Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Reflections of a (soon-to-be-former?) Park Ranger

"Far and away the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing."  -Theodore Roosevelt

I told my parents that I wanted to be a park ranger when I was 11 years old.  I distinctly remember visiting the career section at the local library ... I paged curiously through an aging, water-stained book, which described the rewarding job of being a park ranger with a slightly less-than-rewarding salary range of $11,000 - $28,000 per year (this was in 1991!).  I began working with the National Park Service as a living history volunteer at Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site.  My sister Mary and I spent a solid 40 hours per week volunteering at the park - we loved it.  We loved talking to the rangers - I loved their uniforms, their hats, their badges.  I loved the way that they talked to visitors.  I loved the way that visitors sought out the park rangers for help ... because the park rangers were the experts, who could answer their questions or solve their problems.  Years later, at the age of 24, I was at a crossroads in my life - unsure of whether or not I should pursue medical school, and struggling to figure out who I wanted to be.  In the pressure cooker of college, I had forgotten my true love of parks.  Volunteering at the park one day, I was sitting on the porch of the Ironmaster's Mansion.   The Superindendent had stopped by to chat with me and when told about my career woes, he asked, quite simply, "What do you love to do?"  Without hesitation, I responded, "I love being here."  I called my dad on my way home that day and I told him that I was going to apply to a law enforcement academy and become a park ranger. 

Oh my word ... so embarassing.  Somebody please give that girl on the right a job so she can get her act together and claw herself out of her permanent awkard phase!!  (Living History volunteer at Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site).

When I sent in my application to the Parks Law Enforcement Academy in Mount Vernon, Washington I made a critical error.  You see, for somebody who lives on the east coast, the only "Washington" that we acknowledge is "Washington D.C." ... and so, foolishly, when I saw that the law enforcement academy was in Mount Vernon, Washington, I couldn't believe my luck that there was an academy so close to my parent's home in Maryland.  I sent in my application, and when I received my acceptance letter, I was ecstatic.  I tried numerous times to call Bill Overby, the commander of the academy, but he never answered his phone ... in fact, the area code looked a little bit odd to me .... Washington ... hmmmm...Washington ... &%$#@!@#$% !!!!!!!!  Washington STATE?!?!?  And with that, I had made the most ridiculously wonderful error that has ever happened in the history of my life.  I flew to Washington State, having never set foot in the Pacific Northwest in my life.  I fell in love with the state, I fell in love with the parks, I knew this was where I wanted to live and work.  And so, after completing a 100,000 page application, in which I admitted anything wrong that I ever did in my entire life, I officially became a park ranger applicant with Washington State Parks. 

The good ole' days ... working as a park aide while waiting for my 100,000 page application to be processed.

My interview for the Park Ranger position at Twanoh State Park took place in September of 2005.  I can still remember all of the interview questions.  I was so nervous about my interview - I had never wanted anything so badly in my entire life.  My (now) boss Joel called me about 2 hours after the interview with the news, "Well, you did pretty well on the interview ... but we were a little concerned about some of the answers to your questions.  Some of the other candidates just really wowed us."  I could feel a lump forming in my throat, and I started to panic as I frantically tried to recall the answers I had given to the interview questions.  Suddenly, I could hear Joel's voice start to crack, as his serious tone melted into hysterical laughter.  "Just kidding ... you did great.  You've got the job.  You're a ranger."  It was one of the happiest moments of my life. 

Twanoh State Park, my little piece of heaven at work on the Hood Canal (as seen from a friend's sea plane).

I will always cherish the day that I got commissioned.  For those non-ranger types, getting commissioned is basically the ceremony where you take your oath of office and receive authority from the state to enforce the law.  It's a big deal.  I got commissioned, along with one other ranger (Heather, our ceremony will always be so special to me!), in the state reception room at the Capitol Building in Olympia, Washington.  As I raised my right hand and took my oath I felt like I was getting married - and essentially, I was.  As all rangers know, being a ranger isn't just a "job" - it's a life.  The oath of office isn't something that we take lightly - it permeates our soul and flows in our veins.  The day that I got commissioned was a very cold day - freezing, in fact. Yet, I was so proud of my new badge, and what it represented, that I left my winter coat unzipped, and pulled slightly to the side so that the badge could shimmer in the sunshine for everybody to see.

Receiving my badge at commissioning ...  an awesome day, minus that hideous female bow tie. 

Being a park ranger is special.  It is not just a job, but rather, an identity.  Sometimes I tell people that I'm a park ranger in conjunction with telling them my name - the two pieces of information are virtually inseperable from each other.  Park rangers are used to getting told, "You've got the best job in the world."  And we agree with people who say that - because we know it's true.  Park rangers love their jobs so much that they enjoy looking at photos of their parks and photos of themselves at work.  Anybody who is a park ranger will most likely have a photo resume equivalent to :

  • a photo using/holding a chainsaw, next to a massive old growth tree blow down
  • a photo while operating a boat at work
  • a photo taken during firearms training
  • photo wearing aviator sunglasses and a "smokey the bear" campaign hat
  • photo taken while teaching a small child something interesting (theoretically)
  • a photo while riding in any number of odd park vehicles (John Deere Gator, eletric cart, etc...)
  • a photo while giving a campfire presentation
  • and the old standard - a dramatic photo while standing in front of a patrol vehicle
Ahhhh, the old standard.

