Sunday, January 15, 2012
My office is surrounded by some of the most awe-inspiring scenery on the planet, and yet it is still a government office. As I pop in and out of these worlds of beauty and bureaucracy, I am constantly switching gears from forester to administrator. Occasionally I forget to switch, taking the office geek out on the trail or stuffing the outdoorsperson into a windowless basement office. Working here is always a strange blend of Office Space and Summer Vacation. As your job comes head to head with the unpredictable and incalculable whims of nature and tourism, someday you will find yourself standing nose to nose with a wild creature, gripping a memo in your fist…blinking…and trying to remember what that email said about how to avoid being charged by a bighorn sheep.
Following my marathon shift in the visitor center today, I needed to hurry into the park before sunset to snap some photos for a new trail sign we are drafting. Certainly, the opportunity to hike a trail is a welcome part of work; I fully recognize how spoiled I am to be paid to hike. However, I had already had a long day on my feet, and was now working extra hours to meet a deadline which has been gnawing at me for weeks. The sun sets early this time of year, so I had just over an hour to drive to the trailhead, climb the trail, snap my photos, and return before darkness sank in. At 4:00 sharp, I pulled down the flag, locked the visitor center doors, grabbed my hat and car keys and headed out. I was delayed momentarily in the parking lot by a group attracted to the all-knowing flat hat, and was half-jogging to the top of the trail, racing the setting sun.
When I came head to horn with a bighorn sheep.
Right on the trail.
He stared at me, unflinching, knowing that he had the upper hand—or hoof—on the steep slickrock slope. I froze too, listening to the pebbles kicked loose by my footsteps roll down, down, down the hill below me. I had my camera in hand for the project, but I flinched at the strange sound of Velcro tearing through our staring contest. Finally, the ram seemed to decide I was not a threat, and went back to grazing.
Right on the trail.
Now, I love a good animal sighting as much as those crazy wolf-watchers with the ten thousand dollar scopes in Lamar Valley, but at this particular moment, I had a couple of 12-pound horns standing between me, my photos, and the encroaching darkness. I wouldn’t have time to come back the next day, and I had a deadline to meet. The trail was steep enough as it was and I was certainly not keen to imagine how little effort it would take this guy to send me tumbling on my sandy bottom to the sandy bottom.
I cautiously detoured off the trail to the right, choosing a steeper sandstone slope and praying my Vibram soles would stick to the rock. The ram watched me alertly, while I assumed a downcast, less-predatory gaze. Just as I came up level with the sheep, he bounded higher, keeping the upper ledge and continuing to obstruct the trail. Now, guilt was settling in, for I knew I was stressing this animal needlessly, but the deadline pusher in me was crying out. As so often happens in the workplace, a simple task became inexplicably complicated, and my frustration was boiling up—which I’m certain did little to convince this bighorn that I was a harmless observer. I detoured wider.
Eventually, the ram went back to browsing and even settled down on a high ledge to watch the play of light from the setting sun. I scrambled to the top and took my photos, then peered down from the rim to see if the ram had ceded the trail to the awkward bipeds who need more than a pebble-sized divot to perch on solid rock. I scanned the trail and didn’t see him, then dropped my gaze and realized he was staring up at me from directly below. Even as I imagined he was calculating whether he could leap 15 feet vertically to give me a solid head butt, I couldn’t help but appreciate his healthy brown coat, solid horns and shiny eyes. After a few moments, however, I realized I must look an awful lot like a mountain lion, hunched over the rocky ledge with my forward-facing eyes sizing him up. I crept back to give the creature his peace and found a suitable route down the opposite side of the sandstone knob. I made it back to the trailhead while the light was still fading and drove back to my dark basement office to get ready for another day at the office.
