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Omaha Magazine

A Change of Direction: Mary Franck’s Destinations Transform Her Life

Dec 30, 2021 11:47AM ● By Lisa Lukecart
mary franck in fall woods

Photo by Bill Sitzmann

 A tsunami hit Mary Franck’s life. Her mother died. She lost her job. Her husband left her. 

“I haven’t loved you for 25 years,” he said of their 27-year marriage. 

All of it swept away in nine devastating months of 1998. 

A newspaper ad for a summer job at Yellowstone National Park changed the flow of her life. The six-month gig with Xanterra Travel Collection seemed like it could be a healing adventure. She had nothing more to lose, especially since her children were grown. 

When Franck arrived, the landscape reflected her soul. The fires of 1988, 42 of which were caused by lightning, left approximately 1/3 of the lush 1.2 million acres scorched. Blackened scars remained 10 years later. Fire, however, regenerates and rejuvenates. Pine cones, shattered open, exploded seeds from their shells. Lodgepole trees sprouted out of the ashes. Green bentgrass burst out of pockets and cracks near geyser basins. Yellow wildflowers shot up from the gloom. 

She felt cracked open by her grief, but the revitalized environment made her feel hope. 

“I knew this [was] where I was supposed to be,” Franck, then 44, recalled. 

Franck, clean and sober from alcohol and drugs since 1984, didn’t relapse. She credits the experience at Yellowstone for pushing her through a difficult year. She kept busy working at Old Faithful Snow Lodge as a waitress, making “grocery sacks full of money.” Employees lived a dorm-style life and ate three meals a day in the dining room.

When she returned to Nebraska, Franck worked supplies with the Omaha Police Department. But the call of the wilderness returned. In summer 2006, she returned to manage Old Faithful Inn at Yellowstone. 

Franck recalled how her mother always wanted to travel to Alaska, and after talking to other workers about their travels, she knew it was next on her bucket list. But her father’s dementia worsened, so she stayed home to take care of him, which enabled her to spend time with her grandchildren. 

After his death eight years later, Alaska beckoned. Franck submitted her resume to Aramark in 2019, eager to land a job with Denali National Park and Preserve. The 65-year-old woman set out on her journey, deciding this time she would attempt the 10-day drive from Omaha to Alaska. She camped along the way, sometimes in the middle of nowhere, pitching her red and white tent next to her Subaru Outback, with nothing but trees sheltering her. It allowed her to see the country: a dazzling drive through the Black Hills in South Dakota, sleeping under the stars at Glacier National Park in Montana, and glimpsing frozen Lake Louise in Canada. 

Soon, the spectacular view of Denali National Park loomed in the distance. One lonely gravel road, 92 miles long, leads in and out of the 6.1 million acres of vast wilderness and plentiful wildlife. The shadow of North America’s highest snowy peak, Denali, loomed over visitors as they hopped on a bus to head into the secluded park. But if one travels further down the stretch, wild animals ranging from bear to moose to wolves roam free. 

It took a few days before Franck adjusted to the long hours of sunlight. Room and board cost $15 a day. She took down reservations at the bus and train depots, working 10-hour days four times a week at $20 an hour. It gave her three days to explore, kayak, or bike. Franck would throw on a long sleeve shirt and long pants to hike, since mosquitos are plentiful. The redheaded explorer even ventured up Mount Healy, an eight-mile journey up and back.  

“I thought I was going to die,” she said. “But once at the top, it was breathtaking.”

Franck never let her age stop her. She practiced yoga, walked a sled dog, and talked to campers. 

“I thought it was incredible. She’s a very genuine character to be around,” Denali’s reservation supervisor Chris Sloan, 27, said. 

The work doesn’t come without its pitfalls. The wilds of Denali can create an isolated experience. 

“Being alone is bittersweet. It’s beautiful, but sometimes you want your family and friends to share it with you,” Franck said. 

She never felt scared except on the Cassiar Highway through Canada on her way back. “The Highway of Tears” has been dubbed the most dangerous stretch due to the number of unsolved murders and disappearances of women. Franck didn’t see another vehicle or person for hours at a time and cell reception was spotty. 

“I think we shouldn’t put limits on us just because of our gender. There are more risks involved as a solo female than a solo male. I feel safer camping than in a big city,” said Alaina Anderson, Denali’s assistant manager of reservations.  

She called Franck for advice when driving by herself from Steamboat Springs, Colorado, where she worked that winter, to Denali for her summer session. 

“You can make a life traveling around. I met people like Mary—the brightest person I ever met—[whom] I would never have had the opportunity to meet,” Anderson said.

Franck mentioned people shouldn’t dwell on the “what-ifs.” If Franck didn’t take a chance, she would never have seen the northern lights. She plans to walk the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage trail in Spain for her next venture. 

This article originally appeared in the January 2022 issue of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.