For today’s post, I want to pause and acknowledge my deep admiration for all of the National Park Service employees who helped to make my four month trip so special. Whenever I visited one of our parks or monuments or battlefields, the information desk at the Visitor’s Center was always my first stop. I quickly learned that the three key things to let them know were: why I was there, how much time I had, and what physical challenge level I was up for in terms of hiking goals. There were usually addition considerations to factor in because I was alone. In return, a Ranger would typically provide me with a map and a kind of personalized itinerary that included suggestions of things I would never have found on my own. Without Ranger guidance for example, I wouldn’t have found the quiet spaces in Zion among the crazy crowds, and that changed my entire experience there.
In Boston, a Ranger took advantage of a lull in the crowds, and walked me through Faneuil Hall, directly to the statues and paintings of women that I was looking for as I researched monuments to women, then explained the social norms that would have greeted women in the mid 18th century, followed immediately by a rundown of events related to women’s rights that would be held there in the coming months. It was as if he had a treasure trove of information that he was super happy to share, and just waiting for someone to come along and ask. That dynamic was true in many of the parks I visited. The first Ranger I met at Death Valley for example, immediately informed me that the size of the park was almost exactly the same square acreage as my home state of Connecticut. It just bubbled out of him with a smile, which was awesome.
In the Everglades, I was buying postcards when I was gently encouraged to also purchase a $5 mosquito net that made me the envy of the campground, and was given the inside scoop and the best locations to see wildlife in the early morning before the crowds of photographers with camera lenses the length of their arms showed up.
In Carlsbad Caverns I listened and watched as a Park Ranger dealt with a screaming child whose parents appeared to be the only ones present that were completely oblivious to how the sound was echoing throughout the cave and disrupting the experience. She managed to respectfully but firmly draw their focus to it, and in the process displayed a level of emotional intelligence that was one of the defining characteristics of every Park Ranger I met.
That emotional intelligence was the thing I most admired in all of the Rangers I met, and it left me wondering if it is something that is successfully screened for in the hiring process, or if it’s just in the nature of a person who is dedicated to this kind of a career. The park rangers I met were all highly trained and educated, and seemed to all have degrees in some kind of earth science or history. For some, like the ranger I met in Boston, this was a second career. For others, this was a summer job only. The ranger that led the tour of Devils Tower Monument, for example, was a full time science teacher and summer ranger only.
I stopped two Rangers on a trail in the Grand Teton NP with obscure questions about botany, wildlife in the area, and the differences in the growth rate of three different species of trees. They didn’t even blink before giving me an impromptu science lesson.
In White Sands National Monument, our Ranger led us on a sunset walk through the beautiful white dunes, explaining how they we shaped over millions of years with the skill of an accomplished storyteller, and the dedication of a science teacher, complete with geologic samples to show the different stages that the white gypsum passed through before it became the soft sand beneath our feet.
High atop the mesa that forms the Island in the Sky portion of Canyonlands, and with a sweeping view in front of us, another Ranger took us through the story of how the canyon within a canyon within a canyon before us managed to form. As her talk ended and she pulled a dinosaur footprint out of her bag, I laughed and clapped at the big finish that was one of the coolest endings I’ve ever seen or heard from any storyteller.
On the other end of Canyonlands, at The Needles, another Ranger patiently explained that no, my F150 4×4 would not be able to make it down the “high clearance only” roads, but gave me some other options to explore, then showed me exactly how far I would make it before having to back my way out of a difficult drive, if I chose to go ahead and ignore her advice. We both smiled at one another in acknowledgement of how clearly and kindly she made her point.
On the prairie in South Dakota, another Ranger explained the technical advantages of the Minuteman Missile, and walked us through the launch process we all hope will never happen.
I don’t know how these Rangers manage to stay calm and dedicated in a job that requires constant interaction with people, some percentage of whom are not going to be behaving well. I watched as rangers pulled garbage out of a delicate pool in Death Valley, directed traffic to ease up the “bear jams” in Yellowstone, and in Zion calmly directed the rescue of a woman who walked right past the sign telling her the flow rate of the river was too high and fast for a hike up The Narrows to be safe.
Personally, I would quickly grow weary of telling visitors to stop taking selfies with the bison and elk in Yellowstone, or continually warning them to get off the steep slope that leads to a giant pool of boiling sulfuric acid. Some cynical part of me would be tempted to just let the stupid take care of itself, but I’m guessing the paperwork involved would be burdensome as well.
Our National Park system is an enormous treasure, and I don’t think you can spend time visiting these extraordinary places without developing an increased sense of how valuable they are to our nation. The Park Service employees are charged with making sure these places remain well cared for, and they are constantly improving and protecting these delicate ecosystems and monuments, while making sure that visitors are safe and well informed.
They have both my gratitude and my respect.
The National Park Service hires people from a wide variety of backgrounds, with expertise in anything from finance to biology to geology to engineers to pretty much anything you can think of. Some are full time employees who make a career of it, and others are seasonal workers. There are even programs for volunteers and many parks have artist in residence programs as well. Current jobs within the National Park Service are listed here, and you can learn more about the different ways you can be part of the our Park Service through volunteering, internships and the like by clicking here.