Thursday, December 26, 2013

RANGERING: September 2004 (3)

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.

On a day Ranger Eva wasn’t working, Ranger Joseph asked me to mow the lawn at the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center. I loaded the mower, weed eater, and extra fuel into the back of a pickup and drove up to the interpretive center. It was a glorious, clear sunny day.

Looking out at the North Jetty, and the ocean beyond.
I got all of my equipment assembled and wheeled the mower out to the grassy area between the building and the fencing that kept people from plunging over the edge of a cliff into the ocean below. The view was unbelievable. I could see the north jetty, a structure of gigantic rocks stretching out into the ocean and built in the early 1900’s by the Army Corps of Engineers. The north jetty is a smaller version mirroring the south jetty built years earlier, together flanking the mouth of the Columbia River in order to create a deep enough channel for ships to safely cross the dangerous river bar. Below me was Waikiki Beach. The ocean stretched to the horizon. A cool breeze was the perfect refreshment as I heaved and pushed the mower up and down the sloping lawn.

After I’d been there for a couple hours Joseph came by. I turned off the mower and grabbed my water bottle.

In his high pitched, chipper voice he said, “I know the work is lousy here. Having to look at this terrible view while you earn money.”  He looked at me expectantly, and I laughed. Joseph was tall and slender, fair-skinned with close-cropped red haired, and very pretty. He loved to talk and joke, and loved attention even more. And if his jokes didn’t provoke laughter, he tended to repeat them.

I arranged to go on a ride-along with Steve one evening at the end of my shift. The night rangers typically worked an additional two to three hours beyond the end of my shift. It was a blustery night. Steve wasn’t a large man, but had the physique of a man who worked out a lot. His uniform was always drawn tight across his chest, which always preceded him when he walked – as if he were sprinting towards the finish line and hoped his chest would arrive first. Steve spoke articulately and confidently; he loved to debate, and he debated to win. We started by printing out a campground log of everyone registered in the campground, then systematically drove through the park. Sometimes Steve would have me read off the license plates listed under a particular site number. We came alongside a site that had four vehicles in it; the log listed just one. Steve and I got out of the truck and walked to the campsite where a group of folks were sitting around a campfire, partly sheltered from the rain by overhanging trees.

In a friendly voice he said, “Good evening, I’m Ranger Steve. The reason I’m here is because it looks like you have several vehicles here that are not registered. Is there any reason you haven’t done that yet?”

Several people answered at once, expressing confusion about what they were supposed to do.

Steve explained that if the vehicles were staying overnight, they were required to register at the welcome station within half an hour of arrival. He told them that the welcome station was closed for the evening, so they would need to pay first thing in the morning. Under tree cover, he filled out three Attention Notices, tore off the top sheets, and handed them over.

We got back in the truck and Steve said, “People always pretend they didn’t understand the rules. But if you treat them respectfully and give them an opportunity to do the right thing, most of them will. And if they don’t, I have copies of these notices to keep track of who paid.”

I asked, “Do you follow up if they don’t pay?”

“We leave these copies at the welcome station; whichever person is registering campers tosses them as they’re paid. If they still haven’t paid by my next shift, I’ll go back to their site and have another talk with them; less friendly the second time.”

“What if they leave the park without paying?  Do you do anything?”

“Not really. I suppose we could write them a ticket and send it in the mail. But if we don’t know for certain who the person is, then a ticket isn’t likely to stick. And you want to make sure you write good tickets – ones that would hold up in court.”

While circling the campground making sure everyone had paid up, we dropped off orange traffic cones at the few empty campsites with incoming reservations. We closed and locked gates at some of the day use areas; one side of the entrance gate to the campground was closed to give the message that the campground was closed, yet still allowing vehicles to come and go. Steve explained that this was required in case of emergencies. I continued asking him questions about the mechanics of the ranger job, and how he chose to solve problems with campers. I was particularly interested in his use of “verbals,” something rangers receive training on. The edict from State Parks is that rangers should first try to gain voluntary rule compliance. Only if that is unsuccessful do they progress to enforcing rule compliance with a stronger approach.

“How do you know what to enforce?  I mean, park rules take up pages and pages of text. How do you know which ones to focus on, what’s important?”

“Well, each park is a bit different. Really, you learn by working at the park, asking questions, working with other rangers. A lot of this you learn in academy.”

“So what was academy like for you?”

“I don’t know what the one here is like. I was a ranger in Ohio before coming to Washington and went through academy there. So I didn’t have to go through any of that here, just a willingness to start at the bottom rung. People have asked me, ‘What’re you doing here with your Master’s Degree?  You could be doing so much more.’  But this is what I love doing. And I won’t stay on the bottom rung forever.”

Yup, Steve had an abundance of self-confidence.

The couple hours I spent with Steve were extremely interesting and useful, and I thanked him before heading home at the end of a very long day.

