So, to take a break from previous topics, I thought this would be a good time to talk about some of my experiences as a federal park guide/ranger. Although three of my four parks list park guide on the paperwork, the badge still says park ranger and that is something I am loathe to surrender. Now, this isn’t a law enforcement position, they are another classification. There are several jobs listed under park ranger with the National Park Service and I am a resource interpreter. I provide orientation and education in the resource. The parks I have served at are Mammoth Cave National Park (MACA), Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park (ABLI), New River Gorge National River (NERI), and Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area (BISO). They’re mouthfuls, I know. Each post has been similar and wildly divergent in what the roles entail. Of course there have been ups and downs, but the experience has been a treasured one. The fact that I am seasonal does mean that the years have been getting long.
Seasonal. That is what the majority of park rangers are, in fact. We can only work so many hours in a given year, amounting to six months of full-time employment. The turnover can be considerable, especially at a high-volume park like MACA because it can be a rough life even over a few years trying to balance a park position with another seasonal job that can pay the bills. But, people keep doing it. Some are retired, others are school teachers only working the summer and weekends, or people like me, chasing the sought after permanent status. There are few such year-round positions available and those holding them are reluctant to retire. The parks pull them back, as well as fresh faces hoping to achieve the same status. Old Jeffrey T. would say he’d do the job for nothing. He was a rascally fellow and I miss him often. We didn’t always see eye to eye, but it was hard not to love him. This fall will be ten years since we lost him, on the last day of summer. It seems a fitting occasion to lose such a soul. The end of nature’s vitality and vigor, transitioning towards the end of the year.
That is also a suitable analogy for most seasonals. As the season ends, so too does their time at a beloved park. The work can be strenuous, but often it is the mental and emotional strain that can lead to burnout. Regardless of what drives them on to new horizons, it is a rare soul that does so willingly. In spite of the tribulations I have endured during my tenure, the thought of leaving is a heavy oner. It is one of the most satisfying and enriching things one can do in service to this country. No, I’m not dismissing any other service, civilian or military, but speaking from my heart. That is how much I cherish what I have done over the last 11 years. It never fails to fill me with pride when told how much someone appreciates what we do, but the ones who tug the heartstrings the most are children. I’ve had a child take my hand without a word to stave off her fear of going into a cave with her class. Another had her mother ask if she could give me a hug and kiss (I consented to the hug.). It is my job to not simply teach someone about a place, or people, or idea, but to connect them to a place that was considered so valuable to our nation as a whole that Congress agreed to set it aside for protection.
It hurts every October when I have to turn over my badges and assorted property. Electronic files must be reorganized to ensure that they are not locked so that others can still access them. Educational programs, research, and various projects are too important to those who come along later to risk losing them in a locked account. If a ranger does not return, it is invaluable to have those resources available to the next crew to come along. The learning curve is already too great, particularly since an employee could be coming from anywhere in the country to work a season and know nothing of the area. I do what I can for new rangers, and everyone pitches in to share ideas and some new tidbit they have learned. As humdrum as things may seem, there is always something new to spring up that is exciting and new. I am a bipolar introvert with ADHD and anxiety issues who loves to interact with new visitors to the park and introduce them to why it was their best idea to visit. These are a few of the things that makes it so hard to turn in those badges.
Yes, you read that right. I am not just introverted, but, as I have aged to now almost 43 years, it can be debilitating to speak to so many people. How many people? The standard tours at MACA usually top out at 130 people and often three are assigned to a pair of rangers. Heavy traffic days at NERI would number in the thousands. The Saturday preceding the 4th of July in 2017 had some 5000 or so people in the first three hours of the shift. As much as people exhaust me physically and psychologically, the vast majority of interactions pull me in and I forget the exhaustion until they have gone. It’s almost a high, I suppose. You need that next fix. That next family excited to see the sights. The children who eyes are lost in the exhibits. All of it.
I think this is enough for now. The next time I post about the park service I think it will be about some of the more amusing stories I have run across. I’m not certain what the topic will be for Wednesday, but I am leaning towards a post about writing to forestall the next post concerning mental health. Regardless, I have decided on a regular schedule of Monday/Wednesday/Friday, with some random posts showing up as the mood strikes. Thank you for visiting. Hope to see you next time, my friends.