Sunday, September 15, 2013

RANGERING: February 2004

Dear Reader: The truth is never an absolute; it is subjective and it changes over time. So I do not claim that any of what I write is the truth. It is only my perception and recollection of events as they happened many years ago. In some situations I have changed names and details to protect the privacy of people involved, but I do my best to maintain the underlying substance of events and their impact on me.

NOTE: I will never write about upsetting details without a warning.

In 2004 I left behind all semblances of the life I’d lived for the past 15 years in Silicon Valley. It was a year of making a break with old habits, letting go of any perception of security, and following my heart. Just as my son Chris reached the age of majority and became a legally-recognized adult, I also went through a sort of coming of age.


I spent the early part of the year exploring communities in Oregon and Washington, wanting to live relatively close to my parents in Portland, Oregon. I had spent most of my adulthood an airplane trip away, visiting only once or twice a year. My explorations of the Pacific Northwest were enjoyable and adventurous, and sometimes I would extend them by renting a room for a week or two to get a better feel for a town. But I did not find a place that felt right. And then I saw Astoria on the map. It had a population of only 10,000, much smaller than my ideal of 20-30,000. I recalled it being listed as a desirable place to live from one of my Internet sources. Mom and I took a drive there, and I loved it at first sight!

A view of Astoria and the Columbia River from Coxcomb Hill

Surrounded by the natural beauty of undeveloped forests, the Columbia River, and the Pacific Ocean, colored by picturesque Victorian houses flanking the hillside and interspersed with steep narrow roads, it was no wonder people compared it to an early San Francisco. During that visit I encountered people who were extraordinarily friendly and forthcoming, even welcoming to a potential import from California. Some even shared that Astoria was very tolerant of diversity. I learned that Astoria has a burgeoning arts community including galleries, live theater and local music. Astoria revealed far more cultural and political diversity than has been my experience of small-town America. I was besotted!


For the first several months in Astoria I lived in a number of different places. I would rent a room in a house shared by one or several individuals, my essential belongings in the trunk of my Toyota Avalon. My dog Jackie and I took frequent walks through the beautiful, hilly neighborhoods of Astoria. The people paths that connected dead-end streets, cut through fields of blackberry bushes, or descended regally in manicured staircases, brought delightful new discoveries.

A favorite sight was a garden nearly barren with dirt, built on a steep hillside. Half-circles made from upright sections of bamboo created little flat spaces for plants. In the middle was a birdbath with a wand sticking out of the center. Sometimes when I walked by, particularly at dusk, a mist emanated from this wand. I never saw anyone near the garden. I couldn’t even tell what house it belonged to. Where did the mist come from?  Who turned it on?  What was it for?  The mist would slink to the ground and create this wonderful, mystical feel to the garden. From countless places in Astoria I could look downhill and see sweeping views of stair-stepping Victorian houses leading down to the Columbia River. I loved having time to explore on foot, connecting with my new home in the way that I understood best – putting my feet to the earth, one after the other. I felt as though I was living a life of leisure, pursuing the trappings of a responsible life again, but spending most of my time to myself.


Set up on a bluff overlooking the East Mooring Basin where the sea lions congregate, the elementary school filmed in Kindergarten Cop, and amazing sunsets behind the Astoria-Megler Bridge, sits Goonie Hill. I rented the top floor of a lovely little Cape Cod style house next to the house filmed in the movie Goonies. My bedroom window was featured in the movie when the boy named Data slides down a cable linking his bedroom window to the porch of the Goonie House. The sea lions chortle loudly to each other, on occasion waking me in the middle of the night. They are so massive and so abundant that their favorite dock is submerged under their weight. My living room window looks westward taking in the river, bridge, and sunsets.


The position I had found over the summer wound down as abruptly as it had started up in May. I started scanning the help wanteds again, as my savings dwindled and then disappeared entirely. I had turned in many applications for seasonal jobs with the surrounding parks before summer, but had not gotten any calls until I’d made the commitment to my summer job. And now that summer was nearly over, I was sure that those opportunities had passed me by.

