I arrive at Mount Rainier breathless, so electrified by the scenery that for a moment I forget the heartbreak I’ve left behind in California. From where I stand, outside the historic Paradise Inn, the mountain rises like a giant scoop of vanilla ice cream. Beneath her, the parking lot spills out in all directions, crowded with buses, sports cars, RVs, motorcycles, and a dozen Mercedes conversion vans, the windows plastered with stickers from other national parks—the lyrics to “Big Yellow Taxi” made painfully literal: “They paved paradise, put up a parking lot.”

Tourists stare at maps or hold their phones to the sky, searching for a signal that doesn’t come. They sit on the asphalt and eat sandwiches, toss Cheez-Its to squirrels. They yell at their children to watch for cars and Stop hitting your sister! Most look tired, confused, disgruntled. They came to find beauty, adventure, peace, and instead they found crowds of people just like them.

I am different, or so I tell myself. I have come to Paradise not as a tourist but to sell key chains and magnets. This will be my second time working in a national-park gift shop. Two summers ago, in 2014, I worked at a lodge in Grand Teton National Park. So I know roughly what to expect: long days, sore feet, grumpy guests, natural beauty so extreme it alters your cellular makeup.

The Paradise Inn sits at 5,400 feet on the south slope of Mount Rainier, the highest peak in Washington State. Up here the air is thin and crisp, the colors are saturated, and every breeze carries an aroma of pine and the trill of birdsong. Even immersed in such concentrated beauty, my heart aches. For the hundredth time today I think of Jack, a fellow writer in the graduate program I recently completed. We bonded over our love of books and our homesickness for the Midwest. We only dated a few months, but I’d nursed an excruciating crush on him since we’d assistant-taught a class on The Canterbury Tales together the fall before. At the height of our puppy love we’d gone backpacking at Point Reyes National Seashore and talked about moving somewhere beautiful together after he graduated.

Now I’ve come somewhere beautiful alone.

After I check in at the inn’s front desk, a redheaded porter named Jay leads me across the parking lot to the women’s dormitory. As we walk, he tells me he’s worked a few seasonal jobs, mostly in Alaska. Fishing salmon, canning salmon, serving salmon in Denali. “Hard to get girls when you smell like fish,” he says, winking at me.

Ignoring the wink, I ask him whether the workers party a lot. In the Tetons people would be up until four in the morning. Couples and sworn enemies alike could be heard dramatically, acoustically fucking at all hours. My plan is to wake up early every morning and work on my novel, so I’m hoping this park is calmer.

“People partied a lot when the snow was up to our necks,” Jay says, “but it’s calmer now. And the Indiana girls are gone—they were wild. The crew that’s left is solid. We have a good time.”

The idea of this—friends, a crew, a good time—makes me hopeful for the first time since Jack broke things off via email. He’d reconnected with an old flame back home. Beyond the heartbreak, the news shattered my plans to stay in California for the summer, where everything now would remind me of Jack. It would be like staying in a room filled with smoke.

This is why I’ve come to Paradise: to exit the burning space of my life and enter a place of beauty.

When we get to the dorm, Jay knocks on the RA’s door. “Delivery,” he says.

The RA, Naomi, is stretched out on a mattress on the floor. “You’re here!” she sings, as if she’s been in this very room since time immemorial, just waiting for me to arrive. She wears a shimmery silk tank top, no bra. The room reeks of old food, pot, and patchouli. Later I will learn that she is nineteen years old, from Florida, and came to Paradise with her best friend, who was sent home after crashing the company van.

Wrapping herself in a long, fringed shawl, she leads me up two flights of stairs to my room, which looks like someone threw a grenade into a thrift store. The floor is a sea of dirty underwear, and there’s a wet-human odor spiked with mint.

“What’s that smell?” I ask.

“Peppermint oil,” Naomi says. “It keeps the mice away. Or at least it’s supposed to. One girl just found a whole nest of babies in her dresser. And honestly?” She blinks at me. “They were fucking adorable. I kind of wanted to keep them.”

The bed that is supposed to be mine is covered in piles of clothes, my dresser crowded with bottles of vodka. My potential roommate, who has jet-black hair and wears fingerless gloves, tells us the girl who was supposed to move out has instead gone to Canada for the weekend, leaving all her stuff. There is no room for me.

