Saturday, December 10, 2011

Giving Thanks as we Move Toward Christmas

December has arrived and with it a notable increase in cold and wet weather. There continues to be a great deal of uncertainty in our lives right now, especially in the area of employment, and there have been some pretty frustrating hassles and complications in recent days, but in the bigger picture we have a great deal for which to give thanks.

I have begun to settle into the idea of living in our new home after coming back to Virginia following a visit home for Thanksgiving and stuff sorting. I now have a pile of items waiting in Phoenix that Alison and I will attempt to pack into our rented vehicle when we leave Phoenix to drive back to Virginia at the end of January. These things, along with things Alison wishes to add from her home in Livermore and wedding related items promise to do a pretty effective job of filling up both the vehicle and also any available space that we still have here. Things are going to be a bit tight, but we are thankful indeed to have this place to live. It is going to serve us well in the coming months. I have certainly been thankful to have the heat in recent days!

We were successful in finding a bed, which I have enjoyed sleeping on this past week. We have begun to bring Alison's stuff over here, a little at a time, and slowly make the transition to her living here as well. In preparation for the coming holiday we have done our best to make the house as Christmasy as possible, adding our very own tree, along with candy canes, lights, stockings, and nativity. It isn't going to win any awards, but it certainly helps to create a holiday atmosphere for both of our first Christmas away from our families.

Things continue to look promising for me to return to the National Mall as a ranger, though there are still a great many unresolved variables (such as congress passing a budget!), and the timeline of that working out remains in question. Still, there is reason to hope! I also found out that I successfully appealed and was granted in state status (and as a result in state tuition) for GMU for this spring. That is exceedingly good news, and means that I will for sure begin my graduate studies at the end of January.   

Details continue to come together for the wedding, an event which is rapidly approaching. In fact the wedding itself is exactly five weeks from today! There is nothing for which I am more thankful than that in five more weeks Alison will be my wife.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Transformative Power of Love and Forgiveness

"Not long after sunrise on a Sunday in December, a pilot guided a small plane over...the northern tip of Oahu Island...Far above (Pearl Harbor) the pilot counted eight battleships, the Pacific Fleet's full complement... The pilot's name was Mitsuo Fuchida...Behind Fuchida, 180 Japanese planes peeled away and dove for Oahu. On the deck of the Arizona, the men looked up."

So begins Laura Hillenbrand's account of the attack on Pearl Harbor in her book Unbroken a chronicle which she herself describes as "A World War II story of survival, resilience, and redemption." Though the focus of the book is not upon December 7 and the attack on Pearl plays a supporting role in the larger context of the story Hillenbrand relates to her readers, I can think of no better tribute to the men who were lost 70 years ago this morning then the story of Olympic runner and WWII Bombardier Louis Zamperini.

Unbroken is indeed a story of survival, resilience, and redemption. After missing out on the race he wanted in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Zamperini had set his sights on Tokyo where he hoped to have a second chance. Fate, the Empire of Japan, and Nazi Germany conspired against him, however, and his Olympic dreams came to an abrupt end following the invasions of Poland and China and subsequent cancellation of the 1940 Olympic Games. As a result of seeing his dream of running in a second Olympics fade away Zamperini redirected his passion into the defense of his country and began training to be a bombardier in the US Army Air Corps. The story of Unbroken relates a stirring account of the incredible trials and atrocities that Louie went on to face, first at the mercy of the Pacific Ocean, and then at the hands of the Empire of Japan, in particular the merciless and domineering grasp of Mutsuhiro Watanabe, one of the most notorious of Japan's war criminals and more commonly identified by his nickname, "The Bird."

As I read the account of what Louie went through I was overwhelmed with simultaneous feelings of admiration for Louie and anger at the Japanese. I would have left the book maintaining this anger had it not been for the most profound and moving element of Louie's story, which comes near the end of the book when Louie attends a revival led by Billy Graham. For years after the war Louie had been consumed by rage, despair, and a profound passion of vengeance, toward The Bird in particular. At the close of the sermon Graham gave an altar call and Louie arose from his seat intending to flee from the tent and wallow in his anger. Instead, when he reached the aisle he found himself engulfed in memories and his feet led him, not in retreat, but rather toward the altar. The following day Louie left home with his old military issue bible and began reading it while sitting under a tree in a local park. It was in this moment, combined with his experience the night before, that the true transformation of the story occurred.

"Resting in the shade and the stillness, Louie felt profound peace. When he thought of his history, what resonated with him now was not all that he had suffered but the divine love that he believed had intervened to save him. He was not the worthless, broken, forsaken man that the Bird had striven to make of him. In a single, silent moment, his rage, his fear, his humiliation and helplessness, had fallen away. That morning, he believed, he was a new creation."

There was something more profound, deeper, and more meaningful than pain, loss, and destruction, and in the end this something more is what came to control the life of Louie Zamperini.