As I drove the winding road from the park to the town of Ilwaco, the rain poured down. My headlights caught movement on the pavement – little things moving in all directions. I realized I was seeing little frogs hopping from one side of the street to the other. I unrolled my window a crack, and heard them croaking their little lungs out. There were thousands of them, impossible to dodge. They were delightful to watch hopping all over, but I knew my tires left a path of death behind me.

I did not feel that I had the same job as the other park aides. Most of them are in their teens or early twenties, and many of them seem more interested in looking like they are working, rather than actually working. I developed a good routine for cleaning the restrooms. My standard cleaning includes a comprehensive disinfecting of all contact surfaces. And every shift I focus on something extra: spider webs in the corners, or grime buildup on the window sills, or the undersides of the sinks and toilets. After returning from my days off I always notice a buildup of scum and often find bits of litter pushed into corners and not swept up. It is hard some days to not be frustrated with the other park aides. I frequently remind myself that I am being paid to work for eight hours a day – regardless of what the other aides are doing or not doing. I also remind myself often that I am motivated by a desire to learn as much as possible about the park while trying to become a ranger, while for the other aides it is simply a way to make some money during summer break. Different jobs altogether.

I took our Grasshopper tractor lawn mower out one afternoon to trim the grass along the side of the campground road. This mower was steered not by a wheel, but by two levers. Pushing both forward propelled the mower straight ahead; one pushed forward and one pulled backwards prompted the mower to turn; bringing them both to a “home” position led to inertia. Along the side of the road the pavement ends abruptly, and there is just a sliver of grass before it falls away into a wet, marshy ditch. As I was driving along straddling the pavement, with the right side of the mower trimming the sliver of grass, I was sure that I was being more cautious than previous park aides, making sure I didn’t get too close to the ditch. The edge became too soft and the sliver of grass too narrow, so I pulled the lever to steer the right wheels back onto the pavement. The front wheel got stuck in the soft dirt and would not come up onto the pavement; I pulled the lever harder. The back wheel dug in, then both back wheels started a slow and persistent journey backwards, downwards, pulling the whole tractor into the ditch. Still seated and pitched at 45°, I attempted to drive the tractor out of the ditch. The wheels just spun. I cut the power and pulled out my park radio.

“26 to Base.”

“Base, go ahead.”

“I drove the Grasshopper into the ditch.” 

Joseph offered to bring out the tractor and pull it out. Then Don, one of our maintenance guys, got on the radio. “I just fixed those mower blades. I don’t want them bent and mangled as they come onto the pavement. I’m going to call a tow company that has a winch attached to a crane. They can pull the tractor straight up, and then back onto the pavement. Can you stay there with it until they arrive?”

I answered, “26” to convey my understanding. Great. As people drove by gaping, I got to stand there next to my shame. Some guys driving by in a full size pickup stopped. “We’ve got cables in here, we can drag you out of there.”

“Thanks, but no. I’ve been told to wait until we get a tow truck with a crane and winch.”

The guys seemed puzzled.

“So the blades don’t scrape on the edge of the pavement.”

“All right, your choice,” and off they went.

A good twenty minutes passed when both the tow truck and Don arrived. It was pretty impressive to see the large mower pulled more up than to the side, and then set gently on the pavement. While it was suspended, Steve looked on the underside for damage.

“You should be able to drive it back to the shop. I’ll take a better look at it there.”

So again I took my seat and powered it up. My drive of shame back to the shop seemed particularly slow, but I maneuvered the mower into the shop without further incident.

“Base, 26.”  It was Ralph, the park manager.


“I heard you tried to mow the marsh.”

I sighed. “Right.”

“Didn’t anyone tell you the marsh doesn’t need to be mowed?  It stays natural.”

“Apparently not.”

“I think I’ll call you Weedhopper from now on. Base out.”


After hosing off the accessible parts of the mower, I walked over to the welcome station. Two of the “office aides” were there: park aides who worked exclusively in the welcome station, not outside cleaning restrooms and doing grounds maintenance. Janelle was singing something, seemingly to the other young woman. Her belly peeked out from beneath her shirt as she danced up to the other aide in a provocative move. I liked Janelle. She had been in my position until she broke her foot. The rangers transferred her into the welcome station, and that’s when my position opened up so late in the season. Janelle was friendly, with the wide-eyed curiosity of a 17-year-old. She seemed to get along with everyone, regardless of age or position. I navigated my way around the young women to the back office, to put my radio in a charger and get a fresh one.

Ralph saw me. “Hey, there’s my Weedhopper!  Been trying to mow any swamps lately?”

“No, I got it pretty well mowed the first time.”

I reflected that it took my accident to come onto Ralph’s radar screen. Previously he had been friendly enough, but didn’t particularly notice me. This was a change, and the laugher in his eyes suggested it was a good change.

That evening at twilight I was driving down the campground road to the office. On one long and straight stretch, alders line both sides of the road. The lighting was hazy, and the road was empty except for me. As I drove, leaves started to drift and swirl down towards the ground in slow motion. It seemed as if time itself slowed and was suspended as I was caught in this magical world of slowly swirling leaves.

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