During the summer months, her commute is a relatively easy three- or four-hour drive through the East Entrance.
For a morning shift, she leaves her home at Old Faithful at 3 a.m., and she enjoys the early-morning drive out of the park.
“That’s when the animals are out,” she said. “I saw wolves chasing two elk one morning; I’ve seen quite a few grizzlies. Fortunately, at that time of the morning, not a lot of people are out, so I can just enjoy my drive.”
But Townsend’s commute doubles in the wintertime, requiring her to leave a day before her shift begins.
Because Sylvan Pass, near the East Entrance, can close with little or no notice during the winter due to avalanche danger, Townsend decided it would be best to drive a snowmobile 30 miles to the park’s West Entrance at West Yellowstone, Mont., where she switches to her car. Then she drives another six hours, first on U.S. 191 north, turning onto Interstate 90 at Bozeman, Mont., then driving east to Laurel, Mont., where she turns south on U.S. 310, then on Mont. 72 and Wyo. 120 to complete her journey to Cody and West Park Hospital.
Townsend’s husband, Tim Townsend, is a deputy district ranger at Old Faithful. The couple met in 2002 after Townsend took a job at the Old Faithful medical clinic.
“I saw an ad ... for a nurse at the clinic,” Ginger Townsend said. “It said they were looking for someone who could treat bison gorings, bear maulings and thermal burns. I thought, ‘That’s the job for me.’”
After she arrived, “We just clicked,” said Tim Townsend. “We were interested in the same things, and she was really excited to be in Yellowstone, to discover Yellowstone and the surrounding area, and I was happy to share that with her.”
They were married in 2004 on the balcony at Old Faithful Inn.
Because she lives in Yellowstone and her husband is a park employee, Ginger Townsend said she is allowed to use a government-owned snowmobile for transportation in the park. Park officials provide that opportunity because they realize living in Yellowstone year round can be a hardship as well as an advantage, she said.
She is required to complete snowmobile safety training each year. When the temperature in Yellowstone dips to 20 degrees below zero or colder, she is not allowed to travel in the park. Snowmobiles don’t function well at that temperature, she said.
“They usually advise essential travel only when it’s that cold,” she said. “It puts everybody else at risk if something happens to me.”
When she is allowed to travel, it is challenging to dress warmly enough for the snowmobile part of the trip without having to take too many layers off once she gets in the car and into Cody, she said.
Tim Townsend said he is thankful his wife enjoys the outdoors, and that she adapts to Yellowstone winters as well.
“Thank God I married a woman who’s content to be snowed in in the wintertime,” he said.
During the summer, traffic and bison jams can cause unexpected delays, Ginger Townsend said. During the winter, bison jams in and around the park aren’t too bad, and travel time is more predictable. But other things can pose unexpected problems, too.
“A belt can break on a snowmobile, and you have to carry a wrench with you just to be able to put a new belt on. People that have done it quite often don’t have much problem with it, but it’s a little harder for me. Under good conditions, it’s not too hard. Under challenging conditions, it’s quite arduous.”
Occasionally, a snowmobile will freeze up. Freeing it is a chore, she said, “but usually I can get it done.”
Getting to the highway is no guarantee there will be no more problems. Once, one of the tires on her car blew out on Wyo. 72 near Belfry, Mont.
“AAA eventually came out, but I got tired of waiting, so I started the process of getting the tire out before they got there. It actually was warm out, so it was not too bad,” she recalled.
Ginger Townsend said she applied to work at West Park Hospital after deciding she wanted to return to a hospital setting.
“My husband has been great about this adventure with me,” she said. “Obviously, it affects him and his life, too. We have two dogs, so it’s hard to get the dogs out in the wintertime to doggie day care. When I’m gone, he will try to stick around the house. When I’m home, he’ll try to get out a little more.”
Tim Townsend said he feels it is important for his wife to be able to advance in her career.
“We’re here, obviously, for my career,” he said. “Her career aspirations were sort of suffering, and she wanted to get back into the emergency room. Traveling is involved for her, and extra laundry and dishwashing for me.
“It’s a sacrifice for her to be gone and for us not to have that time, but she’s enjoying it, and the paycheck has been nice, too.”
Ginger Townsend works at West Park on a per diem basis — daily as needed — rather than as a regularly-scheduled employee. She said she works between two and 10 shifts per month. She picks up additional shifts at the Urgent Care Clinic in Cody.
“In the summertime, I can work two shifts, then go home; in the wintertime, I definitely try to get several shifts together.”
Between shifts, she stays at West Park Hospital.
“Fortunately, I don’t have to drive in and out every day, and I work so many days in a row, then I drive home and snowmobile back in. Then I stay home several days.”
Townsend said she generally does her shopping before returning home.
“We have a tow sled, and I try to be careful to pack things on the tow sled so the eggs don’t break. Then I pull a tarp over it and bungee it down.”
Despite the unusual demands of her commute to work, Townsend said she’s happy to make the trip, both summer and winter.
“It’s a beautiful place to live, and every trip in and out is just amazing,” she said. “Whether it’s snowy or sunny, you can see trumpeter swans, and in the winter, bison covered in frost. It’s just amazing.”
She enjoys her work as well.
“I love my job here,” she said. “It’s a great place to work ... and I’m motivated to make the drive.”
Her patients are grateful that she is. One of them, Joni Seuferer of Cody broke her wrist when she fell Tuesday morning. She went to the emergency room, where Townsend treated her.
While waiting Tuesday afternoon to be taken back for surgery to repair the break, Seuferer talked about her emergency-room experience earlier that day.
“Ginger was very professional and very caring ... she was very empathetic,” Seuferer said. “She made a miserable experience a little less miserable.”