Louie's story is not unique. There are many other accounts of hate and misunderstanding resulting from the Japanese treatment of prisoners during WWII turned into love and affection through the redemptive power of God's love. Interestingly these stories are not restricted only to those who suffered at the hands of the Japanese, but also to the Japanese themselves. One of the most potent examples is that of the young Japanese Captain mentioned in the opening lines of this account, the man who was responsible for the coordination of the entire aerial attack on Pearl Harbor, the man who gave the command to drop the bombs on that fateful day in December, Captain Mitsuo Fuchida.

As was the case for many of his Japanese compatriots, allied outrage concerning the Japanese treatment of POWs was inexplicable for Fuchida. Under the Bushido code that typified the Samurai tradition of Japan, revenge toward a captured enemy was not only permitted, but was a responsibility in order to restore one's honor. After encountering stories of American kindness toward captured Japanese soldiers and seeing the anger of the allied nations toward Japan for their actions during the war, Fuchida embarked on a journey to try and understand why anyone would treat their enemies with such love and forgiveness.

This journey ultimately led Fuchida to a New Testament where he encountered the story of the crucifixion of Christ. The words Jesus spoke from the cross, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34) arrested his heart and became the catalyst that would transform his life.

Fuchida went on to become a Christian evangelist, traveling throughout the United States to tell the story of a love that has the power to change human hearts. His forgiveness of his enemies extended so far, in fact, that he became a United States citizen in 1966. Among the many places where Fuchida spoke after the war was the Peninsula Bible Church in Palo Alto, California, where he stayed at the home of Alison's grandparents.

One of his last actions as president of the United States was a presidential proclamation, delivered on December 5, 2008 by George W. Bush, authorizing the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument, which encompasses the whole expanse of the many battles fought between the Americans and Japanese in the Pacific and includes the final resting place of the USS Arizona in Pearl Harbor.

The Arizona remains the centerpiece of the monument, lying only 25 feet beneath the surface as an enduring underwater memorial dedicated to the honor and sacrifice of not only the 1,177 servicemen who went down with her, but all Americans who fought, suffered, and died in the fight against Japan. To this day the Arizona continues to bleed engine oil, a poignant reminder of the blood that was spilled 70 years ago. But the Arizona, like Fuchida and Zamperini, is a symbol, not only of pain and death, but also of new life and transformation. Despite the leaking oil the sea has taken over the Arizona, transforming her into an reef filled with marine life. This great symbol and loss and sacrifice has become the progenitor of new life and greater purpose.

This is a day of remembrance for those who paid the ultimate sacrifice 70 years ago this morning, and in the ensuing battle for the soul of the world. But let us not only remember the pain and the sorrow, but rather look also to the new life and transformation wrought by love and forgiveness.

Both Fuchida and Zamperini were men whose lives were intimately tied to the chaos that reigned in Pearl Harbor. Each was consumed by hate and a thirst for vengeance, and each was transformed by the loving power of the cross and forgiveness.

Let us remember their stories this day and join with them in partnering with God to bring his kingdom here to earth and bring about the redemption of his creation.

The mistreatment Louis Zamperini suffered at the hands of the Japanese meant that he would never compete in the Olympics again, but it did not mean that he would not run in them.

In 1998 the Winter Olympics were held in Nagano Japan. The man selected to run the torch through the former Japanese POW camp of Naoetsu (one of the most notorious, and the final location where Louie was imprisoned) was none other than Louis Zamperini.

"On the morning of January 22, 1998, snow sifted gently over the village once known as Naoetsu. Louis Zamperini, four days short of his eighty first birthday, stood in a swirl of white beside a road flanked in bright drifts...At last it was time. Louie extended his hand, and in it was placed the Olympic torch. His legs could no longer reach and push as they once had, but they were still sure beneath him. He raised the torch, bowed, and began running. All he could see, in every direction, were smiling Japanese faces. There were children peeking out of hooded coats, men who had once worked beside the POW slaves in the steel mill, civilians snapping photographs, clapping, waving, cheering Louie on, and 120 Japanese soldiers, formed into two columns, parting to let him pass. Louie ran through the place where cages had once held him, where a black-eyed man had crawled inside him. But the cages were long gone, and so was the Bird. There was no trace of them here among the voices, the falling snow, and the old and joyful man, running."

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Summer of a Hundred Bears

The transition has officially come to pass. I write to you this morning from my new home in McLean, VA having departed from Shenandoah National Park for the last time. I am once again officially unemployed, and am scheduled to depart for Thanksgiving in Arizona later today. When I return to Virginia on November 30 I return in hope that congress will have done something about the budget and that progress will have been made to bring me back into the folds of the park service. I also return to enter into the final 45 day countdown before the wedding. The pieces continue to fall into place to bring that day into reality and now that I am back in civilization it will make it significantly easier to finish the puzzle of wedding preparation.

