Forty Years Later
The story of one employee’s incredible 40-year journey through Yellowstone
“It’s a place that has offered me incredible opportunities of a lifetime that I never had envisioned being offered.”
At some point, all good things must come to an end; the same can be said about the incredible career of Jim McCaleb.
For 40 years, McCaleb has worked in Yellowstone. He has held almost every position from seasonal jobs, eventually making his way to General Manager of Yellowstone and Vice President of Parks North at Xanterra. Throughout his time in the park, he lived a life he can only describe as, “fortunate.”
But it wasn’t always his plan to end up in the world’s first national park.
“Before I really focused in on working in a national park – even seasonally – I was really all over the map,” McCaleb admitted. “I wanted something, preferably out west. I grew up in the southeastern part of the country and lived there all my life, and hadn’t traveled much out of the Southeast. So I wanted the new experiences of a different part of the country and something outdoors; that was sort of the vision early on.”
McCaleb first heard the call of the parks in his early days of college. As a parks and recreation major during his freshmen year, he and a close friend began applying for seasonal National Park Service (NPS) positions for the summer.
At the time, it seemed devastating when he heard nothing back from any of his NPS application attempts. But in the long run, those rejections opened more doors than he could have imagined.
It was the summer of 1975 when McCaleb first found his home in the park. His friend had accepted a NPS position in what is now known as Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument while McCaleb had been offered a seasonal job as a room clerk (now known as a guest service agent) for Roosevelt Lodge.
“I had resigned myself to think, ‘well, I didn’t get a Park Service job,’ but I did get the job offer,” McCaleb said. “I thought, ‘you know what? That’s something that, at least I would have that one year experience in the park.’ And having never been here, I had no idea what I was walking into at the time.”
And from his first few moments in the park, he knew he was in for an incredible journey.
“When we entered the entrance gate – my very first time in Yellowstone – and somewhere around Steamboat Point, or right as the lake came into view, we saw our first bison,” he recalled. “And he was just about spitting distance from the car on the passenger side where I was and I thought that was the most phenomenal sight I had ever seen or would ever see.”
From that moment on, McCaleb fell in love with the park, yet as he left after that first season ended, he assumed his time in Yellowstone had come to an end.
Oh, how wrong he was.
He was offered an opportunity to return the following summer, with the promotion to front office manager in the Roosevelt Lodge. That promotion prompted him to return for several more seasons accepting the location manager position at the Roosevelt area.
Afterwards, Yellowstone became McCaleb’s life. The innumerous experiences from his time in the park include meeting his wife, a few chance celebrity encounters, watching the evolution of the park lodges throughout the years, and so much more.
Throughout his 40 years, he has held various positions. While he initially started as a GSA at Roosevelt Lodge, he worked at the Utah Parks Division (Zion, Bryce, Grand Canyon North Rim) before he came back to YNP. McCaleb has served as a location manager, director and VP over the course of his time here with YP Company, TWA Services, TW Services, TW Recreational Services, Amfac and Xanterra.
McCaleb has also accomplished incredible things during his career. He was a Big Wyo Recipient (Wyoming Tourism industry’s highest honor for a private sector representative), was on the Wyoming Tourism Board (an advisory board appointed by the governor to represent the industry) and was chair of the Wyoming Restaurant Association Education Foundation, just to name a few things.
And now, at the end of a long and special career, McCaleb acknowledges how thankful he is to have been a part of the park, and how he is thankful that Yellowstone has become a part of him.
“I can’t imagine experiences, the number of special, unique experiences, if I had been in any other career, Park Service or not,” he said. “I think, again, It’s this place that sort of triggered those experiences and was the reason for those experiences. Because this place is what it is, it offered opportunities for not only anticipated and special experiences, but the unanticipated and special experiences.”
Most incredibly, at the end of 40 years, McCaleb said he has no regrets.
“I think about decisions I’ve made, paths I’ve taken that if I had a chance to do it over again, would I do something differently? Yes, but absolutely no regrets.”
Just as it changed and shaped him so many years ago, McCaleb said he hopes that people understand the difference between seeing pictures of Yellowstone and actually coming to the park, and that this park can change a person’s life if they let it.
“I can talk all day about this place and I will never do it justice,” he explained. “Until you physically are here and have a sense through your own eyes and ears what this place is about, then you’ll come to understand it a little more. When people come out and they discover what this place is all about and all the things there are to do, it makes a major impact on a lot of us.”
Interview Questions with Jim McCaleb
Meet Jim McCaleb, a former employee of Yellowstone who retired in 2017 and closed out an amazing career of over 40 years. Throughout his time here in the park, McCaleb has gathered some incredible experiences. He built a life in the park, and now it’s time to say goodbye as he moves into the next phase of his life. In honor of his 40 years of service, we asked McCaleb to share some of the most memorable stories from his career. Here are 40 questions from a 40-year employee.
