Monday, March 24, 2014

RANGERING: December 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.

Ranger Dirk spends most of his shift driving the entire stretch of the Long Beach Peninsula, patrolling the beaches all the way north to where the peninsula ends at the Willapa Wildlife Refuge. He's on vacation for two weeks, and has asked me to make the “beach run” to keep the restrooms clean. The drive alone takes about 40 minutes from bottom to top of the peninsula, and four or five hours to make the round trip cleaning all the restrooms along the way. I love this assignment. It gives me the opportunity to see the entire peninsula which is long and skinny, comprised of only two north-south roads which are sporadically connected by east-west roads, and there are only four street lights on the entire peninsula. Much of the drive is quite rural and beautiful.

Leadbetter State Park and the wildlife refuge are approached by a narrow winding one-lane road. This road is shaded by tall evergreens. A layer of rust-colored pine needles covers the ground on either side and down the middle of the dirt road. Just south of the entrance to Leadbetter on a side street is a wrought-iron gate flanked by two enormous stone lions. I punch a code into the security keypad and drive onto this private estate. Here the narrow dirt road is lined with alders that hang over the road to form a canopy. Lively green grasses attempt to cover the dirt road. Something about this scene reminds me of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe when the kids first go through the wardrobe into a magical world. This sense of not-quite-real continues as the trees open up and there is a marsh on the left. As far as I can see, dead branchless alder trunks, or snags, poke up out of the mist-covered water. This view is slightly creepy! While this is on private property, the park monitors the weir where the water from the marsh goes under the road to make sure that beavers don’t start building a dam and obstruct water flow.

At work I get to play with a new toy – a portable pressure washer! My project is to pressure clean the restroom sidewalks which have been blackened with algae and moss. I find it very satisfying to reveal the clean pavement underneath. To make it easier, I tie the trigger open to give a continual release of water. To save time, I wondered if I could adjust the nozzle spray while the water was coursing through it. My latex-gloved hand approached the nozzle, and with dizzying speed my arm jerked back. I felt an odd tingling sensation on the tip of one finger and noticed that the glove had been cleanly sliced open. To be honest I was afraid to look inside the glove. I wondered if blood would soon start pouring out the opening. I continued pressure washing, leaving the nozzle spray as it was, and no blood appeared. Later when I was cleaning up I found a very clean but frighteningly deep slice in my finger. Amazingly, it never bled. The sheer force of the water had essentially cauterized the skin around the wound.

There are two cats that live under the trailer at the park. We have an industrial sized bag of cat food and do our best to keep them well-fed. Unfortunately a family of raccoons has discovered this boon and always seems to appear soon after the food is put out.

When the sun is out I like to sit at a picnic table in front of the trailer to eat my lunch. I’ll set out some cat food, and often One-Eye will wander close enough for me to pet him. One day I was reading a book while eating my lunch, and saw the cats on the trailer porch. They started sauntering closer to see what I was eating and to get some affection. Just as I was about to put out my hand to pet One-Eye, I looked up. To my surprise, neither cat was in sight – it was raccoons who had been behaving just like the cats – undoubtedly hoping that if they kept up the charade, I might be too distracted to notice the difference!

After my break I went into the office to work the rest of my shift. The mood was relaxed, and it didn’t appear that anyone felt like doing much work. Pretty Ranger Joseph and Ranger-In-Training Bob were there. I watched as they showed off, demonstrating various defensive tactics moves. Their tall, slim frames were well matched. Joseph would give Bob a preview of the techniques he would learn at academy, then Bob would demonstrate an equivalent he knew from martial arts. They were definitely playing it up for their audience.

Ranger Steve came in shaking his head and smiling. “I just found Ralph sleeping in a yurt.”

Ralph, our park aide most adept at not working.

“What?” asked Bob incredulously.

“Yeah, crazy. I’d been trying to reach him on the radio for a while to see how he was doing on a project I’d asked for his help with. Finally I decided to look for him. I saw the park aide truck by the yurts. I went in, and there he was sleeping on the bottom bunk mattress.”

“Did he seem surprised to be caught?”

“Not as surprised as I would have been, at his age. I told him this would be his only warning.

I kept quiet, but marveled that literally sleeping on the job didn’t warrant being fired.