I am certainly in quite a different place now than I was a year ago as I prepared to finish the last few weeks on the National Mall. Life can change pretty fast.

The eight months I spent in Shenandoah were filled with adventure, exploration, disturbingly stupid and odd questions from visitors, and quite a lot of hiking and American Black Bears.

I learned a great deal about Black Bears this summer as they were one of the most common subjects of questions from visitors as well as the centerpoint of one of the terrace talks I developed. But I did more than simply learn about them. I also had the wonderful opportunity to observe them in the wild in a myriad of different situations. I saw young bears, old bears, male bears, baby bears, mother bears, and Smokey Bear (okay, that was in a video, but I did see him in the park!) All told it was a rather productive bear summer.

Prior to this year I had never had a confirmed bear sighting in the wild. In the eight months that I spent in Shenandoah National Park I spotted a total of 102 bears in all sorts of different situations. Amongst my favorite sightings was the mother bear descending a tree holding her four cubs to chase away a juvenile bear, a bear flipping rocks to search for food in a stream, a bear up in a giant oak tree out on tiny limbs in pursuit of acorns, and the bear I saw traipsing through my "backyard" out my bathroom window. I'd say I improved my bear average a bit this summer!

I also did a great deal of hiking. My most notable accomplishment was completing the 101 miles of the Appalachian Trail that lie within Shenandoah National Park. It was in a lot of sections, but I officially traversed every inch of those 101 miles. I added to that an additional 241 miles of different trails within the park for a total of 342 of the 516 miles of hiking trails that lie within the park. I also doubled up on a lot of the trails and hiked several of them several times. The total mileage that I hiked in Shenandoah this summer comes out at greater than 485 miles.

It was a wonderful opportunity to see and experience the backcountry of the park in a manner unprecedented in my life up to this point. I backpacked in for an overnight trip three different times and spent countless hours on the trails, sometimes in an official ranger capacity, but much more often in my off hours. Considering that nearly every weekend was spent traveling to DC or elsewhere with Alison I feel pretty good about my final tally for the summer!

It is amazing how much things change in a relatively short distance. Last Saturday I made the final trip from Shenandoah back to the DC area and the very next morning I drove from our new home in McLean in to Alison's house in order to go to church. In a matter of a couple of hours I had traveled from a wilderness park to our nation's capitol.
It takes about 25 minutes to drive from McLean to Alison's house on Capitol Hill in DC. That journey takes me along the Potomac River on the George Washington Memorial Parkway (itself a national park unit) and passes within sight of memorials to seven US presidents (Theodore Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, John Kennedy, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson),  Robert E. Lee, and (now) Martin Luther King Jr. Also viewable
(amongst others) are Arlington National Cemetery, the National Cathedral (still being repaired after the August earthquake), memorials to the Navy, Coast Guard, Marine Corps, and Air force, the Pentagon, the Supreme Court building, the Library of Congress, and the United States Capitol. Those are some rather significant sights along the route to church!

We know not what the days ahead will hold, but we know that we are living our lives to the full, in humble thanksgiving for the many blessings that the Lord has lavished upon us.

Celebrate this Thanksgiving holiday in dangerous wonder!

Monday, November 7, 2011

The Final Countdown

The final countdown has begun. We have officially moved into the closing chapter of my time here in Shenandoah. I have exactly two weeks left, ten days of work, and then I am finished. My official housing checkout and inspection is tomorrow morning so we have been doing a lot of cleaning (stove, oven, fridge, windows, bathroom, etc) in order to get things up to scratch.

Nearly eight months have passed since I first arrived here, having little idea what to expect and uncertain what life would be like here in Shenandoah. It has turned out to be quite the adventure and I am sad to see it coming to an end. It has been hard to say goodbye to the many people who have already left, especially since  I still don’t know what comes next, but I have been striving to enjoy these last weeks as much as possible.

There has certainly been no shortage of unique experiences, both within the park, and without, since last I wrote. There is much in the area surrounding the park that I have not been able to explore since I have gone into DC nearly every weekend. A week and half ago Alison and I decided to help change that and joined family friends from her church in California in a grand adventure into the southern Shenandoah Valley.

Much of the trip was spent in Lexington, a charming community at the southern terminus of the valley that features two universities and significant connections to some of the most famous officers who served in Confederate forces during the Civil War. We visited the home where Stonewall Jackson and his wife lived when the war began, and from whence Jackson set off for war in 1861, never to return except for his funeral. We also visited the cemetery where he is interred and ate lunch along the cemetery wall before exploring the history lying inside its gates. We saw his horse, Little Sorrel, as well as the raincoat he was wearing the night he was mortally wounded. Both of these items were on display at the Virginia Military Institute, where Jackson taught natural philosophy and artillery prior to the war. Also in Lexington is Washington and Lee University where Robert E. Lee served as president from shortly after the war until his death a few years later. We saw his tomb in the university chapel, as well as that of his beloved warhorse Traveler.  Also housed in that chapel is the Charles Wilson Peale portrait of Washington as a young colonel in the Virginia Militia during the French and Indian War, the first portrait of Washington ever to be painted, and the only rendition we have of him prior to his role as commander of the Continental Army.