In your early life, before Yellowstone and/or the parks became your career path…
1. What did you think you’d be doing for your career?
-Before I really focused in on working in a national park – even seasonally – I was really all over the map. I wanted something preferably out west. I grew up in the southeastern part of the country and lived there all my life, and hadn’t traveled much out of the Southeast. So I wanted the new experiences of a different part of the country and something outdoors; that was sort of the vision early on. And of course when I got my seasonal job here in Yellowstone, things sort of just started to fall in place after that.
2. Where did you think you’d be?
– I never saw myself ending up living and working in a national park, frankly, and especially for all these years. After a few seasons here in Yellowstone, my career thoughts shifted more towards hospitality, and I shifted my major to business administration with a focus on restaurant and hotel management. I thought I would probably wind up in a fairly traditional career path with a hospitality organization or a hotel company, probably more urban than this kind of a setting.
3. What initially brought you to Yellowstone?
– I had resigned myself to think, “well, I didn’t get a Park Service job,” but I did get the job offer and I thought, “you know what? That’s something that, at least I would have that one year experience in the park.” And having never been here, I had no idea what I was walking into at the time.
4. Do you remember what your first day in the park was like?
– I have some strong recollections of my first day. We came in through the East Gate, and I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. When we entered the entrance gate – my very first time in Yellowstone – and somewhere around Steamboat Point, or right as the lake came into view, we saw our first bison. And he was just about spitting distance from the car on the passenger side where I was and I thought that was the most phenomenal sight I had ever seen or would ever see.
5. What kept you in Yellowstone?
– After that first season, when I left here on the first or second or third of September, I thought that would be it for Yellowstone; I had no idea that I would be coming back at that point, even though I loved it.
Somewhere, a couple of months later, for the next summer, I was offered the front office manager’s job at Roosevelt, so that little bit of a promotion helped me make the decision to come back to Yellowstone the second year. So I did that, and I was the front office manager there for a couple of years, and then in the fourth season, I was the location manager, which was 1978 at Roosevelt Lodge.
After that, it took a crowbar to get me out of Roosevelt, because it’s the place where I started by spending four seasons there. It’s a really special place to me personally.
Throughout your career…
6. What person(s) was the greatest influence on your career and why?
– Without naming names, there are several people, I think, that have had an influence on probably my life and career in several ways. What I’ve learned is, you know, is you learn as much from some of the poor supervisors who you’ve worked for as maybe you did from the great or good supervisors. I’ve had more of my fair share of great bosses over the years and I’ve learned a lot from them. And I’ve learned a lot from other bosses who I wouldn’t rank so highly in terms of greatness. So for different reasons, numerous people have influenced me over the years I’ve walked the whole path of this entire career.
7. What was one of the craziest experiences you ever had in Yellowstone?
– In the summer of 1982, I was the location manager at Old Faithful Inn, and [my wife] Mary was a bellhop. Well this group checked in, and it was Mary’s turn for the next guest up. So Mary took the party to their room, then came back and she had a flurry of employees around her, asking her questions like, ‘well what did he say, did you talk to him?’ She had no clue what they were walking about. She had just escorted Art Garfunkel and his party to their room in the west wing. She didn’t have a clue at the time.
He was traveling with a friend from elementary school and his buddy’s two kids. So a little bit later after they had checked in, Art came into my office and he needed assistance. His friend’s son was, I think, an asthma sufferer and he needed a shot. Art asked Mary and I if we would take his friend and son to the Lake hospital and get him the shot. So Mary and I were in the front seat, and Sandy and his son were in the back, and he was telling us Art Garfunkel stories. And then he said, ‘hey, would you like to listen to some unreleased songs of Simon and Garfunkel?’ How do you say no to something like that?
So he pulls out a bag out of the trunk of these cassette tapes with no marks or labels. And we didn’t get back until one in the morning after we got his son the shot. Sandy and his son went to bed, I parked the car. I was working the next morning when Art came to my office again and he said, ‘where’s the car?’ because I had parked it in a different place than they parked, and he also said, ‘by the way, is there a more private way to get out of here?’ I offered to take him to the car and drive him around to get their luggage. We walked out to the back lot of the Inn and we get into the car, I drive him around the dorms and towards the west wing, and while I’m driving around, Art is in the passenger seat tapping the dashboard and singing, “Mrs. Robinson.” I was sitting there thinking, ‘is this real?’ I wanted to just keep driving, because I figured as long as I would drive, he would sing. It was phenomenal, and after we got them all loaded up, they were telling us that they were grateful for the help that we gave them, but we got a heck of a lot more out of it than they did, right? What an experience.
