Friday, March 21, 2014

RANGERING: November 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.

Astoria from Goonie Hill
I loved my little Astoria home on Goonie Hill, overlooking the Columbia River. But my landlords and I weren’t getting along; in particular regarding my dog Jackie. So I found an affordable place across the river on the Long Beach Peninsula, just ten minutes from work, and just like that decided to move to Washington.

When he heard I was moving, the park manager Ron asked me who was helping. When I responded, “just me,” he offered himself and maintenance guy Don to help me move. I felt a bit embarrassed, wondering why I “rated” to receive help from the park manager. But I accepted. Ron gave me some furniture that was his daughters before she went to college: a twin bed, dresser, night stand, and rocking chair. Suddenly I've gone from one pickup truck load of possessions to three.

My new home is a dump. It's a single-story four-plex, with each unit next to the other in a long line and fronted by a porch that extends the entire length. My belongings are piled high in the living room. The front blinds have several missing sections, reducing my privacy. The second bedroom, which shares a wall with my neighbors, reeks so badly of cigarette smoke that I've moved everything out of it and shut the doors, hoping it will buffer the rest of the house from the stench. My wall neighbors argue frequently, and loudly vomit during the day. All the other occupants store their furniture on the long front porch.

One evening I was washing dishes at the sink, facing the small window towards the front of the complex. I saw my neighbor walk to my end of the porch where there is a water spigot, and lean down. When he stood back up, his face just a few feet from mine, he craned his head this way and that, trying to see through my window. I looked at him in disbelief. Was he going to smile and wave? He didn’t. I couldn’t tell if he saw me, but after a moment he walked away.

I feel trapped. Suddenly my belongings won't fit in a pickup truck, let alone my sedan. My neighbors are likely meth addicts and are definitely creepy. Why did I leave Astoria, the home I chose after so much careful research? What am I doing living on an isolated peninsula that is hardly a cultural Mecca, more of a retirement community, vacation retreat, and home to meth addicts? I suspect I've made a mistake moving to this place. The change was too much, too fast. With so much transition this past year, this move has rattled me. I feel isolated and friendless.

My nightly beach walks with Jackie are my salvation. One night I saw little dots of light all over, seemingly in the middle of the ocean, moving this way and that with impressive speed and agility. If they were boats, how could they move so fast? As I got closer, I realized the lights were attached to people who were out at low tide digging for clams. They were not, in fact, little boats darting around like lightning bugs. The tide was so low, the beach extended far out towards the horizon. The twinkling lights up and down the beach were magical and quite charming.

After stretching my legs, I set my timer and broke into a run. Jackie, delighted to have her leash removed, raced ahead of me. As the lights from the clammers dwindled behind me, blackness descended. It was completely overcast, with no hint of moon or stars in a completely dark sky. As I ran along, I found that I was able to see just enough. I puzzled at this, then looked at the ocean. The cresting waves were giving off a faint luminescence. It was lovely.

Less lovely was Jackie’s smell when she came racing back to me. She obviously found a dead sea creature to wriggle and writhe all over. She reeked of sickly sweet decaying flesh, a smell I will not forget. The evening ended with a dog bath, followed by a long shower for me.

Eva and I wrestled the heavy auger into the back of her truck, which was already filled with PVC pipes and signs. “So tell me again what we’re doing?”

We got in and drove out of the park. “At the north end of the peninsula we’ve discovered some snowy plover nests. The snowy plover is endangered, so we’re sectioning off a part of the beach where nests have been found to help protect them.”

“Their nests are right on the beach?”

Snowy Plovers
Eva laughed. “That's partly why they’re endangered. They scoop little divots out of the sand, and lay their eggs in them. The eggs are speckled, blending into the sand. Good for avoiding detection from predators, but humans can tromp all over them without even noticing. And we want to keep vehicles from driving along there as well.”

“Didn’t you say this was up north towards Leadbetter State Park? Isn’t driving illegal up there?”

“Just because it’s illegal doesn’t mean people don’t do it. Hopefully the signs will be an added deterrent. Plus, it makes a stronger case if we have to write tickets. David and his friend Dan will join us. They’ll be volunteering their time.”

“That’s pretty cool.”

“Yeah, I have a pretty cool husband.”

It was a beautiful day for a drive. Occasionally we’d pass one of the crossroads that lead to beach approaches, and see snippets of the ocean. Finally we arrived at Pacific Pines, the furthest north legal beach approach on the peninsula. David and Dan were waiting in a pickup at the beach approach; they followed us onto the beach. Our two large, four-wheel-drive pickups handled the beach well, which had a wide swath of hard-packed dirt. Eva explained to me where the razor clam beds were, and why vehicles were required to drive on the upper-most hard-packed sand to best avoid driving on the clam beds, crushing or smothering the clams.

After passing into the no-vehicle area, we saw a pickup in the distance. It was gold in color, and looked like one used by Fish and Wildlife, another agency that could access this beach for official business –including patrolling it for illegal driving.