Thursday, June 9, 2011
I can’t be quite certain what it says about me that I’m ending the spring hiatus from my ranger blog by writing about toilets. Dissertation demands sucked away most of my time and desire to sit in front of a computer this spring, but after completing an intro-to-conclusion draft I am now desperately seeking distraction from the much-needed revisions. So I’ve dragged my laptop outside where I can watch the sunset, frenziedly swat gnats, and contemplate the complications of pooping in the desert.
There are two toilet problems at Island in the Sky these days, ironically contradictory in cause. Down by the river, the problem is too much water; here on the mesa top, our problem is too little. Rising water levels on the Green River have flooded the White Rim Road and threaten the riverside campsites . To prevent the current from sweeping away Jeeps, bikes, and pedestrians, we closed the sections of road which had been drowned by the floods. I’m sure I’m overly dramatic, but I love the image of desperate campers running to the outhouse to escape rising floodwaters. I picture them sitting on the john, pulling up their legs while the river swirls around the base, slowly filling the tiny chamber. In reality, the problem isn’t people, but poop. Because the underwater campsites have pit toilets nearby, the maintenance crew went down and sucked the vaults dry with the “honey” truck, ensuring the flood waters would find no bits of paper and poo to carry downstream. I haven’t seen yet whether the toilets have flooded, but if you see a porta-potty floating though Cataract Canyon this week, you’ll know the river’s running fast and strong through Canyonlands.
While the rivers are bursting their banks 2000 feet below us, we have nary a drop to wet our lips at the visitor center. The powers that be have decided it is time to end our “Let Burn” workplace fire policy: should the building catch fire, everyone run outside and watch the building burn to the ground. Aside from one wildland fire truck which holds enough water to douse a burning bush, we have no water for firefighting in the area. Finally, the park contracted to install a larger water line which would support an emergency sprinkler system in the visitor center. The building was previously connected to the residential water tank by a thin line which, I’ve been told, supplied water to a small sink back in the visitor “trailer” days. Such a line would merely drizzle water on a burning building. In planning the new system, the facilities crew dragged out every old map of the area they could find, searching for the spot where the old pipe lay. No map recorded it, though, so as they dug in their spades and backhoes, they promised us that they would try not to cut off the old pipe. Since they didn’t know where it was, once they hit it, the water would be gone for the next few weeks. Two days later they hit the pipe. That was over a month ago.
I know that hundreds of rangers in years gone by have endured drought on the mesa top. It hardly seems fair to sit in our beautiful new building, with high speed internet, semi-reliable phone systems, air conditioning and refrigeration, and still complain about the lack of water. It’s not even that I mind using the vault toilets, which are kept squeaky clean by our maintenance crew. My issues are two-fold. First, we have a kitchenette for lunch breaks, but no water for washing dishes. Which means that people deposit their dirty dishes in the sink and leave them there, wishing on the dish fairies to come in with their sponges of magic water and spoof away the caked on ketchup and cheese. Pathetic that grown adults have to rely on their coworkers to nag them into doing their dishes or punish them by confiscating the unwashed piles of dishes.
The bigger issue, however, echoes the problems we had at Norris in Summer ’04, when our rusty ol’ toilet in the office bit the dust. Suddenly, quick restroom breaks are transformed into half-hour interpretive roves. Naturally, we wait until we’re starting to squirm in our seats or dance behind the desk before we give in to this adventure. Surrendering at last, we throw on our hat and trek out towards the parking lot. As soon as we set foot on the pavement, however, flocks of visitors zero in on our shiny badge and thrust their way in front of us, barricading our path to the restrooms with a wall of maps and rapid fire questions. Winding through the masses like a celebrity, we make our way to the toilets, inevitably arriving at the tail end of a 40-passenger tour group chattering away in some unknown language. Quietly dancing in place as we wait out the line, we try not to grimace while we field questions from the relaxed-bladder tourists as they vacate the stalls. Finally, as our hand reaches out to the doorknob, some desperate mother runs up with a two-year-old, pleading with the kind civil servant to let them cut the line because little Susy just might not make it another thirty seconds. Of course, ma’am, go right ahead….
