The following text is a note I left for a new coworker after he told us his thoughts on being selected as a seasonal ranger for his first season with the NPS. Note, he’s in his 60’s, I believe, and retired from his day job…
What you said at the restaurant earlier tonight struck a chord with me. And I wanted to thank you for wearing your heart on your sleeve.
Our amazing parks mean a great deal to me. It seems that I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love mountains. For a while as an undergrad, I got “distracted”. But if I think back, and be honest with myself, all I ever wanted was a little cabin in the mountains, surrounded by evergreens and wildflowers, tall peaks and tumbling creeks. And a ranger’s hat.
I remember, as a kid, going on ranger walks in Rocky Mountain National Park. There was a campfire program every night in Glacier Basin campground – my dad’s favorite place to camp. We listened every night. During the day we would walk all of the “family-friendly” trails – around lakes, to nearby waterfalls, through meadows and forests filled with wildflowers. Yes, we even had a meadow that we called our “Frolicking Meadow”! I learned what Bighorn Sheep and Columbine were all about. I remember my dad carrying our cooler down a flight of stone and log stairs to a picnic table beside Glacier Creek. We ate there at least once a summer. There was an old tree, fallen across the creek, that my brother used to climb on. And at that same picnic table, I’d watch dad pull little sweet pickles out of a jar using his pocketknife – the first place I ever ate little sweet pickles. We’d take the walk around Bear Lake, stopping at each bear paw numbered sign and listen as Mom read from the trail guide about that particular stop.
Ten years ago now, I made my first solo trek out to Rocky, well before I got into the PhD program at Colorado State University. I drove for two days from Arkansas, while some of my friends thought I was either going to die… or worse, turn into a complete nature freak. I remember driving my car over Trail Ridge Road – and the Continental Divide – for the first time as an “adult”. (Are we ever really adults in our nation’s greatest playgrounds?!) I was at this saddle, with the clouds swirling and floating across the road, so I pulled over and just watched. Driving across open areas of alpine tundra certainly gives one a different perspective on the world below! Later that same trip, I saw in the Harbison Meadows, and then at the Bowen-Baker trailhead, and told myself I didn’t have to go back to the midwest – I was home. Finally.
It actually took me a few more years to get through my masters’ degree and actually move to Colorado, but when I did, and got hooked up with some other local hikers and park fans, I knew life was going in the right direction.
Despite my disappointments with my time at CSU, it gave me the chance to spend the summer of 2007 in the Alaskan interior – between Denali, Gates of the Arctic and Yukon-Charley National Preserve. I fell in love all over again. I even got two log cabins to call home that summer – one on the outskirts of Fairbanks and one in the foothills of the Brooks Range in Coldfoot. I got to see moose roaming hillsides and the arctic tundra ablaze in red in the fall. It was in Alaska where I got my first taste of real blueberries. And wild cranberries. And I learned to fall asleep to the sounds of sled dogs howling across the “highway” (really a 400-mile stretch of dirt, gravel, and stunning landscapes). My roommate that summer also fell in love with Alaska – her first summer there too. We read through Dick Proenneke’s journal exerpts of homesteading at Twin Lakes, now part of Lake Clark National Park. If you have not heard of him, I’ll let you borrow my copy of One Man’s Wilderness. Turns out, he’d already lived my dream.
Although I really don’t remember the day I saw an NPS ranger hat for the first time – I was five years old (ask for my mom’s stories!) – it almost seems that this summer in uniform will be a sort of surreal experience. Is this really me? Who knew this could happen?
Here’s to making your dreams into reality and protecting America’s most beautiful and precious open spaces. As John Muir once said, “The mountains are calling and I must go.”