It was a region I have long wished to visit and I was certainly enraptured by all the history surrounding us and could have spent much more time in the area, but we had one more stop to make, this one concerning history of a different century. Our final historical site of the day was the Woodrow Wilson birthplace and Library, thus taking us from civil war to war on an international scale. This destination also marked the third (along with Truman in May and Hoover in June) presidential library/birthplace that Alison and I have visited this year.

Two days later (on Friday) I left the visitor center at 4:00 to walk over to the campgrounds to talk to the rangers there because they were not answering their phone and discovered that it had begun to snow. It didn’t stop until about 2:00 the following afternoon, blanketing the mountain for nearly 24 hours and depositing 10 inches of the fluffy white stuff upon us. That made for quite an interesting weekend!  The three of us who are still living here in Big Meadows  walked over to the visitor center on Saturday morning and ran it for the day since no one else could get in. Both lodges and the campgrounds were quite full Friday night so there were a lot of people trying to leave on Saturday after having that much snow dumped on them. That created all sorts of problems, since many of these people were not used to driving in the snow and quite a few of them did not listen and follow instructions which resulted in cars stuck all over the place due to people trying to get out before roads had been properly cleared. They ultimately evacuated everyone in the lodges and escorted them out of the park in a convoy following snowplows off the mountain. It was quite a day to be listening to the radio!

The drive fortuitously reopened just in time for me to depart for Washington on Monday, allowing me to both visit Alison and to see our new home for the first time. We officially took possession of the place and received keys on Tuesday evening and began moving stuff in right away. It had already begun to take shape as uniquely ours and will continue to do so over the next few weeks as I move the rest of my stuff from here in the park and we craft it into our new home. In addition to moving things in we christened the house by eating chinese food and playing skip bo and battleship on the dining room table that we resurfaced earlier this summer.

The excitement of the new home was marred a bit by the fact that brakes in my truck gave out Wednesday night, creating a rather expensive hassle that we will have to continue to deal with this week. But we certainly still enjoyed meeting the family that lives above us as well as their big fat black lab Buddy and one of the two cats.

My animal encounters this week were not limited only to house pets either. The deer are just moving into the rut, which means the bucks are displaying in the meadow. Then today as I was hiking on the AT I came around a corner and spotted a mother bear and her cub searching for acorns. They were not concerned about me being there so I was able to watch them forage for about ten minutes. Just as I was leaving I became aware of the presence of a third bear which had just come out of a nearby grove of trees and was moving toward the other two. This one was a male, so I am reasonably certain I had stumbled across the famous trio of mama, papa, and baby bear with whom Goldilocks has such a troubling relationship.

So as I enter into the final days here in Shenandoah and begin to transition to a new chapter living in McLean, VA I am reminded of the diversity of opportunities available to us in life and of the importance of training your eyes to recognize them. You never know what might be waiting for you around the next bend in the trail.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Finding New Life in the Beginnings of Tradition

Life is pretty uncertain these days and sometimes hardly seems like life at all so much as continued existence with little direction as to the way ahead, but then divine moments remind me that life is all around me if I have the eyes to see it and that there is indeed direction behind it.  Today officially marks the beginning of my final four weeks at Shenandoah National Park. My time here has gone rather quickly. It is hard to believe that I have been here for seven months. Soon I will be leaving, possibly never to return in the capacity of park ranger. My future with the Park Service after November 19 remains completely unknown. I have now sent out 93 applications for different positions with the Park Service since I began here at Shenandoah and have gotten nowhere with any of them. While that is certainly disheartening I also continue to believe that God has a plan and that the right door will open when it needs to. Apparently it is not yet time for me to see that door! The themes discussed in my last email have certainly continued to be true these last two weeks.

The masses of visitors here in the park have only increased, making for some very long days and also some rather interesting conversations with people who fail to grasp some pretty basic concepts such as the difference between left and right or north and south. A particular favorite occurred yesterday when a man came up to the desk and asked me if the bears were still there. I was at a loss as to what he was asking until I realized that he had looked at the sitings log and someone had mentioned seeing bears a few miles up the road earlier in the day. I went on to inform him that I was unaware of the precise position of every bear in the park, but that they usually were not inclined to stay in the same exact location for an extended period of time. He seemed quite out of sorts regarding this response. That is but a single example of a torrent of such visitors that we have faced in these last few weeks.

At the same time it also continues to be true that little nuggets of wonder arise amidst the repetitive collective stupidity. Such nuggets as the conversation I had with a lady this morning about the development of the Park Service and the ideas that lie behind it, or the gentleman who came in to stamp his passport, adding to his collection of National Park sites he has visited, a collection that currently numbers 386 out of 394 National Park units. I feel like I go to National Park sites with some regularity but I currently have just under 100 units that I have visited myself.