Returning from a two-day trip to Portland I came home to a phone message from one of my prior roommates. “Hi, Kjerstin. Hope you’re doing well in your new place. A Ranger Eva from Cape Disappointment State Park in Washington left a message. It sounds like it’s about a job.”  In excitement I called the number he left and asked for Ranger Eva. I was told it was her day off, so I left a message.

I arrived at the park twenty minutes early, pressed and polished and very nervous. A tall woman dressed in tan and army green, with a long, chestnut brown braid down her back came down the steps of a trailer extending her hand. “You must be Kjerstin. Thanks for making the drive. Come on in.” 

The trailer was decrepit and grimy, revealing years of heavy use and neglect. Ranger Eva ran through half a dozen textbook interview questions, mostly about my ability and willingness to clean and use basic tools. “I want to make sure you understand,” Eva told me, “that this job is primarily menial. You will have opportunities to do some interesting work and learn new skills. But a very large and essential part of the job is cleaning restrooms.”

North Head Lighthouse at Cape Disappointment State Park
I replied, “For a long time I’ve promised myself that if I ever had the financial flexibility I would pursue a career change. I’ve always imagined myself working in natural resources, doing something like being a park ranger. This job would give me the opportunity to learn more about the parks and becoming a ranger. I’m a hard worker, and I’m not bothered by menial work. This is what I want to do.”

Eva’s uniform included a radio device attached to her shirtfront with a thick cord running down to a radio with antenna in her duty belt. The belt was filled with numerous and unidentifiable cases, including a holster with a gun. I tried to take it all in without being too obvious. She seemed oblivious of the objects attached to her person, and nothing about her exuded a “cop”-type persona (hardened, cynical, cold). She had a wide smile that lit up her face and exuded warmth and kindness. Eva told me my schedule would change as the days became shorter, but that I was the “night park aide” – I would start by working from 1:30 p.m. to 10 p.m., with a half hour dinner break. She told me I would be required to work weekends and holidays; my days off would be Tuesday and Wednesday.

And just like that the adventure began.

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Sunday, September 8, 2013

Being Alone is Just a Story We Tell Ourselves

Dear Reader: The truth is never an absolute; it is subjective and it changes over time. So I do not claim that any of what I write is the truth. It is only my perception and recollection of events as they happened many years ago. In some situations I have changed names and details to protect the privacy of people involved, but I do my best to maintain the underlying substance of events and their impact on me.

NOTE: this post contains some uncomfortable memories of the car accident with fatality. I do not go into graphic details, but for some it could bring up disturbing images.)

I went into my last therapy session with determination. Certain aspects of that car accident, the ground zero for my PTSD, have been festering for six years. One thing in particular has persistently bothered me: missing memories.

I remember the event in snapshots. Certain images come to mind as clearly as when I first saw them. I can bring to mind the deceased’s arm dangling casually out the car window, skin darkened by sun or ethnicity, a simple gold wedding band on his hand. I can remember the RV driver marching up to me red in the face yelling that the fire engine had just driven over the skid marks that proved the other driver was at fault. I remember when the state trooper was documenting the accident, the RV driver’s wife tearfully expressed frustration and bafflement that the man who died was still there in his car, as if forgotten.

Pieces of it I was able to fill in later: attending a debriefing held by the local fire department I saw overhead photos taken from a helicopter and on-the-ground photos of the Jaws of Life dismantling the car around the deceased. I was able to find out that I spent two hours there on that little piece of highway, until the trooper had documented what he needed to, medical responders had come and gone, vehicles and debris were moved onto one lane so that traffic could be sent through one direction at a time, and there was nothing left for me to do.

Some information just won’t stay in my mind. I believe the roof of the car had been peeled off; it’s the only way I can explain the snapshot images I have of trying to see the extent of injuries to the deceased man, and I’m pretty certain I saw photos showing this, but for some reason the image just won’t stick. Certain things I was never able to determine. How long was I there before other emergency responders, those actually called to the scene, finally arrived? I tried to find out by contacting state dispatch and looking through reports from the fire department. The initial citizen call reporting the accident had misdirected the response to the wrong county, causing confusion and delays. My best guess is half an hour. It may have been more; I don’t think it was less. And why I couldn’t glean that information from those reports I cannot say. And the overall memories of those two hours aren’t in any particular order, after that initial inspection of the deceased.