With three months under my belt as a park aide, I have completed and submitted the extensive written application to become a park ranger. It is comprised of a thorough listing of every residence and job I’ve had over the past decade. And since one of the primary attributes rangers are required to have is honesty, I did not have the luxury of glossing over or omitting details that were either difficult to find or embarrassing. The personal history portion of the application included essays detailing every illegal activity I’ve participated in, every illegal activity I’ve been privy to, and essentially every impure thought I’ve ever had. Despite believing myself to be an upstanding citizen, having all of my indiscretions gathered there together makes me feel less confident about my chances of becoming a ranger.

Washington State Parks is evaluating my application right now, and in preparation for the next step I have been maintaining a steady fitness regime six days a week. I have not reached 20 push-ups yet, or the ability to bench press 70% of my weight, but I continue to feel stronger and more energetic as time goes by. The entire application process typically takes several months, so it will be some time before I know if I will in fact become a ranger.

Everyone at the park knows that I want to become a ranger and that in the meantime I hope to spend as much time as possible working at Cape Disappointment. The park’s office manager is pregnant, and I’ve been asked to fill in when she goes on maternity leave. She is due in early April and will take three months off. So now I am looking forward to being employed at Cape Disappointment well into the summer. I will desperately miss being outdoors, and I will probably curse myself for once again sitting under fluorescent lighting looking at a computer screen. But, this will keep me at the park longer. And every facet I learn about the park will just make me a better ranger. And the biggest benefit of all is that when I am working in the office I get to hear the discussions among the rangers – which I find educational and fascinating!

Fort Columbia State Park
The park had a holiday party held at the Scarborough House at Fort Columbia, one of our beautiful vacation rental houses. Having everyone together – rangers, interpretive specialists, maintenance, park aides, and all their families – made for an enormous group. For the first time I had a sense that this group could end up becoming my “family.” I wondered what it would be like for them to become my colleagues, next door neighbors, and friends.

Eva played with the little kids, commenting with a smile, "I have a special skill at winding up children and dogs." Mark, the bespectacled interpretive ranger and I commandeered a child’s new Lego set, and argued about which one of us should get credit for correctly assembling it. Jackie got to attend, and little kids raced through the large house with my little dog hot on their heels. It was a lovely celebration.

Our Ranger-In-Training Bob has left for the three-and-a-half month long law enforcement academy, and when he returns he will be a fully commissioned law enforcement officer. I am both excited for him and jealous, and am always anxious to get updates about what they’re having him do. Eager to be more connected to his experience, I lent him my laptop for him to bring to his classes, and will use his PC in exchange.

I am moving again. Packing again. Cleaning an apartment that was a mess when I moved in again. Making the dog a nervous wreck again.

This time I have found a place that I really like. I’m moving much further north up the peninsula to Ocean Park, but for the same monthly rent I now have an entire house to myself. It is fantastic! It gets a lot of southern exposure which lends a brightness to the rooms on most days; a large fully fenced yard for Jackie (they put in a dog door for her); and an extra bedroom which will be my “ranger room,” equipped with workout equipment and literature on Washington State Parks. It has new carpeting, tiled kitchen floor, fresh paint, new bathroom, a sunny open kitchen and living room, and I don’t have to share walls with anyone. I do not get any TV reception, but I’m seldom in the mood to sit down and be “unproductive” for an hour anyway. The variety and choices I had become accustomed to when living in Silicon Valley are a distant memory. The radio stations here are terrible: there are only three that have any redeeming value; one is “classic rock” of the Lynyrd Skynyrd, Bayou rock variety; the other two are pop. And while I am most grateful for two Mexican restaurants, one Chinese, and one Thai restaurant, that is the entirety of ethnic food available here. I miss sushi, dim sum, and Vietnamese most of all. But I get to go to the beach every day and go on walks after dark feeling completely safe, and breathe in clean air while surrounded by boundless natural beauty. And I set the car on cruise control for the quiet drive to work – yes, cruise control during my “rush hour” commute. I am slowly starting to feel like a part of a community here, and I love that life here isn’t about working overtime and buying expensive things to compensate; it is about spending time with friends and family, partaking of the natural beauty and many recreational activities available here. 

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