In the midst of the many hundreds of people I have spoken to these past two weekends appeared two couples that were particularly special. Both last weekend and this one of my former co-workers on the National Mall and her husband/boyfriend (both of whom I also know) suddenly appeared unexpectedly on the other side of the desk.  It was great fun to see a familiar park service friendly face amidst the sea of needy and demanding visitors.
Though it was certainly fun to see those faces, it was another face appearing in the visitor center that brought a special kind of joy to me last Monday, the face of my fiancé who had come out to the park to visit and continue one of our newly forming fall traditions.

Among the many activities we found ourselves engaged in last fall were three that stood out as ones we wanted to make a point to repeat. We succeeded, not without some difficulty, in doing each of the three again this year. In so doing we have begun to lay the groundwork for traditions in our new life together even before we are actually married. The first special event came on October 1 when we attended the National Apple Festival in Pennsylvania, like last year consuming all sorts of wonderful apple products (apple sausage, apple cider, apple butter, apple sauce, and apple fritters) as well as branching out this year into sweet potato fries and Wild Bill’s old fashioned soda. It was great fun despite rainy skies and missing the tractor square dancing that we witnessed last year.

Sadly the water filled skies, though not stopping us from enjoying the apple festival, did preclude the possibility of us completing the second fall tradition that night, the largest corn maze in the state of Maryland. Not to be deterred we came up with an alternate plan and last Friday I drove from Virginia, Alison drove from DC, and we met in Maryland, successfully completing all 18 checkpoints in the maze after watching the third transformers movie projected on hay bales. It was absurdly muddy so we emerged a little browner than when we began our journey, but it was well worth the dirt and the late arrival back in the park that night.
Then this past Monday Alison arrived in the park and we spent the next few days enjoying the fall color here in Shenandoah, thus fulfilling our third fall tradition for the year. This time we had her VW convertible bug, which we drove all the way to the southern entrance to the park and onto the blue ridge parkway where we stopped for a picnic, a visit to a historic farmsite, and a game of checkers on the front porch of the farmhouse.

 We have decided that we want to continue to take part in each of these three activities every year that we are in the area, one in each of the three nearest states to Washington DC.

Even as we have striven to enjoy fall here in the mid atlantic we have continued to make wedding related plans and decisions and also try and establish what is needed for us to officially began life together on January 14.

By far the most exciting development in that quarter is that we officially have a place to live. We found a basement apartment in McLean, VA, right across the river from DC underneath a beautiful house in a beautiful neighborhood. The attached picture is of that house (the others are of the apple festival). It seems like an ideal situation for us, especially because the rent includes all utilities, internet, and cable, so we know exactly how much we will need to pay each month. I will begin moving things into our new home when we take possession on November 1 and will officially move in when I leave the park next month. Alison will join me when we return from the west coast as a married couple.

So in spite of the unknown and uncertainty we are finding new life amidst the beginnings of traditions that will hopefully last for years to come. 

Monday, October 10, 2011

Colored by the Tapestry of the Divine

Fall has officially arrived in Shenandoah National Park, and with it a veritable torrent of leaf peepers, journeying to the park in hopes of experiencing the kaleidoscope of color that is fall in the mountains. This sudden influx of visitors (particularly evident on this holiday weekend) has provided a wealth of opportunities to see the human spirit itself in vivid color in hues that are sometimes surprising, sometimes disturbing, and sometimes inspiring.

Congress has once again failed to pass a budget, tabling the issue until November 18, at which point they may or may not actually do something about it. That, in turn, has once again left me in the lurch. No decision can be made concerning possible positions on the Mall until that happens, and the outlook for other positions currently lies somewhere between grave and dire, despite the 87 that I have applied for. Shenandoah is expecting a 5% budget cut next year, which translates into at least two less positions in the interpretive division than were fundable this past year, which does not bode well for me as the newest member of the staff.

In addition to budgetary concerns the park also just gained a new chief of interpretation who is talking about reorganizing things, which could directly impact whether or not I could even be hired for the same position next year, much less move into a role where I could do more interpretive programming.

Alison and I have been steadily attempting to get things done in preparation for the wedding, connected travel, and our lives afterwards, but even as we check one thing off the list it seems as though two more items find their way onto it. We have been doing a lot of searching of late, attempting to locate a place where we can live after we get married, largely without success. Nearly everything is out of our price range, and the one particularly promising lead of a basement apartment in Alexandria fell through when the tenants living above the unit rejected us as a married couple, preferring instead a single individual.

It is in times such as these that faith becomes clearly evident in the way we live our lives. I am surrounded by a multitude of emotions, thoughts, complications, issues, and concerns, and it would be easy indeed to be overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of it all and to lose sight of the beauty, wonder, love, grace, and touches of the divine that are woven into the fabric of our lives with equal, if not greater, potency.