In the rush of midday, a restroom break can easily turn into a half hour affair. Once last week, I tried sneaking around the back side of our quad of vaults, coming face to face with the front of the line. I patiently waited while those who were there before me filed through, and then tried to slip in on my turn. But the person across from me took the stall, and then the next one took another. Finally, one woman whispered to her man, “Sweetie, I think that she is waiting to go next.” He looked at me as if seeing me for the first time: “Oh, I thought you were just there to direct traffic.” Toilet patrol, indeed.
And so, to commemorate a month of roughing it with the vault toilets at ISKY, I thought I’d share my favorite outhouse story from Southeast Utah. Yellowstone peecicles will assuredly endure as my most memorable NPS potty experience, but this was my first glimpse into what happens when the federal government manages toilets.
To fully appreciate the enormity of this situation, imagine yourself in the Utah desert in July. The air temperature pushes 100 degrees all summer long, radiating off the rocks day and night. The tin-roofed toilets trap all that heat inside a 5’-by-5’ room. The sweet smells of decomposing waste simmer in these stalls, luring in flies as big as your fist and various other cold-blooded reptiles (I’ll save the story of mating rattlesnakes for another day). Nowadays, sophisticated venting systems circulate the air and do a remarkable job of mitigating the smell, but the older, primitive vaults remind us of grimmer times of nose-holding and speed-squatting.
When I was working at Arches a decade ago, the introduction of time-released automatic air fresheners promised to revolutionize the world of outhouses. These water-bottle sized contraptions could be bolted inconspicuously to the inside wall of the outhouse. Drawing power from a pair of double-A batteries, the device periodically squirted a sweetly-scented potion to combat the evil stench with bursts of daisy and peppermint. Today, the automatic restroom air freshener is a standard public restroom appliance, but in those days they were just trickling into use and Arches had the chance of a lifetime to spice up their outhouses, literally.
The air freshener came with a catalogue of at least a hundred scent packets which could be ordered to stock the machines. They offered fruity smells and soothing smells and the smells of freshly baked bread or rain steaming off the sidewalk. The company seemed to have captured every scent-memory of human history and massed produced them for public restrooms around the globe. I’ll admit, the sheer number and variety of capsules for sale was a little daunting. If I felt so, imagine how our maintenance crew felt, sitting in the break room flipping through a leaflet which seemed like an Avon catalogue with its frilly names and scents. These gruff men whose olfactory glands had been corroded away by years of running tractors and handling every chemical legal in the United States—not to mention cleaning the outhouses—stared helplessly at page after page of perfumes.
Still… one would think the choice would be obvious. First, we’re working in a National Park, so perhaps we should go with something outdoorsy, a nice pine scent perhaps or something with “breeze” in its name. Second, considering the 100-degree temperatures, we needed a scent which would stand up to the heat, far from the sweaty, sticky summer smells which keep us at arm’s length from each other and as far as possible from dumpsters and alleys during the heat of the season. In other words, no cotton candy or buttery popcorn. Finally, the scent had to meld, somehow, with the dominant smells of the outhouse. This last one was a tall task, I know, but if you avoided smells that reminded you of your grandmother’s house, the corner bakery, and anything your sweetheart dabs behind her ears on Valentine’s Day, you’d probably do fine.
Following these simple, common-sense rules, no one should have problems selecting an appropriate scent for the Arches outhouses, even our rough and toothless maintenance crew. Or so we thought. Our confidence was dashed and our senses cruelly tormented when we opened the large crate of scent capsules they had purchased for our outhouses: all summer long, in the smothering heat, we would take care of our most personal business while basking in the aroma of … bananas.
