Monday, February 21, 2011
Reporting for duty
Before Park Rangers were invented, the US army administered our National Parks. Actually, in the very beginning, Congress thought the parks would take care of themselves, so they drew some lines on the map and told everyone they couldn’t build their houses there. The first superintendents were volunteers with no administrative budgets. (I’m now unsuccessfully biting back a politically-charged aside about how today’s Congress seems to think the parks should get back to the good ol’ days…) But, it turns that places with herds of wild bison and wide open spaces where no one would notice if you built a little cabin attracted an unseemly lot of trophy hunters and beaver trappers along with the casual tourist. Eventually, someone in Washington realized that park visitors couldn’t entirely be trusted to act in the best interests of preservation, and called upon the military to lend the superintendent some muscle. A temporary assignment of the US Calvary lasted more than thirty years, until the National Park Service was created in 1916. (Avoiding another political statement about military occupation…)
Today, the Park Service’s military legacy shines through in key ways. First and most noticeably, we owe them our uniform. We can thank the army for scratchy polyester dress pants, skull-squeezing flat hats, and footwear which requires us to spit and shine after every guided walk. Perhaps because our uniform smacks of soldiery, people often ask rangers whether they get transferred from park to park, as if on assignment. Officially, the answer is no, but another legacy, cultivated by our position within the executive branch of government and sustained by the free-spirited souls who wander into these careers in the first place, is the NPS culture of relocation and reassignment. A career park ranger will typically work in dozens of parks and monuments, from a handful of seasonal gigs, to that obscure historic homestead where you grab your first permanent assignment, until someday you land a job at that big flagship park, working behind a desk and dreaming about the days when you were footloose and seasonal. The superintendent’s ability to move people from park to park is limited, but most people find that the best way to advance to higher pay and jobs with health insurance is to pack those bags and go after it.
I can’t blame all my rootless wanderings on the Park Service and its army roots, but for the last ten years it has certainly contributed to the problem. And problem it is indeed. Last month, when I crossed the threshold of my new home in Canyonlands, I began my 43rd move since I first went away to college. (For the record, I’m defining a “move” as relocating myself and a good portion of my belongings to place where I resided for at least six weeks. Thus, a month of backpacking in Europe does not count, but a six-week winter in Yellowstone does.) Now, I’d welcome comparisons from any of you lifetime military sorts, but I’m willing to wager that 43 moves in 15 years will rival just about any army career.
Thanks to the Park Service, I have mastered the art of moving. I have become proficient at packing my possessions into a Geo Metro or onto a snowmobile tow-sled. I know exactly how long it takes to drive from Albuquerque to West Yellowstone, and who will give me a bed to sleep in along the way. I have cleaned dozens of refrigerators and scrubbed a thousand aluminum slats on hundreds of mini-blinds. In all this moving, however, I’ve never acquired that essential flair for cutting all ties and disappearing into the wind. Problem is, I deeply value the people I know in these places. I am so lucky to have wonderful friends in each of my several hometowns, but moving every few months is deadly to human relationships. When all my friends quit making plans with me for more than a week in advance, I realized that perhaps my social calendar, my back muscles, and my emotional stability would benefit from spending an entire year without packing a box.
And so, after 15 years of darting north and south like a spastic and confused snowbird, the park service offered me the golden apple of a “permanent” job, and I find myself gathering boxes from my parents’ basement, plastic dishes from my disposable Yellowstone household, and clothes and furniture from my Albuquerque home, into a single location where I could potentially (though far from certainly) stay for more than three months. Gasp!
I believe the number one reason people take permanent jobs with the government is so the feds will foot the bill for a team of professional movers to pack, load, transport, and even unpack their worldly goods. As I was packing last weekend in New Mexico, I cheered myself to think that if I choose a career with the Park Service, the next time I pack a box I’ll be carrying it to the retirement home. Fortunately, I had a hearty team of volunteer movers—loads more fun and far better looking than a contract crew—who pitched in generously to help me finagle everything “just so” until we had crammed every nook and cranny with bookshelves, office chairs, and Tupperware. We strapped an animal-print futon mattress to the top, lashed it down, and I was ready to roll. I felt like I’d escaped from a Hollywood film set as I rolled down the interstate, pots and pans clanking and mattress flapping on a top-heavy, oversized moving wagon rocking in the wind.
Nothing’s settled here in Canyonlands, including my own living quarters, but for the first time in a long time there are no dates on my calendar circled in red to mark my next moving day. Like those early solders coming to the nation’s first park to do some quick clean-up work, I cannot see the end of my duty station here. When I start building five-story brick houses and hauling in topsoil to build a parade ground, someone please remind me to put in for a transfer.