. It leaves us with a good reason to make it to Denver in the not-too-distant future: another one of those little presents Brahna and I have left to our future, older, more earth-bound selves, places all around the country that we decided to skip this time but to which we have promised to return. As for my pen pal, as a lifelong fisherman he should know as well as anyone that things come up.
Lastly, because that was a lame ending, because I only really wrote this post because I finished the last one with an implied promise of a story to come, and because, as it was mostly set in the pre-digital past, I didn't have any pictures to put in it, and because you've been very well-behaved in reading this far, here's a picture of an elk.