The sheer stupidity and ignorance of the masses can indeed be disheartening. Sometimes I wonder how people even managed to successfully drive to the visitor center and if they have any idea where they are, to say nothing of what a National Park is intended to be. Just today I had one person ask me where he could find the zipline and ropes course, a lady ask me what attractions (such as theaters and rides) were in the park, and another lady completely fail to grasp that the Byrd Visitor Center is named after Virginia Senator/Governor Harry F. Byrd and does not refer to an exhibit about birds, even after three different times of explaining the nomenclature (these being but a few of the many examples that could be given).

But then again there are equally opportunities to be a participant in a divine moment if you have the eyes to see them. Yesterday a woman walked into the visitor center on her 80th birthday, returning to the mountains from whence she had departed with her family at the age of six, 75 years ago when the park was established. She blessed me with several accounts of her and her family’s life here in the mountains including an account of her father and the manner in which he was involved in helping to convince the mountain folk of the value of the park and why they needed to leave, and went on to design much of the park signage while working with the Civilian Conversation Corps right here in Big Meadows.

This afternoon I went out to the front terrace to give a short talk about the American Black Bear, and found myself addressing more than 50 people in what became one of the better interpretive programs I have ever done on a non-historical topic. This program came on the heels of two other notable bear programs given in recent weeks. Last week I pinched hit for one of the interpretive rangers and gave the official bear program up at Skyland (which I am not supposed to be doing, but was asked by my supervisor to do) after which I discovered a male black bear only 200 yards distant from where I did the talk (pictures of which are posted on facebook). The week before I stepped in and gave an impromptu bear talk to a group of high level officials from the Office of Personal Management (the office that all of my applications first go to when I apply for any position in the park service—ie. the people who so often reject me before I get to an actual park official) who were visiting the park.
These were divine moments that transcended the normal routine of life and provided a glimpse into the wonder of the world in which we live.

I experienced a similar moment a couple weeks ago as Alison and I rounded the corner and encountered the magnificent vista of Yosemite Valley lying before us. We could not have asked for a more wondrous day to visit the park and plan out the details of the wedding ceremony and reception.
The visit to Yosemite was but a single piece of our whilrlwind trip to California at the end of September. We drove through a substantial portion of Northern California in a few days, culminating in the visit to Yosemite Valley that resulted in the attached pictures. Upon arriving in San Francisco we drove four hours to Redding for the memorial service of Alison’s Grandmother. That night Alison and I drove from there to Oroville where we spent the night with one of my dearest friends and groomsmen, Andy McCoy and his wife Bonnie. After a quick trip over the Oroville Dam and stop by the fish hatchery to see the multitude of salmon swimming up the fish ladder we headed back to Livermore where we spent several hours with the pastor and his wife, planning out the wedding.
That night we drove down to Fresno so that we could meet with the photographer the following morning before going into the park itself. Altogether a highly successful and productive trip. 
Despite the long list of things that need to be done related to the wedding, much continues to be accomplished, and we are eagerly anticipating the wedding day itself. We finished pre-marital counseling this past week and have nearly finished designing, printing, making, and putting together the wedding invitations. This past Friday marked 99 days until the wedding, so we have finally crossed into double digits!

There are many details (such as where I will be working and where we will be living), that despite my best efforts, we still do not know. That is very difficult for me, but rather than be discouraged by the lack of clarity before us we are instead choosing to let our vision be colored by the tapestry of the divine.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Determining the Course of Remembrance

Ten years ago this morning I awoke to go for an early morning run only a few weeks after beginning life as a college student in San Diego, CA. As I walked down the stairs into the front lobby I was surprised to find several guys in the common room watching what looked to be a disaster movie on tv, a strange occurrence that early in the morning. The oddity of the situation grabbed my attention and I paused to try and determine what they were watching. As I stood there I slowly began to realize that this was no movie; this was live footage from New York showing a flaming gash in the side of the World Trade Center. And then, even as I stood there watching, trying to take in the magnitude of what I was seeing, I was gripped by the image of a second plane striking the second tower. It is a moment I will never forget, an image forever burned into my memory.

There has been much talk and discussion as we have approached the 10 year anniversary of these events. There are many differing perspectives as we stand here now, with ten years of experience with which to judge the events of 9-11-01.  I am writing here this morning to set forth my own humble offering for general perusal.

Tragedies have a way of sticking with you far longer than most anything else in the fabric of human experience. Personal tragedies will often dramatically alter individuals for the rest of their lives. Corporate tragedies have the power to change nations. The attacks of September 11 have proved their power to do exactly that. The nation we live in today is dramatically different than the nation I woke up to ten years ago.