“Well, fuck,” Naomi says.

“Maybe I could just camp somewhere?”

“No way. There’s another empty bed down the hall.”

Though I’m relieved not to have to live in this room, I worry the next will be even worse. “This is the biggest room in all of Guide House,” Naomi says as she opens the door to a space the size of two walk-in closets, a pair of bunk beds pressed foot-to-foot.

What I want to tell her is that I’ll be heading home now. Then I remember I don’t have a home. My lease in California runs out next month, and all my friends from grad school have moved on to their next chapters: jobs, MFA programs, new cities with their partners. I could go home to Kansas, but it’s a three-day drive, and there are reasons I’d rather not. The truth is, the room I’m standing in is the closest thing I have to a home. At least the floor is clean, and there are no visible mice. “This is great,” I tell her.

 

That night I am so sad and freaked out I cannot even cry. “I think I need to leave,” I tell my new roommates before bed.

Though the room is cramped and musty with the four of us in it, they all seem nice. One of them is the last of the notorious Indiana girls; she got all the way to the Denver airport before deciding to fly back to Washington and spend another month on the mountain with her boyfriend. The second is a bubbly twenty-year-old from Olympia who will, a few months from now, follow an ex-marine cook twice her age to a resort in Idaho. The last is a baby-faced undergrad from Michigan who came to Rainier with the Christian Ministry.

“Don’t worry,” the bubbly one says. “Everyone hates it here at first. You’ll get used to it.”

I don’t believe her.

They all tell me to stick it out through the end of the month; things will get better. They seem so content, despite the mice and the minimum wage, the basically nonexistent internet and cell service, the small beds and the communal bathroom down the hall where pubic hair carpets the shower floor and one of the two toilets has been clogged with a tampon and filled with pink water all day. How can they possibly be happy? I wonder if it’s a ruse, or if they’ve led such simple lives they don’t know what they’re missing: full beds, farmers markets, high-speed internet, privacy.

 

In the morning the sunlight makes everything seem a little less dire. The mountain glows, and the tourists mill around, lazy and contented. The air is almost mentholated. I grab some coffee from the employee dining room, where the cook—a “crusty old pervert,” or so Naomi warned me last night—tries to get me to eat a hot breakfast that looks like wet cat food. I eat a piece of toast with peanut butter and then go to the Climbing Information Center, sit on a hard couch by the window, and work on my novel.

The ranger on duty is busy talking to climbers, and I eavesdrop on their discussion of gear and weather conditions. Despite the glamour and danger of alpine climbing, their conversation seems mostly about poop: The climbers must bring their business back down in a plastic bag. The tourists do not speak much English, so I watch the ranger take a blue bag and point to a little cartoon pile of poop on an info card. The tourists laugh and nod: Yes, poop! We have this in our country too!

I’ve been in the station nearly an hour before the ranger notices me. “Sorry, who are you?” he asks.

“Nobody,” I tell him. “I work at the gift shop. Is it OK if I write in here?”

He is bearded and attractive with an air of unapologetic arrogance. A little movie of us falling in love shoots like a rocket through my mind, then explodes. “No problem,” he says, going back to what he was doing. I may as well have asked if I could sit here and quietly drool for an hour.

I write until it is time to start work at the Paradise Inn Gift Shop, or PIGS, as it’s known among staff. I work with four girls—Jaime, Marina, Sam, Tina—and one guy, Kevin. After the store manager quit a month ago, Jaime and Marina were made supervisors. Despite the fact that both are twenty-one and have no managerial experience to speak of, they are more adept than the gift shop deserves. In seasonal work it’s often the case that the older someone is, the less competent they are, because if they were more competent, they’d have found more legitimate employment. Jaime and Marina are smart and pretty, taking long, luxurious sips from Nalgene water bottles plastered with stickers that read: “Hike Now, Work Later.” At PIGS, I will learn, it is the other way around. The gift shop, like nearly every department, is short-staffed.

