A year ago today I would not have imagined where we are right now: sitting on the porch of our dear friends’ home in Georgia, about to begin the second leg of a road trip. It’s time for another life adventure! But first, let me back up a bit…
Out of the Woods
The last entry on this blog was my first day as a Wilderness Field Instructor. For fifteen months I worked in the Chequamegnon-Nicolet National Forest with at-risk and trauma-affect youth. It was one of the most intense and transformative experiences of my life. It was inspiring, exhausting, frustrating, unpredictable, infuriating, hilarious, wonderful, and ridiculous all at once. An incredible experience I am very thankful for, it was the hardest job I have ever had.
I worked eight twenty-four hour shifts in the woods, camping, hiking, instructing, and maintaining a safe and therapeutic environment. I worked year round. I worked in the girls group. I worked in the boys group. I worked on Christmas, Easter, and my husband’s birthday. Despite the demand, I loved my work. I learned so much about the wilderness, camping, other people, but especially about myself. It is impossible for me to encapsulate my experience into a few paragraphs. Regardless of the challenge, I would do it all again.
However, fifteen months is a long time to immerse oneself in the trauma and hardship of others in the north woods of Wisconsin. As much as I want to help others and believe that I can and did help, there came a point when I had to help myself. I missed my friends and family. I missed my husband. I was tired. I kept many journals about my experiences but other than writing about work, I was not writing. The fact that this is my first blog entry since I became a Wilderness Field Instructor is evidence of that. With Derrick’s intuitive encouragement and amazing support I decided that even though I had no idea what I was going to do next, I had to leave the woods.
In December I worked my last shift. My last night in the field culminated with an awesome variety show with the boys and my co-staff. We drank apple cider around a crackling fire and shared our talents. Poetry, emceeing, singing, guitar playing, comedy, and hula hooping – it was perfect. The night closed with one boy performing an impromptu folk song about nightly foot checks before I ushered the boys to their tents for the last time. The next morning I was up early, drinking my coffee along the river, and finishing the beads I had made for the boys. By a beautiful twist of fate, I was ending my journey as a Wilderness Field Instructor at the same campsite where I spent my first night in the field.
Moving on was bittersweet. After spending so much time in such intense work, it was hard to let go. I often found myself in a state of hyper-vigilance, unable to recognize that I was no longer in a situation that required me to be prepared for the possibility of a crisis. The secondary trauma that often results from such work can be incredibly affecting. It took me a considerable amount of time to begin to process the experience that I had just brought to a close, and to realize that I really was moving on. But what was next?
Derrick and I agreed that I needed to take some “me” time to recover and that I needed to turn my focus back to my writing. I sifted through my journals from my time in the woods and soon realized I needed to put some time and space between the experience and myself before I tried to do anything with what I written. It was too soon, too close, too raw. Instead, I turned my attention to my self-care, my family, and myself.
I began crafting a manuscript about the 2012 National Park trip. I spent two weeks in California helping my grandma post-surgery. Derrick and I had been applying for National Park Ranger jobs for months. Knowing how competitive the positions are, we were hoping, but not holding our breath. We made our way through the preliminary stages of a few park positions, but never got “the call.” We pressed on, enjoying living in the north woods, planning for a summer focused on Derrick’s woodworking and my writing. Derrick was working a job to support our situation, but it was not what either of us wanted him to be doing.
As I prepared to return from California, I was offered a position as Lifestyle Editor at the local newspaper in Eagle River. Happy to be working again and excited to be “using my English degree,” I dove in to my job at the paper. So many of my literary idols worked at newspapers: Walt Whitman, Ernest Hemmingway, Edna St Vincent Millay, and Hunter S. Thompson; it felt like the next logical step. I began to practice APA writing style – a departure from 20 years of following MLA guidelines. I sharpened my editing skills. I began looking at “non-literary,” or at least, “non-poetic,” text more visually, thinking more about the ease of read than descriptive content. Though a legitimate challenge for me not to add vivid description and exciting adjectives, it was good discipline. I was forced to convey the information in the minimum amount of words possible, neglect the Oxford Comma, and consider the size of text equally with the content. I was enjoying my position as Lifestyle Editor, especially when I had the opportunity to write a feature article. I felt I was doing well at the paper and was glad to be focusing on writing, even if it was not my own creative work.
