Yellowstone National Park saved my friend, Sammie. Sam is a homosexual man. We met and worked together when I lived in Kimball Junction, Utah. He’s a ginger, has a great smile, and is very funny. I knew that we would be good friends before he did. Sometimes you meet people who you just KNOW were created and placed on earth to be friends with you. Sam is one of those people. It took him a while to open up to me, but soon enough he was my favorite person to work with. My heart was genuinely happy when we were scheduled together.
I laughed with Sam about everything. We joked about the same people. We have a similar sense of humor and laughed about love, work, life…anything you could think of. One night at work he was complaining about a guest and she walked up right behind him. She didn’t hear him but it was such a close call! We laughed about that for days. One night we even sat down one night and named what every co-worker’s “hot mess” quality was. “Crazy Eyes”, or “Flirting With the Boss”, or “Constant Drama”. We assigned each co-worker one “hot mess trait”, all in good fun. It was a hit with the others, and Sam and I laughed about that for weeks. Every memory I had of Sam at that job was not only good, but happy. He was a bright light in my life.
Sam grew up in a small town in Wyoming with parents devout to the Mormon religion. The Mormon religion does not condone homosexual relations within the laws of that religion. To quote the official web site:
“Sexual purity is an essential part of God’s plan for our happiness. Sexual relations are reserved for a man and woman who are married and promise complete loyalty to each other. Sexual relations between a man and woman who are not married, or between people of the same sex, violate one of our Father in Heaven’s most important laws and get in the way of our eternal progress.”
I don’t have any new, earth shattering evidence about love and religion and controversial issues such as homosexuality. I don’t have a new point of view to argue about who is right or who is wrong about the subject of homosexuality. But I can tell you part of Sam’s story.
Seasonal workers move to different jobs often, following the influx of seasonal business. I make friends from around the world, and all over the US. I become very close to them, and then we move on. I do my best to keep in touch with people, and I have even gone to visit them during my travels, but the reality is that I will never see most of those people again. I never thought this about Sam. I knew, at some point we would spend time together again. When that time came though, I made him cry.
About a year after Sam and I parted ways he called me. There was no need to screen this call, I answered the phone with great enthusiasm. We exchanged pleasantries, I regaled my nomadic tales of the past year, and we talked about my future plans. Then I excitedly asked him how he was doing anticipating happy and funny tales as usual. When he said “not so good”, I felt my stomach drop as I heard the quiver in his voice. Immediately concerned, I told him he was safe with me, that I was all ears, and to tell me what was wrong. “I don’t know where to begin”, he says to me, as he began to weep. He kept repeating himself, “I don’t know where to begin. How do I start?” One of the worst parts of my lifestyle is that everybody I am close to is almost always far away. When I want to hug someone as tightly as possible and they are thousands of miles away from me, it’s agony. All I could do was give him the time he needed and listen.
His life was in shambles. He was struggling with a proper place to live, a new car payment he couldn’t afford, a sexual encounter that left him feeling unwarranted shame, and he had also lost his job because of all the stress. Not wanting to interrupt, I just let him cry. We’ve all been there. We’ve all been to that ugly place where tears are the only river that flows. I had never known this Sam. The Sam I knew was a little anxious at times, but he also had a five year plan for his life. He had good friends, he lived alone which takes guts to do in a big city. He had a good job, he knew he was funny and lovable. He was stable for the most part, as far as I knew. In fact, I typically feel like a neurotic train wreck around people like that and I remember thinking that Sam had his shit together and how awesome that was. But this Sam was new to me. This Sam was hurting, and hurting badly.
I let him shed all the details and tears, and in time he began to feel a little relief. I told him I was sorry about everything he had gone through. I asked a few questions, and he told me a little more, then cried a little more, then told me every last detail about how this all happened. The tears finally stopped and his voice was calm and I was finally able to joke with him and get a small laugh. There it was, that moment of relief when you feel like the weight of the world is off your shoulders. Sometimes all a person needs to do is vent. I asked him what his plan was now. I asked if he knew what he was going to do. He told me he was going to go to his parents house and live with them while he got back on his feet. I was glad he had an alternative, but I was also very concerned about this. Small Wyoming town…devout Mormon family…and a very vulnerable and hurting soul.
