Friday, December 20, 2013

RANGERING: September 2004 (2)

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.

The restrooms provided daily horrors of things that I had never even imagined before. I started collecting my own “poop stories” which I would share with other park staff, all of whom had their own collection of stories. On every shift I had at least one toilet that needed to be plunged. It was amazing to me how people would continue using a toilet even after it started filling up with paper and bodily waste. Cleaning feces off toilets, walls and floors was common. One day I came in early to work a morning shift, and as I entered a men’s restroom (after knocking and yelling to make sure it was empty) directly in front of me I saw the urinal, and in it a pile of poop. Right there in the urinal. I suppose someone might not understand what a urinal was, or the difference between a urinal and a toilet. But what was horrifying to imagine was someone coming into the restroom, squatting over the urinal and facing the door to the restroom with absolutely no visual barrier between them and anyone entering, long enough to squeeze it out. Were they crouched and trying to hurry, worried someone would come in and see them?  Or perhaps they were too drunk or barely awake to even notice the unusual “stall” without a door. But in the same way that you become immune to having your baby throw up on you, I quickly became accustomed to the disgusting smells and visuals. The more disgusting, the more gleefully I would recount the horrors to my coworkers.

Waikiki Beach
In some of the restrooms, particularly the one at Waikiki Beach, bright little green frogs would find their way into the moist showers. I would shake off my gloves and carry them out to the grass. Sometimes they had been stepped on in the showers and were beyond saving.

I started bringing more and more food with me: stuffing my pockets with protein bars, filling plastic containers with nuts and dried fruit that I could pour into my mouth without having to stop and wash my restroom-dirty hands, and carrying an extra-large Nalgene water bottle. I ate non-stop throughout my shift. I used a butt-pack that I’d first purchased many years ago, en route to France. It had served me well on my layover in Philadelphia, and through the cities and countryside of France. It had side pouches; on one side I put a water bottle, and on the other my park radio. The inside was filled with extra rubber gloves, ear plugs, pliers, and assorted tools of the job.

Ancient Seastack
I went about my duties using a small pickup truck to get around the large park. For the first several weeks I ended my workday in complete darkness. I would emerge from a restroom and gaze up at the twinkling stars in the velvet black sky. The north end of the campground provides the more secluded campsites and was my favorite. Fewer RVs were here, and the rustic sites attracted the more earthy tent campers. Here there are ancient sea stacks and caves that used to be covered by ocean, and that glow deep red as the sun starts to set.

North Head Lighthouse
Cape Disappointment State Park is flanked by two lighthouses, both very old and still operational: the Cape Disappointment Lighthouse and the North Head Lighthouse. The park is named after explorer John Meares who was looking for the head of the Columbia River from the Pacific Ocean, and though he was quite literally sitting in the mouth of the river, failed to notice where he was. He named the cape in his disappointment. Park visitors wonder why a park would be named Disappointment, so I recount this story often. Sometimes I tell them that perhaps it should have been named Cape Ironic, or even Cape Stupid. This park encompasses the very land where Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery first reached their destination and saw the Pacific Ocean after journeying along the Columbia River. Next year marks the bicentennial of their discovery, which means that both sides of the mouth of the river (Cape Disappointment State Park in Washington, and both Fort Stevens State Park and Fort Clatsop National Park in Oregon) will enjoy a great deal of attention.

The rangers at “Cape D.” are an eclectic group of individuals with diverse personalities and areas of interest. Eva best fits my stereotype of the Smokey Bear Ranger as a steward of the wildlife and the environment. Bob, our Ranger-In-Training, is eager and enthusiastic about learning everything there is to learn. He supervises the day-shift park aides, and writes up tasks for them in the Park Aide binder, which someone keeps relabeling “Bark Poop.” Joseph is the jokester and entertainer. Dirk is the silent, macho Burt Reynolds law-enforcement type. The park also employs several “interpretive specialists” who wear the ranger uniform but are not law enforcement officers, and work primarily at the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center (LCIC) and provide educational programs for park visitors. Interpretive Specialist Mark exudes essence of southeast Portland as he gleefully argues against regulations and rides a recumbent bicycle to work from the nearby fishing town of Ilwaco. Many of the park employees have embraced the culture of the Long Beach Peninsula partaking in local recreation such as surfing, clamming and crabbing, and hiking. It is not unusual to see a park employee in the park on off-days enjoying its many resources.

