Friday, February 25, 2011

Right out of the catalog

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!)

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.