For many of you this is the ninth email that you have received from me on this date. My perspective and thoughts have ranged significantly over those years but the core spirit of reflection has remained the same. Something about this day inspires us to stop and think about what it is that we stand for and what it is that we believe. For what we believe is perhaps the most significant and important aspect of who we are, not only as individuals but as a nation. There is nothing that determines our actions so much as what we believe.

In his recently published book “Love Wins” emergent theologian Rob Bell writes that, “our beliefs shape us and guide us and determine our lives.” In these words Bell joins a chorus of others stretching across centuries of human thought and development who have advocated for the prominent role of belief in shaping the human experience.

There are many ways in which beliefs shape our lives. In September of 2001 many Americans believed that this nation was largely untouchable, that we were divinely destined to prosper and remain at the forefront of the world scene. Ten years later many are questioning those beliefs and considering what it is that both this nation and they as individuals stand for.

We are a nation living in fear of the unknown. That is no more evident than in the new governmental department created in the post 9-11 world, an entity with the sole purpose of protecting the essence of what it means to be American. I refer of course to the department of Homeland Security. One of the more recent innovations to come out of this department is the full body scanner, now conveniently available at an airport near you. To stand in one of those scanners made me feel quite a few distinctive emotions. A sense of deep and abiding security and trust in the safety being provided was not amongst them.

Today we mark the ten year anniversary of the attacks that changed America in the midst of a time of significant recession even as our current president is proposing his plan to pull this country back to a place of great prominence, success, and even envy in the eyes of the rest of the world.  As I listened to the speech he delivered to congress Thursday night I was impressed by the similarity of much of his language to that of his immediate predecessor in the aftermath of the attacks.

Amongst the many statements made by President Bush were the following…

“Terrorist attacks can shake the foundations of our biggest buildings but they cannot touch the foundation of America. These acts shattered steel but they cannot dent the steel of American resolve.”

“America was targeted for attack because we are the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world and no one will keep that light from shining.”

These were inspiring words. Whatever your opinion of President Bush or President Obama, it is difficult to not appreciate the power of their words. Both have the ability to unify the nation around a principle, especially those principles upon which this nation was founded.

And these principles are worth uniting around. There is little of more value than the ideas of freedom, liberty, equality, and opportunity that were so much a part of the rhetoric of our founding fathers. I believe it is to these principles that both Presidents have so often referenced and even paid homage to. And it is belief in these principles that lies at the very foundation of what this nation is meant to be.

This year marks a notable anniversary for September 11. Ten years is oft recognized as a significant milestone and much is being done to commemorate reaching it. One such event is the dedication ceremony at the newly completed memorial for flight 93 in Shanksville, PA. Alison and I nearly got to visit this memorial earlier this summer, but were sadly unable to stop. I have yet to see it, but when I do it will complete the triad of 9/11 sites (along with ground zero at the WTC and the Pentagon in Virginia) that symbolize the tragic events of that day.

Though I have not walked on the ground where United Flight 93 met its fateful end, I have walked on much other sacred ground in this past year and have come to realize that September 11, 2001 is not the only date marked by a significant anniversary this year.

The world “Anniversary” is one that we often use to commemorate all manner of things from
birthdays and weddings to deaths and national tragedies. Simply defined the word refers to the commemoration and/or celebration of a past event that occurred on the same day of the year as the initial event.  First officially applied to commemorate saints during feasts in the Catholic Church, this concept is one that has been commonly applied in recognition of significant historical events that have helped to formulate and define the fabric of our national identity here in the United States of America. The year 2011 marks a significant anniversary of several such events.

This particular day marks the Decennial (10 year) of the September 11 terrorist attacks, but that is far from the only defining and influential moment or development in the history of the United States being commemorated this year. Among the other especially notable anniversaries celebrated in 2011 are the following… 

This year marks the Semicentennial (50 year) of the establishment of the Peace Corps by President John F. Kennedy, an organization created with a threefold mission to, 1. Help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained personnel in particular fields, 2. Help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served, and finally, 3. Help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.  The people served by American volunteers in participating areas often have a dramatically different opinion of Americans than many others who live outside of this nation.

2011 also marks the Dodranscentennial (75 year) of Shenandoah National Park, where I currently reside. Shenandoah was founded in order to provide easy access to a protected wilderness area for the millions of Americans living in the mid-Atlantic region. It provides both recreational opportunities (I have personally hiked more than 250 miles in the park this year) and a venue for re-creation, in which the spirit can be renewed, rejuvenated, and reborn. 