Aside from me, Sam is the only other full-time gift-shop employee; everyone else splits their time working for housekeeping, the front desk, or the café. Sam’s from New York City and severely funny, with a septum piercing that she flips into her nose when she works, per dress code. On her ankle is a tattoo that reads, “No Parents No Rules.” Then there is Tina, who acts like a boss, critiquing how I run the register and correcting how Sam folds the T-shirts. One day a woman buying a stuffed fox tells Tina that her daughter is in love with foxes. “I’m more in love with foxes than your daughter is,” Tina says to the woman. “I’m obsessed with them.”

Kevin is a thirty-year-old, six-foot-four, bespectacled misanthrope from the Bay Area who brings a Where’s Waldo? costume to every seasonal job he works, because if one thing is certain in seasonal work, it is costume parties. His dream is to do GIS mapping for the Forest Service, but for now he’s stuck behind the register.

“I got my bachelor’s so I could fold T-shirts,” he says to me one day, staring off into the distance, “and Sam got her bachelor’s so she could arrange magnets. And you got your master’s so you could stock key chains.”

I tell him he’s being a grinch, although, after only a few days, I can feel myself developing a similar attitude. Every time a customer sighs because the register is taking too long or because bottled water isn’t sold in the park or because we don’t have the right size T-shirt, I dream of a brightly lit classroom in which I discuss Alice Munro and James Baldwin. The possibility seems as distant as the snow-whipped peak of Mount Rainier: other people can get there, sure, but not me—at least, not yet.

Only twenty-five, I already feel like I’m running behind. As my friends begin careers and settle down with partners, I can’t help but feel like I’ve already missed the lone train that would have delivered me to my dream life. Instead I am stuck selling postcards in Paradise.

 

The park grows on me, which is to say I fall madly in love with the mountain. Most days it looks absolutely lunar, as if someone removed a chunk of the moon with a melon baller and dropped it onto Washington State. The grassy hillside near the inn is the exact green of a parakeet’s belly, and the wildflowers are vibrant and abundant, as if someone high above busted an enormous piñata and candy flowers sprinkled everywhere.

The inn itself, built in 1916, is beautiful too. You can feel the history in its floors, in the giant timber frame that keeps the building standing even under the heavy blanket of snow it receives each winter—more than six hundred inches on average. The timber is Alaskan cedar, hauled up the mountain by a team of horses roughly a hundred years ago. Today tourists drive vans full of suitcases and soon-to-be-useless laptops up this same route, then wander through a building made from the ancestors of the trees they snapped pictures of on the way up.

The lobby is simultaneously huge and cozy, all open space and dark wood. There are overstuffed chairs and sofas where dads fall asleep with their mouths open and big wooden tables around which sunburned hikers congregate to consult topographical maps and guidebooks, broadcasting their outdoorsiness. Mostly people sit around and wonder what to do without the internet. They are grateful to the old piano player who fills the lobby with music, his long fingers gliding across the keys like cold water over river stones. Even better is when the ranger on duty calls everyone together for a fireside chat that’s almost as good as YouTube.

The ranger has salt-and-pepper hair and bears a striking resemblance to the Most Interesting Man in the World from the Dos Equis commercials. One day in the gift shop I tell him this.

“I get that a lot,” he says, with a nonchalance that suggests he might really be the man from the commercials. He is there to buy a bag of huckleberry taffy, which he purchases like clockwork once a week.

The customers I like best are the ones who buy candy and books. Everything else in the store seems absurd and wasteful. Each merchandise shipment—and there is a large one every morning—produces a tiny mountain of plastic, bubble wrap, and cardboard. Each Mount Rainier commemorative silver-plated coin, no larger than a poker chip, comes individually wrapped in a sleeve of plastic, as does every key chain, coaster, and iron-on patch. At the end of the week a garbage truck with a supersized carbon footprint comes all the way up the mountain to collect our trash and haul it away.

“Kathy, look at this,” a fanny-pack-wearing woman calls to her friend. She holds up a pair of abalone earrings. “Made in China. Can you believe it? I bet you don’t go to China’s national parks and everything’s made in America.”

I want to ask them what could possibly be more American than outsourcing labor and transporting goods as geographically far as possible in the name of profit, but instead I hold my tongue and continue folding T-shirts. “Show Your True Colors,” reads a shirt with screen-printed wildflowers. “Spread Seeds of Joy.” In retail you only get so many compassion points per day; by the afternoon my supply is always deep in the negative.