(I have learned recently that during trauma, the left side of the brain which is linear and catalogues systematically, takes a Time Out; it is the right side of the brain that is left to record and recall, and it does so with images, perceptions, and feelings.)

A serene portion of the highway
But there’s one missing memory that has been very troubling: I cannot remember what I saw in that moment that I determined the deceased was very definitely deceased. The first moments of drama had already unfolded as I came upon a silent scene: RV a bit askew in the northbound lane; small car head-first in the rocky cliff face and jutting out across the southbound lane; traffic at a standstill from both directions. This was one of the sharpest curves on this narrow and winding stretch of highway, the cliff outcropping rising straight up created a blind curve, guard rails hugged the edge of the northbound lane before the roadway dropped away steeply, first to narrow bits of property, then to the Hood Canal.

A woman caught in the fray, a former volunteer fire fighter, approached me as I came upon the accident and started to fill me in. Words, sentence fragments, bounced around in my head as I tried to make them fit together. Man is dead; children; blanket; vomit; driver missing. I couldn’t make sense of any of it. But I had one mission that I knew rose above all others – to get to the injured driver and start CPR. This woman was the second person to tell me he was deceased and again, I wondered how she could be certain. I’d been to trainings where I’d heard of people injured seriously enough that even medical responders took them for dead; just to find they weren’t. I knew that if I had any uncertainty at all, I would have to try to resuscitate; and I couldn’t imagine a situation where I would be certain of death. The thought of giving CPR was terrifying; I’d been trained but never saw CPR done in the field. I’d never responded to a car accident beyond a fender bender. I felt far too green to be the person who might determine whether this man lived or died.

We approached the car. It was small, like a mid-80’s Honda Civic. She pulled back an edge of the blanket that had been draped over the top of the car as much out of respect for the deceased as for the surrounding captive audience. I approached from the driver’s side. I couldn’t see anything informative so I started to move around the car, step by step, taking a look, each time wondering when I would either see why everyone claimed he was deceased, or realize I needed to start CPR. Either way, with every step and every snapshot, I was terrified that I would imprint images on my brain that I would never be able to forget. The last snapshot I have I was looking down at the top of his head from behind and slightly to the passenger side. I didn’t understand what I was seeing; it didn’t fit my understanding of the human body, things were not where they should be. Confused but still not convinced, another step, and another snapshot – which I can’t remember.

I do remember knowing that there was no remnant of life in his body. I remember exchanging a somber look with the woman who gently let down the blanket. I remember walking away from his car.

For all these years I’ve been afraid of that memory. Afraid that it must have been truly horrible to convince me thoroughly that there was no need to try CPR, to explain why my memory of it is gone, afraid that at any moment this ticking time bomb might explode, releasing this horrible memory to traumatize me all over again. This was the persistent fear I brought into therapy.

My therapist, who works specifically with first responders and with sufferers of PTSD, said it is extremely unlikely that my subconscious will release a traumatic memory all at once like that. More likely it will be recalled in pieces, as I am ready, or perhaps never at all. She reassured me that there is nothing wrong with my brain protecting me by removing that memory from me. And it could be there is never a time, never a need, to release it.

I sat with that. So my subconscious was not a ticking time bomb after all. That memory wasn’t lurking in the recesses, ready to drop into view when I least expected it. I didn’t have to carry around the burden of this forgotten memory anymore. I realized that while carrying the burden of this missing memory, I have been fearful of engaging in life, in being vulnerable, in letting people in; I have been afraid that at any point the bomb could go off and I could lose everything – all over again.

