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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