The greatest hypocrisy of all is that I begin to desire objects in the store. Anyone who has worked in retail will tell you of the dark alchemy that occurs between employee and merchandise. Overnight a cheap-looking hummingbird necklace transforms into the perfect everyday accessory. An itchy $200 wool sweatshirt acquires an ironic, hipster appeal.

“Is this real-life cute or gift-shop cute?” I ask Sam, holding up a twenty-dollar bangle painted with wildflowers.

“Real-life cute,” she confirms.

As I watch people shop, I think about souvenirs and why we crave them. Perhaps we want to impress others—to show that we have been to beautiful places, experienced a grand adventure. But what about the soapstone bear I bought to keep next to my computer while I write? Isn’t it possible it’s just there to remind me of the time I stood breathless and watched as a black bear and her fur-ball cubs ate huckleberries in the meadow below the inn?

I decide that the gift shop, like everything, is complicated—both a wasteful, materialistic, money-sucking black hole and a sacred temple filled with magical artifacts meant to revive the long-dead moments of life. When I think about it this way, my time on the mountain does not feel so pointless.

Events of unimaginable stupidity occur at the inn on a regular basis. For instance: every Sunday someone from the restaurant ventures into the gift shop to remove a giant black-and-white photograph of Mount Rainier that hangs above the key chains, so that it may be displayed in the restaurant during brunch. It’s unclear why the photo is necessary for brunch on Sunday but not any other day, or why this particular photo is the one for the job. Perhaps it was the whim of some long-ago manager, a tradition mindlessly passed down from one season to the next.

The removal of the photograph from the gift shop is not a minor procedure. It requires the use of a rickety stepladder plus someone with a steady hand to help. This delicate ceremony is usually performed by an outrageously attractive server who, before coming to Paradise, served cocktails at celebrity parties in Manhattan. Each Sunday morning he whisks away the photograph only to return it a few hours later once brunch has concluded. I hold the wobbling ladder for him.

“I’m not falling and breaking my neck in this damn place,” he says, his New York accent thick as putty.

“Why don’t you guys just keep it in the restaurant?” I ask. “Or, like, not take it in the first place?”

“Don’t ask me,” he says. “Nothing in this place makes any goddamn sense.”

And so, every Sunday, the photograph makes its pointless pilgrimage to and from the restaurant, where perhaps it imparts some pleasure to the tourists as they scoop their scrambled eggs and unripe cantaloupe. Perhaps something good comes of it. Perhaps there is a faint, flickering meaning behind the madness. But probably not.

 

Irrational things occur outside the inn too. One afternoon all of Paradise loses power. This is not uncommon, as downed trees cause outages on a weekly basis. Luckily the gift shop runs on a generator, so our registers continue to work. None of the guests can turn on the lights in their room, but they are able to buy a ten-dollar glow-in-the-dark gemstone. My coworkers and I explain that, yes, we can still ring them up, and, no, we don’t know when the power will return. Eventually a man comes to the counter and says, “Good thing you’re on a generator. Power’s probably out for the rest of the day. A tree fell in Packwood.” He leans in, as if delivering a secret. “Onto a car.”

“Are the people OK?” I ask.

He frowns. “Let’s just say the ambulance wasn’t in a hurry.”

My heart drops. I fold his shirt in silence and tell him to have a nice day. When he’s gone, Marina tells me to go outside and take ten. Before I can reach the big double doors, the tears are already on their way.

Outside I run into Jay the porter, whom I’ve been avoiding ever since I heard he’s been going around telling everyone he has dibs on me.

“What’s wrong?” he asks, seeing my face. “Got the gift-shop blues?”

When I tell him about the tree falling onto a car, he shrugs. “You know, half the time the guests don’t know what they’re talking about. Rumors get started. People exaggerate. The rangers are the only ones you can trust. I’ll go get the real story if you want.”

I tell him it’s fine, that I’ll be OK, but half an hour later he appears in the gift shop. “Good news,” he says. “I talked to a ranger. Apparently beavers cut through a tree in Packwood. It fell on a power line. Nothing about a car. So you can be happy now. Nobody’s dead.”