As my therapist was encouraging me to set down this burden I’d been carrying, the threat of the ticking time bomb, other thoughts intruded. I told her I had so much self-doubt and judgment about my participation at the accident scene. I couldn’t come up with anything I should have done that I didn’t. In fact there was very little to be done. It had taken very little time to check off the items I’d learned in academy: see to injuries, protect the identity of those involved (cover the deceased and vehicle license plates), protect the accident scene (no worries, we were all frozen in place), set flares (a volunteer set them to the north of the accident, my park aide set them to the south). I knew that state patrol would bring experience and authority to investigating the accident, so I only sought rough overviews from the family in the RV and witnesses. And there we all were without anything to do, those involved in the accident and those motorists trapped there on a very thin slice of highway without enough room to even turn a vehicle around and head back the way they’d come.

I had felt so utterly alone. In therapy I recalled the feeling of being there in a uniform, feeling the weight of that responsibility, knowing that meant that my personal feelings and experiences had to be put aside, knowing that I had to try to convey some authority, some image of help and reassurance. I still can’t pinpoint anything I did wrong, anything I should have done but didn’t. It was rather my unwilling participation in this event. With every ounce of my being, I wanted to be anywhere but there. If there has been one philosophy of life I’ve consistently believed in, it is the importance of Being Present in the Moment. Well this was a moment where the last thing I wanted was to Be. I felt like a poser, and a coward for wishing myself away.

With my therapist’s guidance, and still placing myself back at the accident, I extended out the wish, “May all who suffer know peace.” I acknowledged my own suffering both in the moment, and carried with me ever since. I acknowledged the suffering of the family in the RV who would live with knowing their vehicle ended someone’s life (a fact that is not changed by knowing they could not have prevented it). I extended my wish out to the dozens (and growing every minute) of travelers trapped in their cars at this grizzly scene, nothing to do, nowhere to go. People around either side of the bend in the road and out of sight of the accident felt comfortable getting out of their cars and stretching, talking with each other. But those of us focused around the center of destruction could not pretend normalcy. Other than quiet murmuring from the RV family, the occasional helicopter, and much later the welcome sound of sirens, all was silent.

A snapshot imprinted indelibly in my brain is of a man sitting behind the wheel of his vehicle close to the collision. At one point I walked by his car and looked his way. Our eyes met and held for a moment; for an eternity. I had a strange thought about usually being the friendly, welcoming ranger and how inappropriate that would be now. His look was extremely grim. I’ve told myself stories about what he was thinking, about what everyone in their cars was thinking: “Glad I don’t have her job today,” or, “she looks like a deer caught in the headlights,” and mostly, “Poser.” I had been sure their thoughts were judgmental.

But now as I extended this wish for peace over suffering, our eyes reconnected and finally I understood. In that grim look he was telling me, “We are all in this moment together, and it is horrible. We are all the same right here, right now. Beyond the roles we play, there is no difference because we are all trapped here in a moment that is beyond comprehension.”

I had felt so utterly alone; but that was just the story I’d told myself. Suddenly I thought of all those travelers there and realized we were experiencing this together.

In suffering, in having the human experience, there are no differences. We are in this together. And we are never alone.

Dear Reader, please consider posting your comments and questions below. I would love to hear from you! Please let your friends know about my blog. And thank you for visiting!

Sunday, September 1, 2013

RANGERING: Prologue (2004)

Dear Reader: The truth is never an absolute; it is subjective and it changes over time. So I do not claim that any of what I write is the truth. It is only my perception and recollection of events as they happened many years ago. In some situations I have changed names and details to protect the privacy of people involved, but I do my best to maintain the underlying substance of events and their impact on me.

NOTE: I will never write about upsetting details without a warning.


It was my “Friday” at Cape Disappointment State Park and I was working my typical night shift.  I had tweaked my neck a couple days earlier, I was in pain, and dog tired.  For several weeks I’ve been working two jobs, on many days getting up early to go to the first, then rush home to walk the dog and grab my lunch and dinner, and off for a full shift at the park.  By the time I get home, walk Jackie and shower, it’s time for bed.  It makes for a long day, and a long six-day week. 