A couple of weeks later, a cardboard thing shows up in the mail, and I thought Mary signed up for one of those, one cent Columbia Record program things. We opened it up, and it was the double album of Simon and Garfunkel’s concert in Central Park from Art to Mary and me. I thought, ‘holy mackerel; for all the stuff he’s involved with, to take the time to send that and do that and figure out the address and send that thing out…’ it was a really special time.
8. What was the most profound/meaningful experience you’ve had in the park?
– Over 40 years, I think about a lot of things where I stop and take notice and I don’t know if ‘profound’ and ‘meaningful’ fits the bill for these kinds of memories, but things like being able to live in the Old Faithful Inn, and with that comes the opportunity to be there when guests aren’t there. At that time, the manager lived right above the front desk. We lived in the Inn pre and post season, and when no one is in the Upper Geyser Basin, the sounds are phenomenal.
I remember being awakened one night by the rumble of Beehive Geyser and it was almost like you could feel it. I don’t know if that was just an imaginary sensation, but the rumbling sounded like a locomotive coming through. Every time I look at Beehive now, I think about being awake when nobody else was around and hearing what a roar it really produces and how during the day time, you really can’t hear it because of the noise and the people and the clatter that’s going on.
Those kinds of experiences, I think, are meaningful and stick with me because they’re opportunities that, you know, while a typical guest gets terrific opportunities to see things and to do things in this park, those are special moments that only come because you’re living here.
9. How has the park changed over the years?
– When I came here in ’75, the company, Yellowstone Park Company, was really struggling to make things work here. There wasn’t a lot of money going into the facilities. They were in the worst state of disrepair that they had been in 50 years. The event that started 40 years of improvements was the buyout of YNP Company in 1979. So for 40 years, we’ve been on a path of improvements with concessions facilities in this park. I personally believe they are in the best shape that they’ve ever been collectively in the history of the entire park.
10. How has the park influenced/shaped you over the years?
– Well obviously, when you spend as much time as I do making mistakes, you can learn by those, I think as we all do…
And I think it’s just that. What it has taught me is that if you stay on a path and endure all that comes along that path for long enough, it really does help shape you from the standpoint of decision making and from the standpoint of sort of understanding and having the ability to visualize what your next steps might be. I think that has shaped me to know, stick around long enough and want to lean into these issues a little bit and you can really have some impact. I think the long tenure has helped shape who I am and maybe what I am today. I think that goes for a lot of long timers here.
11. If you could change one thing about the park (job, management, administration, rules, people, etc.) what would it be?
– I think we all want to improve in every way, regardless of the category, whether it’s some regulation, or some issue or matter that prevents us from doing the absolute best job we can do. Without specifying any one single issue or answer or rule, I think the fact that what makes this place super interesting is that we bring in 2,500 seasonal employees. Collectively, I think there are 4,000 employees in the park across the all the concessioners and the Park Service at peak, and it’s such a dynamic situation that we all see things that we would wanna change, but I think the common denominator there is, it would be to further improve what we’re already doing in the course of all our missions here. That’s the cool thing to me; we’re all here for the right reasons. We all see the things that we would love to change, and expedite improvement across our missions, and we all understand the complexities in trying to get there.
12. What do you consider your greatest accomplishment, personally and/or professionally?
– Well, staying awake at my desk is probably the most significant accomplishment…
You live, work and play right here, and literally. This environment, frankly, is not for everybody, and it takes a certain amount of understanding the environment you’re in to be able to accept it and enjoy it. It’s a 24/7 kind of routine; it’s not leaving the job at the end of the day, getting into your car and moving to a different environment. You’re here 24/7, and if you aren’t working with the people at the job, you’re seeing them in some venue on the weekends, so that takes its toll, frankly, on some people after a while. So perhaps my biggest accomplishment is the number of years that I have been here with the company and in this environment.
13. What was your most memorable season in the park?
– When you have virtually 40 seasons, it’s extremely difficult. There’s not one season that rises above others. I think for me, every season had something special and unique.
I will say that the Old Faithful Inn season, I thought, was – if I had to pick a season, the year that I was a manager and Mary was a bellhop, in some ways, at that point in my career was the most challenging position I had, most challenging time we had, and at the same time, the most enjoyable and successful season that we had.
14. Why was it the most memorable?
– We opened a brand new kitchen that year after a major remodel project over the course of the winter before, and of course everything that could go wrong did with opening that kitchen. I had a food and beverage manager that resigned three times and I denied his resignation three times. You know, we were just at our wits end trying to get the thing stabilized. And then, it just felt like something magical happened at some point in midseason. I felt like we were hitting stride, and from that point on, it was in my mind, sort of a thing of beauty. The wheels were turning, but it was pretty magical in that it was a very cohesive leadership team. We were at the point, by then, where we could almost think each other’s thoughts, and it just helped facilitate what I thought was really enjoyable and successful remainder of the season.
