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.


  1. Seriously... You should write a book... or three.

  2. Excellent write up! Sure wish I had gone the Park Ranger route instead of the desk-chained accountant route.

    I didn't clue into that wrong decision until I was at the Lightning Creek campground on Ross Lake on the way home from Desolation Peak and two rangers pulled up in a speed boat. They looked official... carried firearms and had mountain bikes in the back of the boat. So jealous!!!

    Good luck on surviving the budget cutbacks. I really feel for you.


  3. HI Stacy!
    This is a wonderful post and I enjoyed reading your thoughts/memories about being a park ranger. I agree with Nathan's comment...maybe your next career could be writing books since you write so well! I wish you the best during these uncertain times in your career and much success with your future adventures in life and work!

  4. Hi Stacy:

    Great writing as usual. You have a great way of expressing yourself and the photos are a bonus. I hope everything works out for you.

  5. Thank you guys so much - glad you enjoyed. It was very therapeutic for me to write ... to help me understand that the character qualities that I value so much go beyond the uniform and the badge, or any job for that matter. It was also important for me to highlight how positive my life has been as a park ranger - it's hard to remember the "good times" when it feels like there has been a dark cloud looming overhead for a few years... but those good times are exactly what I should be focusing on.

    Thanks again for reading ... stay tuned. Who knows what will be next?

  6. No matter what the future brings, I'm certain you will be surrounded by (and seek out) great adventure. And, I think with such, all will be okay! Try and stay positive during these difficult times. Keep writing too! You're so very talented, you should consider writing a book.

  7. This was great, and I love your pictures.

  8. THAT, was beautiful. You have such a great outlook despite all that is happening to our agency. I am deeply saddened that we will be losing some very fine employees in this horrible budget crisis. It has been an honor to work with you and I pray that you will find a place in our park system. If not, I know you will land in a good spot and have many new and exciting adventures. I wish others shared your great attitude rather than all the ugliness I have heard. I'm a believer that if you do the best job you can and keep a great attitude, when things take a better turn for us, you will be the ones that the agency will seek out and offer the job too. You are a class act Stacy!

  9. I cried while reading your ode.

    I am from MD too. I have been a National Park Ranger since 1982. Seasonal and permanent, law enforcement, interp. and I've done maintenance as a permanent. I've also worked for USFS and US Army Corps as a Ranger. Right now I have my own business and am intermittent at Olympic National Park, the best of all worlds. I am hoping my husband, a Washington State Park Ranger with 30 years in, gets a job somewhere where I will still be able to work in a National Park.

    Stacy I hope you will work on becoming a National Park Ranger. State Parks all over the country are in trouble. NPS is too but, it is worth the effort. I use to bleed green and grey, now days it is pale green and grey. I hope as I lose my 13 year old business that I can get back in as Interp. my law enforcement and FLETC (1987) are well behind me. Parks deserve you and the Rangers of Washington. I keep close to me that at least the Parks are open for now. I have fought hard for WA state parks with many others but, I am tired.

    Good luck and hope you contact the folks at Hopewell (or one of the Pacific NW Parks) and make your way back to NPS.

  10. Heart wrenching, heart breaking, and heart felt power, Stacy. A great summary of why so many of us are rangers: to help people, to make a difference, to be a part of what is special about our state and our planet. To see it ripped apart by a decision that appears to forget what parks are about is what is most frustrating and painful. To see people like you let go like flotsam: we all lose. Thank you for sharing your message, your thoughts, and your heart. To you and everyone on the ropes, my best wishes that you land where you can still love what you do.

  11. hi stacy.

    my name is eli boschetto, and i'm the editor of washington trails magazine. someone forwarded me a link to your recent blog post about your experience as a state park ranger – very moving story, and exceptionally written. its truly sad what's happening with our state parks lately, affecting not only the visitors, but the service personnel as well. i sincerely hope that this is not the end of your career, as its people like you that create the experiences enjoyed by so many.

    we're planning a feature story in the mar+apr issue of washington trails that takes a look at the current condition of state parks, why they're important, and why they should continue to be supported and funded. would you be interested in sharing your story as a sub-feature; a view from the inside? if so, please contact me at

    best wishes ~ Eli

  12. Stacy, absolutely wonderful story that I hope does not end this way. It is sad what is happening to our state parks and those who make them available.

  13. Thank you for your story. I got my start working as a Park Aide at Potlatch State Park 13 years ago. That led to becoming a Park Ranger for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers since. I'll never forget my time in WA State though, so beautiful and peaceful on the Hood Canal. Good luck to you in the future and God Bless.

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  15. Thank you for sharing this beautiful write-up and best wishes in your future endeavors.

  16. Thank you so much for writing this. Your words took me back 30 years to what I felt when I first began working as a ranger for the NPS - and am lucky enough to still be able to conjure up as I am nearing the end of my career. There is nothing as blessed as having had the opportunity to have lived a life outside, and to have shared it with many, many special people. If the worst happens and you need to look elsewhere to continue to live your dream, please consider the national park service. We'd love to have you. If you'd like to talk further, please email me at

  17. What were some of the interview questions?

  18. Great story. My season as a park ranger for Washington State Parks just ended. Best job I've ever had. Definitely miss the funny encounters during evening campground checks.

  19. Stacy: I can't begin to tell you how excited I was to find your website! While you were a Ranger at Twanoh State Park, 2009, you provided me with one of the most memorable moments of my life! Bar none! You may recall the night, about 10pm, you approached me at my campfire.........while I was writing, and proceeded to play for me, on your violin, the Ashokan Farewell.

    My name is John Johnson. You may recall that I presented you with flowers the following day as a token of my appreciation; which you politely informed me that you could not "personally" accept (as a Ranger) and that you would plant them at the park.
    You may/may not recall that I imposed upon you my home-style chicken :-).

    I have so warmly recounted that night too so many people over the years. I even purchased an 1800's post card...(which I have framed) with an illustration of a lovely lady playing the remind me. I so hope you are well.

    I have continued with my writing of poetry.........and am ready to publish my first of several anthologies. My writing consumes me.

    I won't make this a long comment, as I don't even know if you will get it; however, I would love to hear from you, if possible. I do not do Facebook, so if you wanted to reach me, my email is

    I just wanted to thank you again for that night; the stars, the trees, the campfire, the music and a wonderful person(you) who made an old man humble. I will cherish that few minutes the rest of my life. May God bless you, warm regards, John.