To be honest, the prospect of being back under halogen lights after sleeping under the stars for a year and a half made me a bit wary. I missed the woods. I missed being outside. Even so, I thought I would easily be able to work in an office setting again, as I have many times before. But my body was not build to sit at a desk all day. After cramming my legs under a desk and my feet into low-heel boots for a few weeks, my body began to revolt against me. My back ached, my neck tensed, my ankles swelled, my knees cracked. I know I’m 34, but my body didn’t even sound this way when I was trudging through the woods for eight days at a time. I but began to wonder if the setting of my work mattered a lot more to me than I realized.
The only task of the job itself that I did not relish was writing obituaries. Distilling the words of a grieving family to the minimum amount of text possible for print wrenched my empathy and was, at times, excruciating. Still, I took pride in my position. I had the opportunity to do some interviews, take a few photos, and work with some great people.
In the thick of my budding career in the newsroom, we caught a curve ball.
The day after Derrick left his job, we got a call from Blaine, the Assistant Chief of Interpretation and Education at Mount Rushmore. He asked us if we were still interested in the Interpretive Park Rangers position we had applied for months ago. Of course we were! He indicated that he was going to contact our references, then contact us. We were beside ourselves, giddy with anticipation. We had applied to over 100 positions collectively and were starting to resign to the idea that this would not be the year for us to work in the National Parks. Later that evening, Blaine called us to schedule a joint interview with us at 10:00 a.m. the next day.
Derrick and I took a long walk and talked about the new possibility before us. Of all the places we had applied to, Mount Rushmore was an unexpected call. Technically a National Monument not a National Park, Mount Rushmore is an internationally recognized work of art. Perhaps in itself not regarded as much for the natural features and wildlife as other parks, it is situated in the beautiful Black Hills of South Dakota, the beginning of the Rocky Mountains. We tried not to get too excited, but were feeling confident about our 10:00 a.m. phone call.
The next morning we sat together in the living room and waited for the phone to ring. Throughout the interview, we watched a pair of bald eagles twirl and swoop over the frozen lake through our picture window. Blaine alternated his queries between us as we tried to focus to our own answers and not listening to each other. I focused on the eagles and waited to give my next response. At last, we had answered our final questions.
“Do you have any other questions for me?” Blaine asked. Derrick and I looked at each other and shook our heads.
“No, I don’t think so,” I answered.
“Ok,” Blaine continued. “Well, this went really well. I am prepared to offer you both positions as Interpretive Park Rangers for the coming season. Do you accept?”
We couldn’t believe it. We are going to be Interpretive Park Rangers at Mount Rushmore. We will be working 40 hour weeks in “full-time temporary” positions into the fall. Our job will consist of three main tasks: conducting guided tours, working in the visitor center, and making ourselves visible and available to park patrons by walking the grounds of the monument and answering questions. After years of traveling to, advocating for, writing about, talking about, photographing, loving, honoring, enjoying, and celebrating the National Parks, our dream of working for the National Park System has come to fruition. We begin training in May.
Our Next Life Adventure
Since we accepted this awesome offer, we have been pre-packing for six months of life in the Black Hills. I gave my notice at the paper and we began completing the long, winding paperwork trail required to work for the Department of Interior. Before we have to be at Mount Rushmore, we are starting our life adventure with a road trip. A small farewell tour of family and friends and we will be off traveling and camping for a few weeks. Whenever we are not working in the months to come, we hope to be camping, hiking, and exploring. We will be four hours from Teddy Roosevelt National Park, less than two hours from the Badlands, 5 miles from Custer State Park, and living adjacent to the Black Elk Wilderness.
2016 marks the Centennial Celebration of the National Park System, as well as the 75th Anniversary of the completion of Mount Rushmore. One thought that occurred to us again and again as we have traveled the parks has been, “I wish our friends and family could be here with us right now enjoying this.” This life adventure may allow us that exact opportunity. Whether you visit Mount Rushmore or any of the other 59 National Parks or 77 National Monuments managed by the National Park Service, we challenge you to the celebrate the National Park Service Centennial this year. We invite you also to join us in our journey via the blog and encourage you to make this year the year you get out and enjoy the parks!