This or that…
15. Hayden Valley or Lamar Valley?
16. Black bear or grizzly bear?
– Grizzly bears
17. Hiking or wildlife watching?
– It’s a tie
18. Yellowstone in the winter or summer?
What advice would you give…
19. What advice would you give to someone who is considering Yellowstone for a summer or career?
– I would absolutely recommend it at a minimum of a season, to try it on for size. I think what it brings is not just a job, but an experience in one of the most special places on the planet. It works for some people; it doesn’t work for everyone, but you’ll never know that without giving it a shot and giving it a try. And for those who lock on to it, I would absolutely recommend it as a career, because where else can you actually work and live with this kind of scenery and these special places that we operate and the special experiences that come with that.
The jobs aren’t that different than jobs out in other places, whether you’re in a city or in some other environment, but what is different is the place – the actual location – and that’s what makes the job something much more than just a job.
20. What advice would you give to any first season employees?
– Be persistent. Don’t let any first impressions force you to make hasty decisions. Give this place some time and give yourself some time in this place and see if it works. I think I’ve seen, unfortunately, people come in and talk themselves into thinking that this place didn’t meet their expectations without really giving this place a chance. I think far more people who made that decision, who made that choice, if they were a little more persistent and maybe a little more patient in letting things work through, they would better understand the magical place this is and what this place is all about.
Finish the sentence…
21. If I was an animal of Yellowstone, I’d be: a bear.
22. Why would you be a bear?
– Because I would get to sleep all winter. That’s my comical answer… but you’re sort of the top of the food chain here – in some ways – if you’re a grizzly bear walking around. And to be able to roam this place through those eyes would be pretty special, I think.
23. If I was a type of thermal feature, I’d be a: fumarole.
24. Why would your thermal feature be a fumarole?
– Only because whenever our staff meetings are full of hot air, it’s mostly generated by me. I’ll leave it at that.
25. If I could describe Yellowstone in just one word, it would be: awesome.
What is your favorite…
26. What is your favorite place in the park?
– The northeastern part of the parks
27. Why is that your favorite peak in the park?
– Mt. Washburn
28. What was your favorite location to work in the park? (If not YNP, the Utah Parks?)
– Roosevelt Lodge
29. What is your favorite thing to do in Yellowstone for time off?
– Walking the Mammoth Terraces with Mary
30. What is your favorite hike in the park?
– Lost Lake
31. Which hotel in the park is your favorite?
– Roosevelt Lodge
32. Which restaurant in the park is your favorite?
– Roosevelt Lodge
33. What is your favorite dish/meal in the park?
– Smoked chicken linguine at Mammoth
34. Favorite gateway town?
– That’s a tough question because they all aren’t cookie cutter; each has its own uniqueness about it. Jackson to me is the classic tourist town, and sometimes it’s just fun to get out of the car and walk the square. It just has the flavor of something really special down in Jackson Hole. Cody; the museum is just – how do you beat that? It’s just hard for me to pick one over another. They’re all great for different reasons.
35. What is your favorite geyser basin in the park?
– Upper Geyser Basin
36. What is your favorite waterfall in the park?
– Lower Falls of the Grand Canyon; are there any others?
Reflecting at the end of your career…
37. How do you think your life would have been different had you not come to Yellowstone?
– I can’t imagine experiences, the number of special, unique experiences if I had been in any other career, Park Service or not. I think, again, it’s this place that sort of triggered those experiences and was the reason for those experiences. Because this place is what it is, it offered opportunities for not only anticipated and special experiences, but the unanticipated and special experiences.
38. What will you miss most about working here?
– The people with whom I have worked, some for more than two decades, some approaching three decades or more. That’s gonna be tough.
39. Can you describe your overall 40-year experience working in Yellowstone with just one word?
40. What else do you want to share with the many people who will be viewing/reading this interview?
– You know how when you look at a picture of something, whether it’s a place or a park, or whatever it is, and then you actually go stand and look at it in person and in real terms and real time, and how you always say to yourself, ‘jeez, the picture just didn’t do it justice? There’s no way a picture can capture this.’ I think what I would say to anybody reading this, regardless of the words that I’ve said about this place, or about the experiences, or about what this place has meant to me, there’s nothing I can say that will ever match the experience that somebody’s gonna have when they actually physically come and see and experience this place. I can talk all day about this place and I will never do it justice. Until you physically are here and have a sense through your own eyes and ears what this place is about, then you’ll come to understand it a little more.
Karley Nugent graduated from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette with a major in journalism and a minor in English. During the summer of 2015, she worked as a Senior Guest Service Agent (GSA) at Lake Lodge in Yellowstone National Park. Nugent is a photographer, avid hiker and lover of all things Yellowstone, especially the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone (look for her at Artist Point).
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