Opinion » John Rember

Rituals of the Fall

Keeping the lid on a supervolcano

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For my last five birthdays, Julie and I have toured Yellowstone National Park and stayed at Chico Hot Springs Resort, halfway between the park and Livingston, Mont. Chico's pools and lodge date from 1897.

We usually stay in the old building. We find its creaking floors, thin walls and down-the-hall bathrooms more comfortable and homier than the quieter, larger accommodations available in the newer wings. We eat dinner in Chico's famous dining room, splitting a salad, an entrée and a bottle of wine. That combination is enough to send us lurching up the stairs by 9 o'clock, where we sleep the sleep of the just—or the sated—until it's time for a morning hot-water soak followed by a stint at the breakfast buffet, followed by a sluggish trudge to the small lake on the hill behind the lodge, followed by curling up with a big book—Dickens or Dostoyevsky, lately—on a couch in the lobby, followed by an afternoon nap, another soak in the pool and dinner once again.

We used to combine this routine with salt-scrub massages, but every time Julie and I showed up at the Chico Day Spa, Julie would be ushered into her room by a kindly, happy young masseuse radiating first-day-on-the-job enthusiasm. I began to think of these young women as Nurse Barbies, only bigger, better proportioned and able to converse on a variety of subjects. My own masseuses weren't like that—they were closer to my age, dour, taciturn, unenthusiastic about my birthday or anyone's, and perfectly proportioned to beat hell out of me. The only time I saw them smile was when I was in pain.

Finally I told Julie I'd rather stay for another day at Chico rather than have a birthday massage. This year we stayed for three days and nights, and on our last night watched the beginning of the World Series in the bar before dinner, ate another phenomenal meal and spent four or five more hours bobbing about on pool floats in 100-degree water. We mostly read in our room, as people also supposedly on vacation, some of them lawyers, were doing business on their iPhones in the lobby, making reading Bleak House a matter of ignoring more contemporary litigation.

This year I didn't read as much as usual. Instead, I spent more time in the pool, watching people, amazed at how humans have come to have such a wide variety of shapes and sizes. The people swimming in Chico's pools come from many countries, birth dates, economic circumstances and occupations. You can ponder nature and nurture at Chico, but you won't end up favoring one over the other. You'll end up with a deep appreciation for their teamwork, however.

I wasn't the only old guy celebrating his birthday. There were 10 or so of us floating around the pool and wandering about the hotel lobby, accompanied by gently solicitous wives or girlfriends. Even though we, too, came in all shapes and sizes, I realized that to the people who work at Chico, we were all probably less individual and more stereotype than we thought we were.

I decided that my experiences in the Day Spa were encounters with an unmarked tourist hazard: if you sign up for a preprogrammed experience, your identity is created by the people who have gone before you. Some of my fellow old guys must have remembered other massages in Bangkok or Las Vegas. I've never had a massage in those places, but some of them must have, and some of those must have ended up at the Chico Day Spa on their birthdays, and a subset of those might have behaved badly. That's why I never got a Nurse Barbie as my masseuse. Instead, I got Sturmkommandant Helga, late of the East German Olympic swim team, who must have seen me as an Old Guy Ken Doll, one of those privileged, arrogant, unselfconscious jerks who deserved to be rubbed bloody with rock salt.

It's not far from these thoughts to a dismal understanding that the tourist industry creates stereotyped human beings as a waste product. From the industry's standpoint, tourists need to be ushered through an experience as efficiently as possible. People who insist on being seen as individuals impede the process. Most of us have been in tour groups with a person who insisted on being a unique human being, and most of us have seen how difficult that person can be.

"Look at me," says the difficult tourist (in subtext). "I'm not like these others. I can ask the unanticipated, off-the-wall question. I can point out the detail that contradicts your so-called lecture. I can tell you what we call these things in Texas. I'm a real person."

"No you're not," says the tour guide (in subtext). "You're a pain in the ass."

Julie and I have turned my birthday into a ritual, walking the trails and boardwalks of Yellowstone, visiting Old Faithful, the Artists' Paint Pots, Mammoth Hot Springs, Norris Geyser Basin, Yellowstone Falls, making sure they've remained as we remember them. We've ritualized and capitalized the people we've met, too, turning them into Park Rangers, Children of Chinese Billionaires, Saudi Arabian Wives (the burkas are a tip-off), Old Guys On Their Birthdays, Nurse Barbies, Sturmkommandanten. It's a way of introducing predictability to an uncertain world, a way to dance on the thin crust covering a lake of molten magma, and come away almost sure that the sun will rise again, on other birthdays.