As I finished cleaning my final restroom of the night, I heard Ranger Steve on the radio say to Ranger Eva, “Have you seen the moon tonight?  I’m at Beard’s Hollow and it is particularly beautiful.  Almost full, bright white and the sky is so blue.”  Eva answered, “Yeah, it’s a great night to be a ranger.”  I picked up my radio and added, “or a park aide.”

Exhausted, I drove the beautiful drive home under the deep blue sky above, complete with brilliant stars and that particularly beautiful moon.  I saw more deer than usual, including a couple of young ones.  I went through the tunnel under Scarborough Hill and saw Astoria twinkling in silver and gold across the river.  I was thrilled that I was going to have a day off, and vowed to spend it being lazy and unproductive.

Today I succumbed to a chiropractic adjustment.  It is a wonderful feeling to regain movement where there has been stiffness and pain!  I came home to an answering machine message from my mom.  “Kjerstin, I opened the mail from your bank; it says you have insufficient funds and the bank fees add up to $108.”

Normally this sort of thing immediately makes me cranky and agitated.  But I felt calm as I called the bank.  I’ve been so careful, especially since my cash flow is so sluggish.  I asked the bank representative if they could reverse the fees.  She told me she was unable to do that.  “I’ve been an excellent customer for nearly a decade, and I have a long history of keeping high balances in your bank.  You can’t help me out here?”  No.  I reasoned with her that if they had sent those notices to the new address I had given them weeks ago, I would have learned earlier there was a problem, not kept writing checks, made a deposit sooner, and would not have had the snowball effect of accumulating bank fees; her answer did not change.  As I waited on hold to be connected with a supervisor, my calm dissolved and I started to cry silently.  It has been so many years since I have had to balance my account before writing each check, since I’ve had to carefully strategize which bills will be paid by which paycheck, since I’ve actually bounced a check.

Is this what life is all about for me in Astoria, struggling financially and barely (not) making ends meet?  My confession to the supervisor that my paycheck from my part time job would not bring my account into balance, and my request for the bank to do something to help, was met with a bland response in the negative.  So much for big name banks.  I let them know that they would be losing my business.  I’m sure they were upset about that.

As I hung up, it occurred to me that $108 is nothing.  I’ve lost and given away many times that amount, many times over.  I got into my car with my token paycheck and drove to a small local bank to open a new account.  I had dealt with this bank several times while working at my summer job, and always found them personable, friendly and flexible.  Just as well to make one more commitment to Astoria, one more move away from big business towards community.  Since I had been a signer on that business account, they already knew me and were more than happy to get me started.  Then I returned to the chiropractor’s office and wrote her a check from the new account.

Sun setting behind Astoria-Megler Bridge
I took my dog Jackie out for her early evening walk.  On a whim we crossed Marine Drive to the river walk.  My home is on the east side of town, and we turned east along the walk.  The Columbia River was on my left, with the green and blue hills of Washington beyond.  Enormous ships were moored or went drifting by.  The sea lions had congregated in their usual places on the docks, creating a commotion.  Everything was taking on a golden hue as the sun behind me started its migration towards the horizon.  The breeze was fresh and clean.  I walked by derelict canneries built over the river on pilings that have become green and misshapen with weather and age.  The river rippled and twinkled.  I could not bring myself to go back inside while it was so beautiful outside, so we continued our walk out of town, past a small lake on my right where crickets chirped and the occasional Victorian house on the far side peeked out from amid the trees.  As we finally turned around, the sun was behind the highest part of the Astoria-Megler Bridge, under which the ships pass.  Past this high point, the bridge continues its sojourn towards Washington much lower to the water, skimming the river.  I followed it with my eyes to the far side.  If I looked to the furthest end of Washington that I could see, where land yields to ocean, there was the occasional glimmer coming from the Cape Disappointment Lighthouse.  Clouds were rimmed with luminescent orange, like molten lava.  The entire landscape was surreal, in shades of blue and yellow and orange that would put a postcard to shame.  I started to cry again.  Is this worth $108?  It is worth far, far more than that.

Dear Reader, please consider posting your comments and questions below. I would love to hear from you! Please let your friends know about my blog. And thank you for visiting!