Working in the National Park Service as a seasonal ranger is certainly an interesting AND entertaining experience. What could possibly be more fun than hanging out with people while they are on vacation? Some of the most amazing things don’t always happen with animals or nature, but with those seeking nature who come with questions, humor, or wonder.
My memory is a little fuzzy since every six months my poor brain gets ‘reworked’ and ‘situated’. Can you imagine trying to know the answer to every possible question about a place you had never even heard of two months prior???! It HURTS! These stories, even though I stored them in a ‘special place’, need to be in writing since old age forgets no one!
First Time on Stage: De Soto National Memorial
Yea…”Where?!” you ask. Bradenton, FL, on the south side of Tampa Bay. I had never heard of the place, but my grandmother was a snowbird, so I thought, in order to earn my degree, an internship there while living with my lovely snowbird grandmother would be great–and it was! Of course, it was really intimidating at first: dressing as a man, wearing armour, shooting black powder weapons, making chainmail, shooting crossbows. Eventually, though, I got the hang of it, and didn’t get offended anymore when a visitor would look me up and down and then ask “What are you? The wench??” Really, I’m over it…I swear!
But these were my first interpretive talks, talks that park rangers do, and I had a really wonderful, if not very beneficially demanding boss. I was nervous and not very loud, and it didn’t help that there is wildlife EVERYWHERE in Florida. Parrots would fly by, and as soon as they caught my eye, I would interrupt myself, telling the misguided and crazy adventure that De Soto led his men on, and exclaim “Oh look! Parrots!” The whole audience would turn and look…and I would lose my place, forget what I was saying, and have to ask what the last thing I said was…
I know, you want to know where to get those awesome socks!
On this day in particular, a little critter made a rather impressive appearance in the middle of a talk. I didn’t have a large group, maybe 8 or so, and most of them were together. A really jolly group of retirees, having fun and joking around. It was more of a conversation than a talk and it was all going wonderfully well…and then….
His little head popped up over the large encampment fence!
A racoon, who must have smelled our camp food, was sitting on the crown of a tree directly over my shoulder! The tree was draped in vines so he could sit right on top and I’m sure he had a great view. He sat there for 5 minutes or so, looking around to see if he could see the source of the smells and probably only seeing 18 eyes looking back at him. There was no way to interrupt this raccoon’s cameo to get back on topic, so we started to talk about him. I’m sure he loved that!
He didn’t do much besides stare right back at us, so probably disappointed that he didn’t see giant piles of food he eventually climbed down the vines and went on to do his raccoony things, but it was a pretty neat experience to share with the visitors and an entertaining interruption to boot.
Second Time Around is Spooky: Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site
Truthfully, I don’t believe in ghosts, or at least ghosts that are able to move things around in our realm of exsistance, but this little place in New Hampshire almost had me!
Within the shadow of Mt. Ascutney, Saint-Gaudens preserves the home, studio and gardens of America’s Micheangelo, Augustus Saint-Gaudens. He did indeed die in his house in 1907, upstairs in the house where we rangers give tours. The tour only goes through three rooms on the bottom floor, but it gives you a wonderful idea of how he and his wife Gussy lived. Because you only have access to three rooms, the tour is limited to 12 people so everyone isn’t crowded and cramped, just “meet-your-neighbor close.
See any ghosts? House is on the right.
This tour was one of those, full and comfortably close. Trying to keep an eye on 12 people while pointing out fun little details is sometimes a challenge and kids are especially hard to keep off the stairs, so occasionally there is someone upstairs walking across the old, creaky floors.
As I led this group from the foyer to the kitchen, I heard some noise upstairs. It sounded like very even footsteps. Thinking it was a rogue visitor, I excused myself from the kitchen and hollered up the stairs for whoever the lost lamb was to come back down….No response, so I tried again. Still nothing. I couldn’t go upstairs and leave everyone in the kitchen, so I counted heads instead. Everyone was there. Huh.
So I went on with the tour, and brought the people back to the foyer where the tour ended. I wasn’t the best at keeping the tour to 20 minutes, so I was running over a little, but the visitors were engaged and were asking about the mistress, so I had to explain some things on behalf of Mr. Saint-Gaudens. Lo and behold, that darn noise again! Footsteps across the floor upstairs. I asked the visitors if they had anyone missing in their party; everyone shook their heads. They started coming up with explanations and their favorite by far was ‘GHOSTS!’ They concluded that it was Mr. Saint-Gaudens himself, a little uncomfortable that we’re talking about his mistress so much. I laughed and we moved on to other topics.
All of the sudden we heard a noise at the back door! It jiggled, clicked, jiggled, and then very slowly opened. I’m sure you can imagine the looks on the visitors’ faces. The majority had very wide eyes and mouths a little agape. Then, as the being behind the door came through the sunshine filled portal, everyone let out a collective “Ooooh!” One fellow bellowed “IT WAS HIM!” This being was my boss and he was a little flabberghasted about all the attention given to him for just walking through the back door. Maybe they felt it was a little anticlimatic to see another ranger, who they thought was a ghost come through the door, but they decided that was the time to leave.
My boss walked up to me after I said my goodbyes to my ghost hunting group and apologized for the interruption. The last fellow, in response to my boss, turned and said “We thought YOU were a GHOST walking around upstairs!” Wanting to avoid anymore hoobaloo, I tried to change the conversation, but too late! My boss’ face lit up like a Christmas tree and you could here the exhuberance in his “REALLY?!” He wasn’t upstairs, I knew that, and I didn’t want to explain that I thought I ashamedly lost a visitor. I could feel a lecture about group management coming.