“Thanks,” I say. Although I know he’s lying, I could hug him for his kindness.

 

During my time off I do all the hikes I can at Paradise. Then I start driving my Camry—filled window to window with everything I own—to more-distant trailheads. One night I backpack alone to Snow Lake. I have it all to myself, and the way I feel sitting by the shore at sundown, the stars reflected in the water, I might as well be the only one on the planet. A week later I hike with a boy named Sean to the top of Shriner Peak, where there’s a fire lookout and a 360-degree view of the park. At the top we share bread and cheese before a cold rain starts to fall, thunder growling in the distance. Sean gives me his jacket for the hike down, leaving himself in a thin cotton T-shirt, but he doesn’t complain.

Sean is new, hired to replace the girl who crashed the company van at the beginning of the season. He’s from St. Louis and has worked seasons in Denali and Yellowstone. He eats bread by the loaf, drinks wine as if the water here were polluted, and looks like a combination of the jock I pined for in high school and the Ukrainian rock climber I pursued desperately in college. My heart still lurches each time I think about Jack. I haven’t heard from him since leaving California. But when I’m with Sean, this lurch is not so painful.

Sean brings me crossword puzzles at work. He finds them online, selecting them to fit my interests. There’s one on famous literary figures, another involving dogs. In the mornings we have coffee and chewy blueberry bagels on the café’s balcony, where I once watched a bird’s nest fall directly into a guest’s glass of wine. “Do I get a free refill?” she cried to the cocktail server.

Because Sean works in HR, he has a room to himself. There’s even a full bathroom with a tub. It feels like a tropical hideaway. We sleep in his single bed and, on more than one occasion, are interrupted by angry employees demanding midnight room changes. One night an employee from Turkey pounds on his door. He has just received a new roommate, a Russian with hair the color of a pumpkin. “The Russian, he needs to leave,” the Turkish guy tells Sean. “His country hates my country. I can’t live with him.”

Sean tells him to wait it out for tonight, that they can talk about a solution in the morning. He comes back to bed and wraps his arms around me. “I’ve got a pretty girl in my bed and international conflict at my door. Is there anything more exciting than seasonal work?”

 

Over time even the most amusing of the inn’s quirks become irritating. After the fifteenth time it’s no longer humorous when a customer asks why the floor is rumbling in the far corner of the store, the fear of a volcanic eruption visible in their eyes. I explain it’s just the washing machines in the basement. “Somebody’d better balance those,” they say, their fear replaced by the cool outrage of a customer who has been made to feel a negative emotion.

Even the nightly piano program begins to grate. I can predict the order of the pieces: the “Moonlight” Sonata, followed by the theme song from Beauty and the Beast, followed by something from Ocean’s Eleven. An electric shock of embarrassment travels between the old piano player and me whenever I see him punching into the same time clock that I use. He plays by memory, eyes closed, his glass fishbowl filled to the brim with bills, yet he is compensated according to the same bureaucratic arithmetic used to pay the team of perpetually stoned undergrads who fold laundry.

One afternoon a guest walks into the gift shop wearing a shirt that reads, “Everyone’s Work Is Equally Important.” I think about this shirt for weeks.

 

One morning in late August I wake just as the rising sun puts a match to the mountain. This is my first day working a morning shift alone, meaning I will spend a quiet hour unpacking new merchandise before the store opens to guests. I’m ready to head to the dining room for coffee, but first I hold my phone to the window and wait for my single bar of service to load my email. I have one new message. The subject line reads: “Congratulations from UGA Press.” My head detaches, floats to the ceiling. It seems there has been a clerical error, because the message tells me a manuscript of stories I entered has been selected as the winner of the 2016 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. My book will be published the following fall.

My three roommates are still asleep. My heart beats so loud I worry it will wake them. Outside, Rainier smiles like a beauty queen. The world is the same, yet inside I feel the unmistakable sensation of a page turning, of one chapter ending and another beginning.