Sam and I discussed this option for a long time. I made him explore every other option, and I asked him if he felt like he would be OK there. I had a feeling it was a bad decision, but he seemed to think everything would be fine. I didn’t know his family personally, so I allowed him to convince me. We ended that phone call that night with me reassuring him that he always had a friend in me. That he was lovable and perfect just the way he was. I told him that we all go through hard times and that this was just a rough patch, a speed bump on the highway and that soon enough it would be all over and everything would be fine again. I reminded him to keep perspective, told him I loved him, and to keep me posted, and we hung up. He felt better, but now I was the one who was anxious and worried.
Over the next few weeks I texted Sam a few times after that just to check in and tell him I loved him and that I hoped everything was OK. He called me a couple of times to catch up and tell me he was doing a little better and would be with his parents soon. He seemed to be feeling a little better as he worked toward this. I still had that uneasy feeling though, you know the one, where something just isn’t right. That physical presence of a knot in your stomach that won’t allow the bad thoughts to slip from your mind. I didn’t hear from him for a few weeks. I texted on occasion, but Sam isn’t the best about replying so I assumed that no news was good news. Then, after a couple more weeks, I got another late night call. He was upset again. VERY upset. He told me that he was so confused. That he hadn’t been able to find a job. That his parents were pressuring him to get himself figured out. Then he told me that they were making him feel all those old, terrible feelings that were so familiar to him. He told me that they were telling him that his lifestyle choices were the cause of all of this. That his choices were wrong. There are a lot of people who think you can choose who you love and because we live in a great country we are allowed to have that opinion. Personally I think that’s a very cold and small minded way of thinking. People who believe that have either never put themselves in another person’s shoes, aren’t capable of doing so, or are simply scared to death to empathize with something so foreign to them. Fear is the ultimate obstacle, and fear is a dangerous thing. I let him talk, I let him cry. What more could I do? He was miles away from me. I told him to keep looking for work and that everything would be OK. To just not give up and to keep trying. When we hung up, he felt better, but he was far from feeling good, and so was I.
I couldn’t stop thinking about Sam and wondering if he was OK. A short time later another call came. More frustration and more sharing from him, more encouragement and more love from me. I felt helpless. I didn’t know what to do. Then the calls started coming regularly. Sam and I both had to finally admit that his parents were emotionally abusing him. They set up a counselor appointment for the family and Sam was in that meeting for about 20 minutes before he called me to let me know that the counselor was trying to counsel him to be straight. He informed me that the family was blaming him and making their lives miserable by his “choice” to be homosexual. He was calling a lot and things seemed to get worse and worse. They were trying to make his “gayness go away”, and Sam was trying to live a life true to himself. He wasn’t finding a job, he was being abused, and he was drinking too much – which made everything even worse. Who wouldn’t be in that situation?
One night on the phone I finally said, “I wish you could go to work in Yellowstone. They provide housing, you would make good money, and there is a small gay community there, as well as a straight community that not only tolerant, but supportive. Why don’t you apply there? The job won’t start for a couple of months, but it’s an option.” He was intrigued, captivated even. I told him all about the job and the seasonal life and how I felt that would be a perfect temporary solution for him – and maybe even a long term one if he decided to stay for several seasons in a row. We discussed his options, and how to apply, and what he would have to do to get there and get back on his feet and get out of his situation and to never, ever, ever have to rely on his parents for anything else again. I felt bad that I hadn’t thought of it before, but I felt great for thinking of it now. And I think, for the first time in a very long time, Sam felt hope.
I was texting Sam every day at this point. Anything from a simple “I love you, Sam” to long texts about how he was going to be fine because he was a brilliant, talented, kind and caring human that was perfectly capable of taking care of himself. He let me know that he applied for the job right away. He also let me know right away when he got and interview. Then finally, when he got offered the job. It started six weeks after he accepted the offer. And there it was – the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. He had something to look forward to, something to strive for. Sam had something to run towards. What he didn’t know was that he was running towards dignity and freedom. But he had to get through the next six weeks first.