Monday, May 23, 2011
We don’t distinctly remember how it began. It seems likely that it was after bacon-themed Thanksgiving, as we held our aching sides and marveled at the greatness of America, where bacon is a garnish and portion control means saving room for seconds. We know we were seeking an answer to the great Thanksgiving dilemma of how to sample every flavor of pie, cake, and cheesecake in the last 900 calories of your feast. That other Thanksgiving dilemma of how to avoid salmonella in your stuffing while still pleasing fifteen dinner guests with varied tastes in poultry has been solved by the “Turducken”: a chicken cooked inside a duck stuffed inside a turkey. If the stuffing principle works for the main dish, why not for dessert? Why settle for pie or cake, when you can have pie and cake… in the same bite?
|Strawberry, rhubarb, and cheesecake--the bottom layer.|
|Peach and almond--the top layer|
In brief, imagine baking an entire pie--whole--inside a cake, stacking three such cakes atop each other, and wrapping the tower in thick icing thick to seal in the bulging, oozing mass of sugar. The Cherpumple embodies at least four of the seven deadly sins in dessert form.
One of many reasons I love my friend Jen is that she will happily stroll with me down the path to extreme eating…and that she wanted to celebrate her wedding with an appropriately memorable dessert. Jen turned up her nose at the selection of pumpkin, apple, and cherry pie in the "traditional" Cherpumple, proposing instead the deliciously fruity centers of cherry, peach, and strawberry-rhubarb. While the details of the date and place of the wedding fluctuated, the one constant was the cake/pie we renamed the “Cherpeachbarb.” Jen may have meant it in jest, and Jordan may have shuddered at the whole thing, but it seemed they were stuck with it. Now I got to see if I could turn this emblem of gluttony and excess into a tasteful and tasty wedding cake.
|A slice: the cross-section shows the strawberry-rhubarb pie, sitting on a strawberry cake crust, surrounded by cheesecake, and iced. It's like a puzzle...|
|The cake, dissembled: three layers, three flavors.|
Jen and Jordan's celebration was delightful: a warm New Mexico evening spent with good friends and delicious food. Jen's mother cooked Vietnamese dishes for a small army, and still most people found stamina to sample all three layers of the Cherpeachbarb. The bride and groom outshone the food and flowers, and while they will surely carry many New Mexico moments with them to Arizona, somewhere in the bank of memories will be a pie, baked inside a cheesecake, stuffed in a cake, and swirled in cream cheese frosting.
|The first cut.|
|The bride and groom... and their cake/pie creation.|
Saturday, March 26, 2011
|Whitecrack: The trail at the end of the road.|
Then, twenty-four hours before our scheduled departure, our trip leader and I had the same brainstorm: if we started one group out by vehicle and a second group by foot, we could meet in the middle and swap out. I spent a couple hours rearranging the schedule and cranked out something which would get us through the rest of the week. Thanks to Bobby’s outstanding preparation, we shifted right into the new plan and on Wednesday morning I was cramming my pack full of as much long underwear as I thought I could carry, telling myself that the job and dissertation weren’t going anywhere in the next few days and it was time to go, go, go.
|Ready to go... as soon as that storm blows by.|
Much to my embarrassment, I took the first big spill of the trip—and the second, for that matter. Ten minutes down the trail I misjudged the angle of some slickrock and tumbled face-first into the dirt, tearing the skin off my knee and gashing open a treasured pair of hiking pants which had cost me a huge five dollars at Sierra Trading Post. Later that night, this time in front of the whole group, I hopped on a bike for an evening ride and as I turned onto the road I burrowed my front tire so deep in the sand that I spun the bike to the ground, swallowing dirt for the second time that day. I’m dirty, I’m sunburned, I’m wind-beaten, bruised, and bleeding. And it’s the best day of work I’ve had in a long time.