Normally I would call my mom, but there is no cell service, only a pay phone at the front desk, so I spend the first hour in the gift shop stocking alone, smiling so much my jaw begins to hurt. By the time Marina gets to the store, I am bursting with the news. I tell her, and she reacts as if I’ve been accepted into a school for magical ponies. “That’s so cool,” she says. “Congrats.”

When I tell Sean, he is genuinely thrilled for me, and yet it’s not the same as celebrating with people who truly know me. If I were in California or Kansas, there would be music, parties, and presents. My writer friends would bake a cake and shower me with hugs. But here I carry my good fortune like a love note written for my eyes only, something I can call on whenever I need a boost. When the customers are grumpy, I say to myself: I get a book! When the food in the dining room is inedible, I say to myself: I get a book! When another week passes without a word from Jack: A book, a book, a book!

 

Things begin to change in September: The weather cools. Kids go back to school. The tourists slow to a trickle. On rainy days, or even just cloudy ones, the employees get high, play games, watch movies. People nurse beers and fall asleep on each other’s shoulders in the middle of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

The rain is just a warm-up. We are silently bracing for the snow, the end of hiking season, and the denouement of life at Paradise. My coworkers order down jackets and DVDs and start filling out applications for ski-resort jobs.

Part of me envies them. In a few weeks I will head to a former professor’s ranch to look after her animals for eight months. The ranch is beautiful, tucked into the San Juan Mountains of Colorado at nine thousand feet, but I will be mostly alone. I imagine what it would be like to tag along with Sean, who intends to work at Copper Mountain, or to follow the group of girls who submitted applications to Kirkwood resort. I imagine what it would look like if I did anything else besides what I know I should do, which is hole up at my professor’s ranch and work on my novel and start building the life I’ve always wanted. I have not yet learned that in life, like in writing, all the best parts are unplanned.

The end of the season comes suddenly, like a tree crashing onto a highway. I spend my last night in Sean’s room. He’s prepared a makeshift romantic evening, complete with wine and chocolate and leftover cheese from that morning’s brunch. By the end of it we’re in his bathtub.

“I’m going to miss you,” he says.

“I’m going to miss you too,” I say, because it’s true, and I know it will remain true for some time. And then, most likely, he will fade, just as Jack is fading, day by day. The calculus of love and distance is a tricky one. But for now we sit in the tub’s hot water, passing a beer back and forth, wishing the night would grow longer. It is nearly two in the morning when someone knocks on the door.

Sean gets up, puts on pants. This time it’s the Russian, his voice frantic. “Either you give me my own room,” he says, “or I will call the police.”

What police he’s referring to, I’m not sure. Even if there were police nearby, there’s no cell service anywhere in the park. The only thing he could possibly do is wake a ranger, which would most likely result in nothing but an irritated ranger.

The Russian explains how the Turkish guy was blow-drying his hair, and when he asked him to be quiet, things turned physical.

“Just calm down,” Sean says, preparing to go talk to the roommate. “We’ll figure something out.”

He returns to the bathroom and kisses me. “I’ll be back soon,” he says. “Promise.” But it’s four in the morning by the time Sean crawls into bed beside me, smelling of soap and beer and mountain air.

 

Before I can stop it, my last morning in Paradise has arrived. Once my car is packed, I head into the gift shop to say my final goodbyes. One of my coworkers gives me a stuffed black-bear cub and a chocolate bear paw with almond claws, both from the gift shop.

“I feel like you just got here, and now you’re gone,” she says.

We’ve only recently gotten close, the gift-shop girls and I: joking and gossiping, exchanging stories and secrets, doing crosswords together and bringing each other cookies and scones and tea. Part of me wants to stay, but even if I were to linger for another month, until the end of the season, it would only delay the inevitable. People will leave gradually if they haven’t already. Then, on the sixth of October, three days after the inn closes to the public, the final employees will move on.

Sean will be one of the last to leave Paradise, as his job is to clean out the dorms and prepare everything for winter. By then I’ll have been at my professor’s ranch for a month, hopefully making progress on my novel. I’ve seen what a month apart can do to a new couple, even two people who feel like they’re falling in love. From a distance the relationship will start to look more and more like a fling, until they wonder how it ever happened at all.

I place the stuffed bear cub on my dashboard and pull out of the parking lot, hungry, already, to remember.