One evening I came into the ratty trailer to warm up some leftovers for dinner. Eva was sitting at a folding table eating her dinner and reading a paperback. She looked up and smiled, waving her fork at me. I nodded back, and put my container in the microwave.

“What’re you reading?” I asked her.

The Gift of Fear. It’s something we were given at last year’s in-service. This guy is an expert at reading people. He’s used by police departments to help profile criminals. His book helps you realize that you really are able to tell intuitively when you’re in danger, and he helps you decipher the processing that your subconscious is doing.”

“Sounds interesting.”

“It is. I’ll loan it to you when I’m done. Then when you finish it, we can talk about it together.”

“Sounds great.”

The microwave rang. I stirred my leftover vegetables and rice and put them back in.

Eva had some marinara sauce on the left corner of her mouth. I wondered if I should tell her, but couldn’t find a delicate way to do so. Surely she’d use the restroom and look in the mirror before heading back to work. Right?

I wondered if she could sense I was an adoring fan, hanging on her every word and her slightest praise.

McKenzie Head, where the Pacific Ocean
was first sighted by the Corps of Discovery
Near the welcome station is a long strip of lawn too narrow to use the wide-deck riding mowers. I got the little push mower powered up and started cutting vertical swathes through the grass. As cars entered the park and stopped at the welcome station to register, I got a kick out of what they might think of the middle aged woman with grease and dirt on her jeans mowing the grass. I saw Interpretive Specialist Mark walk towards me from the maintenance building, turned off the mower and removed my earphones. Mark was sporting a beard and sideburns in honor of the upcoming Lewis and Clark bicentennial. His dirty blonde hair was a bit long, but it was hard to tell because he always wore a hat: baseball cap, the traditional ranger flat hat, or on cold days an Elmer Fudd number. He wore what can only be described as spectacles, the style of someone who wants to make some sort of statement. Perhaps not one of high fashion, but a statement nonetheless. I guessed he was in his early 30’s.

“So what do you think so far?” he asked.

“It’s great!  I love being here. It’s a really beautiful park, and it’s great to be outside and to use my muscles.”

Mark nodded. “You know when you first started here, with that little pack and radio I thought you were a biologist or something.”  He referred to my butt pack.

“No, just a lowly park aide,” I said with a smile.

“A lowly park aide, right…  So what did you do before this?”

I told him about my life raising my son in the Bay Area. “Chris is 18. He stayed in California when I decided to move to the Pacific Northwest. I’ve worked primarily in nonprofits which was great, but I worked mostly in offices under fluorescent lighting. I got tired of that, and of being tied to a computer. When Chris finished high school I realized it was my chance to do whatever I wanted with my life. So here I am, starting at the bottom rung.”

“You want to be a ranger?”

“That’s why I’m here. I’m still keeping my options open. I haven’t decided whether I’ll try with Washington State Parks, Oregon State Parks, or the National Park Service.”

“You know, interpretive specialists get to be in the trenches giving talks to park visitors every day, and they don’t have to carry a gun.”

“Yeah, I’m kind of looking forward to that part.”

“You want to carry a gun?”

“Well, I think it would be good for me. You know, develop that part of myself so that I can be tough when I need to be.”

He nodded thoughtfully. “Well, don’t rule out becoming an interpretive specialist. I’d be happy to talk to you about it if you want to know more. And you should come by the LCIC sometime and look at the displays. Don’t worry, we won’t make you pay – it’s part of your job to learn about the history here. Well I should get going, and it looks like you’d better finish up quickly before the rain hits.”

I looked up at clouds boiling on the horizon. No sooner was he gone than the sky opened up. The mowing would have to stop for now.


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