Ok, so a photo with a bunch of alpacas is probably not all that common ...
Yep, there's the chainsaw photo.

This past summer, I was working an evening campground patrol with a fellow ranger named Mark.  We had two noisy, adjacent campsites that we needed to talk to (AKA "reprimand like adult babies") regarding quiet hours.  The most poorly behaved of the two groups was engaged in some sort of a glow-stick rave next to a picnic table.  Mark waited in the shadows while I made my approach to contact the subjects.  As I walked into the campsite, mesmerized by the swirling lights of the colored glowsticks, I failed to notice that the other noisy campsite had seen me make my approach.  As I talked to the glow-stick-wavers regarding their noise level, Mark listened intently as the other campsite had a very specific conversation about me.  In addition to making suggestive comments in reference to a specific part of my body that may or may not rhyme with the word "grass", the men gathered around the picnic table also began to theorize that I was a frequent bar-hopper, and that if they went into the town of Belfair later that night, that they would most likely find me partying at a bar.  Now, I'm the first to admit that I like to have a good time - however, my idea of a good time usually involves climbing a mountain, and on ZERO occasions would I ever even consider stepping foot into one of the "finer" establishments, such as The Looney Bin or The Woodshed, in the town of Belfair.  Upon my return to Mark's location, he was barely able to contain himself as he relayed the story back to me.  It became immediately apparent that we needed to use this information to mess with the minds of our drunk revelers.  Stoicly, I made my approach to campsite #2.  There were approximately 8 men and 1 female sitting around a picnic table playing cards ... I started with my pre-canned, standard party-pooper speech, "Hey guys ... just so you know, quiet hours starts at 10 pm.  It's now 11pm, and you are still pretty noisy.  I'm giving you an educational warning now, but if I have to come back and talk to you again, it'll mean a citation and eviction.  There are other people around you trying to sleep ... blah ... blah ... blah ... we're all adults here... (inner monologue : REALLY?  Are we REALLY adults?  Coulda' fooled me...)".  The group seemed relatively compliant, and so I decided to throw a wrench into their drunken haze.  As I turned to leave, I looked back one last time and stated, "Oh yeah, and by the way - I don't hang out at the bars in Belfair."  Quickly and stealthily, I made my exit into the shadows.  The next 4 seconds can only be described as a moment of utter, confused silence followed by an audible and somewhat slow-motion "Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh".  To this day I am convinced that they probably still have not worked out in their minds how I could have possibly heard their whispered conversation while they clearly saw me talking to another campsite. 

Mark, Edd and I - partners in crime deterrence. 

As I reflect on the possible end of my career as a ranger, I find myself struck by the sentimentality that I feel.  If I think about it rationally, I can manage - I'll find another career, something good will come out of this, I'll be OK.  But then, stupidly, because I am fueled by emotional passion, I start to think about sentimental things.  I think about turning in my badge; saying goodbye to my boss, co-workers and employees who are more akin to family; letting go of a special park that I love.  Thinking about these things reminds me of how much I wanted this job in the first place - it reminds me how hard it was to earn my job, and it reminds me of how hard it will be to give it up for good.  Just the other day, I was walking through the park at dusk - the water of the Hood Canal was as still and as smooth as I have ever seen it, and the deep blue of  the darkening sky created an azure glow.  The full moon shone brightly in the sky, and reflected perfectly in the water below.  After uttering an audible, "Wow!", I stood and stared at the view in silence.  It was a perfect moment - a moment in which I realized that not many people have had the chance to work each day in a place so special and beautiful. 

Dusk at Twanoh.

I am so fortunate to be a Park Ranger with Washington State Parks.  I can say without a shadow of a doubt that I love my job.  There are days that have been difficult, frustrating, frightening, inspiring, terrifying, surprising and thrilling.  For the chance to fulfill the dream of an 11 year old girl - the adventure has been different and better than I could ever have imagined.  I am humbled to have had the opportunity to serve the public, my friends, my family and my fellow State Parks employees during my time as a ranger.  I hope that I have not let you down.  I thank each and every one of you, from the bottom of my heart, for enriching my life in so many ways. 

As I glance at my badge, I am struck by how much meaning such a small object can have.  When I first received my commission, I read that an officer wears a badge over the heart to symbolize the pledge that he or she has made.  When I was commissioned as a ranger, I swore to my oath of office with a full heart.  I realize now that my badge has also left an impression of its own  - when it comes time to turn it in, I will hand over merely a piece of metal attached to a pin : the true meaning of the badge and the memories of my life as a park ranger are mine to keep - locked in my heart forever.