We stopped and got out, conferring on how best to delineate the area and place the signs. David and Eva tried placing the first sign. They put the auger upright, and each held onto a handle near the top. It motored up with a crank pull, and the blade started corkscrewing around, digging its way down into the sand. They lifted up, and sand poured out on all sides; then down it went again. After several repetitions they hoisted it up and turned it off, then set it on the ground. The PVC pipe fit in easily, buried a few feet down into the sand. They turned it with the sign facing out, and we all took turns stomping the sand down all around the base of the pipe.

Dan threw the end of a rope, weighted down with a metal disk, down by the sign. We got into our respective trucks and drove. The rope stretched out, Dan holding the other end. As it approached full length, we stopped and got out again. This measured the distance between the signs, about 200 feet. This time Dan and I grabbed hold of either side of the auger, and he started it up. The entire contraption tried to twist clockwise, prompting my body to follow it. I braced my feet more firmly, and tightened my grip on the handle. By the time we lifted the auger out, I was crouched low with my butt sticking out, and legs spread wide apart. Dan had maintained a nonchalant posture, practically able to control the auger one-handed. I laughed at myself.

The rope with the disk end was pulled in, and off we went again to mark the next 200 feet. We easily fell into a good rhythm, though I never quite mastered the auger. I knew my arms would be mighty sore the next day.

Early the next week I arrived at work to find a note from Eva. It was her day off, and she wanted me to return to the beach where we had planted the signs. We had had some strong gale-force winds a couple days earlier, and some of the signs had been turned the wrong way in its force.

Since the park aide trucks did not have four-wheel-drive, and since I was not allowed to drive a law enforcement truck, she made another suggestion. I could take our Gator, a small all-terrain vehicle, load it onto the trailer, attach the trailer to the old one-ton truck, and drive up to the beach approach. From there I would drive onto the beach with the Gator. This involved a number of things I had never done before, including hitching up the trailer to the one-ton. As I was wrestling with the trailer hitch, it occurred to me that I would not feel safe getting onto the road without someone else making sure I’d done it right. I got on my radio. “26, Base.”

“Base, go ahead.” It was Steve’s voice, the other night ranger.

“Don’t suppose anyone is available to show me how to hitch up the trailer to the one-ton?”

“Yeah, I’ll be over in a couple minutes. You’re at the shop now?”


“Parks 332.”


I looked at the various cables and plugs and was grateful help was on its way.

“Parks 122, 26.”

Joseph. I fished out my radio. “26.”

“What do you need to use the trailer for?”

Uh, oh. “Eva instructed me to take the Gator onto the beach to work on some signs we put up the other day.”

“What’s this for?”

“Protecting the snowy plovers.”

“And what happened to the signs?”

I tried to keep my impatience out of my voice. “The strong winds we had spun them around.”

There was a long pause.

Finally, “There won’t be any trips with the Gator on the beach today. If you need some ideas of projects to work on, come find me in the welcome station. Parks 122.”

“26,” I grumbled, and forcefully stuffed my radio back into its holder. What was that about? He clearly didn’t have something else he wanted me to do, or he would have said so. Damn. Since Eva wasn’t here, any ranger had the authority to tell me what to do.

I wound up the cables on the trailer and parked the one-ton back in its spot. I went into the maintenance shop and took several long, deep breaths. I started cleaning up the shop, putting away tools, sweeping off counters, the floor. It was always a mess, like most shops.

Most nights I enjoy taking a stroll on the beach with Jackie. However one night I was in a hurry to get home and have some dinner, so following Washington tradition I drove my Toyota Avalon right onto the beach. When Jackie had gone potty and I was ready for her to get back into the car, she got a naughty glint in her eyes and deliberately ran away from me. After several attempts to catch her, I decided I would teach her a lesson and pretend like I was driving away. Being cranky and impatient, I got in the car and gunned it – and the tires spun in the soft sand, sinking down into it. I then tried to maneuver forwards and backwards to get out, but lacking finesse only managed to bury the car to the hilt. After a brief and futile experiment digging with bare hands, I managed to get Jackie on leash and walked home. 

After my distress call, David and Eva came to the rescue bearing three shovels; in no time I was free again. When Eva and I had a moment alone, I told her about Joseph taking me off her assignment.

“The local Audubon Society had requested we do this project, and they’re the ones who called me to let me know the signs needed to be straightened. What did he have you work on instead?”

“Nothing. He didn’t have anything in mind. It was so frustrating!”

“I’ll talk to him. Don't worry about it.”

Eva instructed me to drive back to the park that night and use the multi-directional carwash to rinse off the sand before it adhered itself to the underbelly of my car. It was fun driving forwards, backwards, making sure the sprays reached every nook and cranny, removing all the sand that was embedded there. For the hundredth time that night, as I turned off the spray, I vowed to never drive my car onto the beach again.

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