But none of that mattered to him. For MONTHS he talked about that possible ghost ‘sighting’. He would bring it up at end-of-day meetings, ask after I came back from tours if I had heard anymore spooks, watch the security cameras for ghoulish appearances; truthfully, it was giving me the heebie jeebies. It was a little unnerving to close the buildings on dark and dreary days. I never did hear anything more from Mr. Saint-Gaudens, though. Maybe he went on vacation until the off season.
Third Degree: Badlands
At Saint-Gaudens, I took a lot of foreign school students on studio tours, and some understood, some didn’t quite as much, but they often had wonderful answers to the questions I asked them. So when I made it to the Badlands, in South Dakota, I was a little surprised when I got a question I couldn’t answer!
A wonderful place, Badlands National Park is often mistaken for a horrid “snake-pit” and a barren wasteland, but it is 244,000 protected acres that form a treasure trove of Oligecene fossils and fantastic formations. It’s really like being on the Moon, surrounded by fossils. I gave tours and worked at the information desk, and the first year I was at the desk, I got a question that almost got me!
Sometimes, I have a very hard time hearing, especially in noisy places, like the Ben Reifel Visitor Center is often. Even listening to music is difficult. I can’t figure out what the lyrics are unless I know what to expect. So when I get an unexpected question, it takes a long while for me to process it.
The wonderful couple that posed the unexpected question was from Asia, my guess Japan, but I don’t know. They were full of smiles at first, as he approached a little shyly and said “Fo-SAIL”. I’m a little familiar with linguistics and know that R’s are sometimes difficult for those who don’t use them–and sometimes those pesky R’s turn into L’s! But I asked him to repeat his question, so he pointed to the map and again said “Fo-SAIL”. He must have seen my confused look and said “Land-Fo-SAIL”. I repeated “land” and pointed to the map. He shook his head, so I assumed he was looking for land to buy; “LAND Fo[r]-SALE”. Well, shoot, I thought, I just got here, I have no idea where the reality office would be…maybe Wall, SD? I told him that a lot of the land was ranching land, so you’d probably want to go that route unless you wanted a small house in a tiny town like Interior. And of course, I added, all the land in the Park is protected.
He stood there and absorded all that I blabbered out and then a look came over his face. It was a look of “YOU”RE CRAZY!”. Back to square one…
He was very patient, thank heavens, but at a stalemate with me and not sure what to do. He spoke to his lady friend and they seemed to be in a huddle about how to talk to this Eastern-deprived park ranger. I saw her point to an exhibit with a fossil and when they broke huddle he said “Fo-SAIL” again and I said my equivalent. Fossil was it! Now, what about fossils???
We went back to pointing at the map, and after a little bit of repeating fossil like I was a broken record, I finally got it! They wanted to know where the fossils were….ooh, after all that work! It took them so long to get through my thick skull and broken ears and now I can’t tell them what they want to know! Not that I didn’t know where some fossils were, it’s that I can’t just tell people, since fossils easily fit into cars and the ONLY National Park Service site to be decommissioned happened to be in South Dakota and happened to lose its status because of fossils disappearing so much so that there was nothing left to show.
Oh! What to do?!! Well, what I did could have been really bad if these two weren’t such wonderful people. There is a fossil right in the view of the road, but no one ever sees it. My boss knew about it–everyone knew about it, so I figured, if someone sees two people trying to pick this thing out, they’ll get caught, and I’ll get in trouble, but the fossil will be safe. I never did this again, though, since the chances were too darn high for something to disappear, but this couple was lucky, I guess, that they had a willing ranger. It’s not like you can’t find fossils out in the Badlands, it just takes some climbing around. We get TONS of fossil siting report forms over the summer, but still, it’s not a good idea for a ranger to point out where they are…
So I took a deep breath and pointed to the map and told them where to park. After they repeatedly thanked me and left, I was so nervous and worried. I was waiting for an LE [danger ranger, cop ranger] to come in and haul me out. It was around noon that they asked, and by the time my shift was done at 4, I had mostly forgotten, so what I saw on my drive home threw me for a loop: they were still out there looking for it!
The horse’s head, a year later. It was in one piece when they saw it!
Now, I don’t know for sure if they were still looking, or had just started, but they looked throughly confused and disheartened. I pulled my old Buick over and jumped out. I took them to the fossil, walking carefully to not tread on any rattlers or cactus, and pointed to the ancient horse’s skull, sitting on display on a little knee-high badland formation. They were amazed! They chatted excitedly about it, and then she asked “Picture it?” Two seconds after the go-ahead, I think she had already taken 30 pictures! Her next request put me on edge: “Touch?” I’ve seen what kids do, and a lot of adults aren’t much better–sometimes worse–so I wasn’t too comfortable, but I don’t have the word ‘no’ in my vocabulary, so I said “yes’ again. By golly, they were petting it so gently, as if it might have been alive!
After the fossil safari was over and we all went on our seperate ways, I vowed never to do that again! TOO MUCH STRESS! But I felt that these two visitors from a far off land now had a richer, more fulfilling experience because of their ‘fo-SAIL’ find. I just had to find a different way to give all the visitors this kind of ‘wow’ experience without endangering anymore wild fossils…Luckily, we had a few ‘toters’ to show, so it was the real thing, just not uncatalogued and undocumented! :)