Traveling the White Rim has made this space three-dimensional for me. From above, the road seems painfully flat, following the table-topped White Rim sandstone for miles upon miles. Driving over the Murphy Hogback, however, seemed more like driving up the table legs, over the top, and straight down the other side. To our left as we rode our counter-clockwise course, the towering Wingate formation pushed the Island into the Sky; on our right, the sheer cliffs of the White Rim kept the river completely out of reach as we rolled along a sandy, rutted, barely-one-lane track through the desert. A half dozen foot trails come down from the Island and two or three routes provide access below the White Rim, but for almost a hundred miles, we stuck to this historic road which snakes between the layers in an ever-changing view of Canyonlands. From the time we passed two backpackers near the top of the Wilhite until we met a party of Jeeps at the Airport campsites, we spent nearly 50 hours without seeing any people outside of our group. We’ve endured high winds and hail, near-freezing temperatures, gritty oatmeal, crowded spaces, and torn clothing, to claim those moments when the air is still and the sun is setting and all we have to do is sit back and enjoy the ride.
|Tired crew back at camp.|
Friday, February 25, 2011
Have you ever flipped through the pages of an REI catalog and thought, “I bet those models have never even put on a backpack before”? Have you looked at their crisp, colorful clothing and realized that you look nothing like that when you’re in the backcountry? Well, it turns out you are right. Last week I monitored a photo shoot for a major outdoor clothing manufacturer and—I kid you not—as we were walking down the trail to Grand View Point, I overheard one model muse in an airy voice, “I’ve never worn hiking boots before; they are really supportive.”
Anyone who’s seen a John Wayne movie will recognize Canyon Country on the big screen. After the area was discovered by Hollywood, the film crews descended in droves, shooting everything from car commercials to Indiana Jones. Naturally, local landowners saw dollar signs in their eyes, and began charging productions a small fortune to tromp all over their land. Always looking to save a dime, the Hollywood folks looked around and realized that just down the road was a national park, which would let all taxpaying citizens with a camera—even fancy ones—tromp around for nearly nothing. And tromp they did, with their cameras and tracks and dollies and hoods and grips and hundreds of pairs of boots. Eventually, the NPS realized these crews were getting a bargain by filming in the park, and also getting away with tremendous resource damage, so they instituted a more rigorous system for keeping things under control. As part of that system, every film crew agrees to abide by the same regulations to protect the park which are imposed upon all visitors, and additionally have to be monitored by a park employee throughout the shoot. For me, that meant I spent two days reminding the crew to stay on trail and “don’t bust the crust.”
Not that this was a terrible job, mind you. First, I spent a beautiful day outside, from sunrise to sunset, in places photographers dream about shooting in that perfect light. I was paid overtime to stand around and look rangerly, hanging out with fun and creative people who weren’t trying to get away with anything and sincerely wanted to follow the rules. (After all, it would look bad to have a photo in your sportswear catalog showing someone drilling an anchor in the side of Delicate Arch.) And let’s not forget that while they may not have been chosen for their intimate knowledge of the equipment, these models were hired for a very particular reason: because they made those hiking boots look sooooo good! When those brawny models had to swap out a running shirt for a hiking top between takes, I felt it my particular duty to pay close attention to ensure they did not accidentally step off the trail and crunch the crust. It was rough work, but I was diligent—all for the sake of those little, helpless microbes, of course.
To be fair, my job was considerably easier than the work the crew was doing. By the time I met them at the trailhead, a half hour before sunrise, they’d already gone through clothing and makeup to prep for the day. They drove an SUV with a clothing rack hung across the backseat, each outfit sorted according to cue cards which coordinated this top with those pants and these hats, shoes, backpacks, and water bottles. The stylist and makeup artist ran that part of the operation, ensuring everyone had the right clothing, the right models were paired together, and that all the shirts were smooth and zippers were zipped. She seemed very casual throughout the day, rarely fussing with hair or makeup, but she had a critical job. Even the most riveting photo couldn’t be used if the model were sporting a hat from the winter collection with a vest from the spring line.
