Everybody Has a Story: Montana winter full of cold lessons for teacher

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A cold winter day in Vancouver reminds me of my first "real" job more than 40 years ago: teaching school in West Yellowstone, Mont. Fresh out of college and young, I had much to learn that year.

One fall morning, the principal told me two of my seventh grade girls were excused from school that day. The afternoon before, they were walking the path along the highway to the ranger station just a short distance from the edge of town when they met a grizzly bear. Both girls took off running in opposite directions -- one out to the highway and back into town, and the other straight east. This route took her into forest away from town. Luckily, the Madison River and the highway into the park eventually funneled her onto the highway.

Near dark, searchers found her emerging from the trees by 7 Mile Bridge -- yes, seven miles from town. Kim had run through rough forest most of the way. The girls rested on that next school day.

I learned from them. My first lesson was to avoid walking in the woods. My second lesson was that some excuses are good.

Third lesson was winter driving. Although I had always lived in Montana, Dad usually did the serious winter driving. Slushy October snows began hanging on as ice, and from November it snowed every day. The snowbanks piled up. Most weekends, three of us teachers commuted 90 miles to Bozeman where family lived. Experienced driver Billie Harnsberger took us in her oversize 1960s Buick.

No matter how cold outside, we sweated our way. The year before, a couple had gone into a snowbank and waited hours for the wrecker. Snow encased them, maybe even stuffed the tailpipe. So, I learned: keep the heater going full blast in case a little residual warmth is needed.

One 20-mile stretch was notorious for blowing and drifting snow, so amber lens sunglasses helped me see ruts and shadows. These twenty miles shared a narrow icy canyon with the Gallatin River. Billie steered down the middle of the road and gave me helpful advice: never give an inch.

Most important, I learned to not overlook an opportunity for meeting people and new experiences. My landlords, Ed and Ellen Daley, took care of me like a daughter in a fully furnished, 12-by-40-foot, 1950s-era pink trailer. The Daleys worked hard to keep their tenant maintained through the harsh winter.

Several times they mentioned that the trailer was rented in the summer to some university researchers who were studying microbes in the hot springs of Yellowstone. Scientists from Japan needed my little trailer, and someone named Thomas Brock would soon move into one of the summer-only cabins. So, as the school year ended, I took a job that provided employee housing.

Long years later, after the Internet was invented, I learned the full meaning of the researchers and how Ed and Ellen supplied not only their living quarters but moved another trailer onto the property to serve as a lab for their work. Thomas Brock was the first to study some of the microbes that live in boiling springs. Just a few years later, standing on others' shoulders as science and all human endeavors do, another scientist remembered Brock's study of the microbe thermus aquaticus and developed it as the basis for the heat-speeded reaction needed to efficiently analyze DNA.

I often think that all the medical breakthroughs and DNA-based crime analysis that we take for granted really started right there, in the little pink trailer I rented one year. If only I had understood Ed's pride in them, I could have met some brilliant people and even shared a beer with them. No good excuse for that one.

Everybody Has a Story welcomes nonfiction contributions, 1,000 words maximum, and relevant photographs. Email is the best way to send materials so we don't have to retype your words or borrow original photos. Send to: neighbors@columbian.com or P.O. Box 180, Vancouver WA 98666. Call Scott Hewitt, 360-735-4525, with questions.