Things got worse before they got better. He was still drinking too much, and emotionally unstable, and being subjected to abuse on a daily basis. He wasn’t working and had no income and we all know how that can wear on a person, especially someone who is already vulnerable. He almost came to live with me for a couple of weeks in spite of the risk it posed for me to lose my own housing, but Sam hung in there. He stayed strong even when it was incredibly difficult to do so. And through it all, he defended his mother. He said it wasn’t her fault and that she just didn’t know any better. Sam is a good person, with a huge loving, understanding, and forgiving heart. I wouldn’t have offered the same grace to this family if I were in Sam’s shoes.
When Sam left his parents house to go to Yellowstone I was traveling. I was in a completely different time zone on the other side of the earth the next time he called me. I was so happy to see that he was calling. He hadn’t communicated much over those last few days before he left. I was off work and visiting friends, and he was breaking free from oppression and on the road himself…so communication was limited. But when I saw he was calling and realized that I was able to answer, I was ecstatic! I didn’t even say hello, I just answered the phone with a smile and knowing that he would already be in Yellowstone by then, I said, “Do you love it?”
My stomach dropped when I heard him crying again, but quickly realized that this time he was crying with joy. And he couldn’t stop. He just kept saying “You have no idea. You have no idea”. But I did have an idea, and I knew exactly what it felt like. Many years prior Yellowstone saved me too. I had been bound by all of the expectations and oppression of family and friends and a culture that didn’t suit me. I myself had broken free from everybody else’s imposed “should” for my life – from worry about what others think and what others will do. The best feeling of all though? The best feeling of all is being free from what others do not approve of. Human spirits are not designed to live under that kind of cloak. We are built to be our free selves. From the most mundane people on earth to the most adventurous – we are all meant to live out the lives we feel drawn to. I let him express his joy through tears, and may have even dropped a few myself. I could feel his relief half a world away.
I went to visit Sammie a month after he arrived in Yellowstone. He looked marvelous – emotionally healthier than I had ever seen him. He goes by Sammie now, by the way. He wanted a new name for a new turn in life and it suits him perfectly. Sammie is making good money, he is in a good living situation, he has some stability again and ironically enough he found it in a seasonal job that has an end date. He’s going back for the winter season. He has a boyfriend now. A strong, steady boyfriend who truly cares for him. His parents have even come to visit him a couple of times and they seem to have a much better understanding of the fact that whether they approve or not, there is no going back. That Sammie will never, ever again live for anybody other than himself and that they are going to have to deal with who he is if they want to keep their son. They have some growing to do. Sammie has some growing to do. We all do.
As for me, I have an even stronger long distance friendship with one of the most beautiful souls I have ever known. I take great joy in knowing that it was the mystical, raw, natural power of Yellowstone that helped make him whole again. Yellowstone is beautiful. Many years ago Yellowstone saved me too. It saved me in ways I couldn’t even imagine then. But now, Yellowstone saved my friend too. If you need saving, maybe you should give it a try. the natural, raw, spiritual power of Yellowstone National Park is mysterious…and very real. I can’t explain it, but I have felt it. Now Sammie has felt it too.
I love you, Sammie. I admire you. You are an amazing human.
Today I am grateful for the magic that is Yellowstone National Park, for vulnerability, for diversity, for close friends who trust you enough to open their hearts to you, for getting even closer, for telephones, for jokes after tears, for people who stand up to religious law, and for those who don’t. I am grateful for text messages, the light at the end of the tunnel, and for hope. The kind of hope that makes a person light up. The kind of hope that shines so much light on dark souls that it washes them completely clean again and fills them with a light that beams out of them so brightly everybody around them can’t help but feel good. That is what I am grateful for today, my friends. I am grateful for lives being lived the way people want to live them in spite of everybody around them telling them they shouldn’t or they can’t.