Perhaps most surprising to me about the operation was that the clothing sent from the company was a sample pack, produced in advance of the product release and therefore somewhat, shall we say, limited. Today’s selection seemed fairly intact, but the crew told me horror stories of sample clothing shipped in the past which hadn’t been stitched on one side or sported gaping holes in the very front. The deadlines are tight, so the crew doesn’t have time to request replacements. One set still had “SAMPLE” written in bold, black letters across the back of every piece, which demanded some creative camerawork, as well as hours of editing in post-production to clean up the clothing.
The clothes were also one-size-fits-all, or rather, “you’d better select a model who will fit the clothes we’ve provided for you.” Which would be fine if all the clothes were the same size or, in this particular case, if the clothes size coordinated with the shoe size. One of the broad-shouldered, six-foot-tall male models was stuck with shoes which ran 1 ½ to 2 ½ sizes too small. Because ill-fitting clothing shows up on film more noticeably than tight footwear, the photographer must chose a model who fits the clothes, not the disproportionately small shoes. Thus, that shadow of pain in the eyes of the marathon runner in your catalog might be more authentic than you think. Our running-wear model spent two days running trails in shoes two sizes two small. He trimmed his toenails to nubs during the first day, and on the second he showed up with duct tape binding his feet in place. When he pulled that off at the end of the day, well, let’s just say he didn’t have to worry about his toenails anymore.
The women models, of course, had the opposite problem. The petite blonde, exotically called Charumata, couldn’t fill out any of the sportswear, a problem handily remedied in the field by oversized binder clips. In talking to other film monitors, they said they’ve often seen entire outfits pinned onto the model in the field. I wondered how many of those ensembles were pinned into place, and then the models were instructed to jog down the trail. Awkward… In general, I loved listening to the directions from the photographers. Their most common admonition was reminding the models to look like they were having fun. “Smile, laugh, look at each other and talk…. Pretend like you’re talking to each other.” They also choreographed the most minute details: hold the backpack strap with your right hand. Put your right foot down exactly in the center of this puddle. Walk four steps, put down your pack, take off your shell, and then fling your pack back up over your right shoulder. Next time I take a hike, I’m going to work on planning my water breaks so that I’m positioned “just so” in that beam of sunshine in front of a shadowy rock outcropping. I will then take off my jacket, stroking the fleecy-soft liner with the back of my palm, and then pull my water bottle out of my pack with about one-third of the insignia showing beneath my palm. Perhaps that will counteract out the red-faced, spiky-haired, dingy-fleece look I’ve developed during my backpacking trips.
Though I mock the inauthentic crafting of the national park experience I observed during the photo shoot, I have to admit that my favorite moments were when I saw genuine emotion play out on the faces of the models, perhaps while standing at Grand View Point for the first time in their shiny new hiking boots. I watched them play in the wind, heard them shriek in delight when they discovered Sanddune Arch, and saw them sneak out their own cameras to snap a photo of a stunning sunset. Park Rangers work so hard to craft an inspiring visitor experience, which means we often find ourselves out front, leading the way, and directing people to look just there. As a monitor, my job was simply to sit back and observe. I got to witness again how powerful the landscape is at evoking emotion, even (especially!) without my interpretation. To be fair, what I do as a ranger is not so different from what these photographers were doing, setting up a scene where strange and beautiful landscapes become accessible and familiar, places where people can go, and walk, and hike, and jog, and try out their fancy new gear. While Jared and Charumata may never have worn a pack and boots before, for a couple days they wriggled into a pair of (small and uncomfortable) boots and hit the trail—and had an authentic interaction with this inspiring place. As I heard them making plans to return for longer vacations with friends or family, I recognized the power of our parks to stir in even the most naïve observers that inexplicable appreciation for strange and wild places. Who knows? Maybe the next time that model comes to Canyonlands, she’ll be raving to her colleagues about the great new pair of hiking boots she wore during her camping trip last summer. (Though I’m willing to bet she won’t purchase the boots she was modeling—too many blister scars!)