Often overlooked in our history is the Battle of Tippecanoe, the battle in which Indiana Territorial Governor William Henry Harrison successfully defeated the confederation of American Indians led by Chief Tecumseh in 1811. Marking its Bicentennial (200 year) this year the Battle of Tippecanoe was in many ways the final straw for an American people who had grown increasingly perturbed with Great Britain in the years following the Revolution. When it was revealed that British officers had supplied Tecumseh and his men with firearms and munitions, the already volatile public opinion quickly blamed the uprising of Tecumseh’s forces upon British interference. This battle served as a significant catalyst leading to the American declaration of war against Britain only six months later.
But perhaps the most significant of all the anniversaries being celebrated this year is the  Sesquicentennial (150 year) of the American Civil War, arguably this nation’s single most defining experience. You don’t have to know me long to know that I am a huge nerd when it comes to the Civil War. So it has been of great interest to me to follow the various commemorative events centered upon the 150th anniversary of each battle and campaign. I nearly got to work as a ranger at the 150th anniversary of Manassas this summer but alas, things did not work out. I retain hope that I will get to do so at one of the other battlefields in the next few years.

Each of these anniversaries marks something significant that has helped to shape the character of America and determine what we, as Americans believe in, 9/11 no less than the others. So as we remember those who lost their lives ten years ago this day we would do well to remember what this nation stands for, the ideals it is founded upon, and what it is intended to represent. We would likewise do well to take a moment to go beyond our national identity and reflect upon our own beliefs about this world we live in and the role that God is calling each of us to play. Our beliefs shape us and determine the way we live. Let us believe in something worth the believing, in the loving compassion of a God that desires that all of his creation be reconciled unto Him so that each element might both bring glory to His name and live as it was intended to live, in an existence characterized by freedom, hope, community, and love.  

Monday, September 5, 2011

Beware the Bloody Bard of Bears

This weekend, for all practical purposes, officially marks the end of summer. It is the last major weekend of travel and adventure before Thanksgiving.  The weekend will be little different in terms of what I do as I am working Saturday, Sunday, and Monday, but the number of people I am interacting with in the visitor center is dramatically higher than what it has been recently due to all the extra visitors. So my holiday weekend is being spent serving the American public.

That is not to say that I have not experienced my share of adventure in the last few days. Just last night when I left to ride my bike home from the visitor center the road was shrouded in fog and it was challenging to see much of the way ahead. Whenever I am riding back and forth I look about the trees to see what animals might happen to be in the vicinity. This action most commonly results in sightings of deer, turkeys, or nothing. But last night things were different. As I looked down an access road off the main road I realized I was looking at the snout of an adult male black bear protruding from the trees through the foggy mist. I stopped to watch until he backed up into the trees and disappeared. The rise in excitement that I felt from this experience quickly changed as I made the turn onto the road leading to my house due to the dramatic appearance of a second bear (a bit smaller than the first) standing in the middle of the road looking up at me in great surprise. It made for quite the ride home!

If I were to identify a single word to describe the remainder of this past week apart from bear sightings it would have to be “bloody.” That word would more precisely be applied to Wednesday last, a day marked by distinctly bloody experiences.

At the repeated behest of the Red Cross Alison and I decided to attempt the adventure of donating platelets to be used to treat young children and cancer patients. I have donated whole blood on sixteen previous occasions, but had never donated platelets. It is an entirely different experience.
Alison was unable to donate platelets (but did donate whole blood instead) because they could not identify a good vain in each of her arms, for they require both of one’s arms to donate platelets, one out of which your blood will be sucked, and a second where your blood will be sent back into your body. It was a long and rather uncomfortable experience to sit essentially immobilized (as both of your arms have needles in them and should remain motionless) for two full hours watching  while the majority of your blood is sucked out of your body and then fed into a machine and spun around through a series or tubes  before being returned to you once more less an ever increasing number of platelets which are instead sent to a bag hanging overhead.

I thought that the experience would be easier to recover from than a donation of whole blood since very little blood would actually be lost in the process. I could not have been more wrong. I was so impacted that in the cantina afterwards Alison had to hold a can of juice up to my mouth so that I might drink as I was incapable of taking such action myself with either arm.

I have never experienced anything like the draining of life that was donating platelets. Apparently the human body completely recovers from such a loss within seven days, so I could donate again every week indefinitely. Judging by the lack of life and energy that I am continuing to feel at this moment, that is not going to be happening.  Apparently my body does not react well to the loss of platelets!
The theme of blood continued later that day when Alison and I acquired free tickets to and then attended a splendid production of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. The actors did a fine job and the performance was both stellar and memorable, especially since we were seated in the second row and felt as though we were nearly on the stage ourselves.

If you are not familiar with the story of Julius Caesar you would, first of all, do well to remedy that failing, and secondly do well to know that a great many people die a violent death. This particular production did not skimp on the fake blood and by the end of the scene in which Caesar was fatally stabbed the white robes of not only Caesar, but also all eight bearers of the knife and Marc Antony were splattered with blood. It was quite a spectacle.Since Wednesday I have had to be especially careful not to injure myself as the blood would flow freely out of my body as a result of the recent diaspora of platelets. I have restricted myself to an electric razor, fearing the results of an unwary nick of a regular one and made a point to attempt to avoid situations in which I might have to wrestle a bear or fight a cougar.

Unlike Caesar my loss of blood (or parts contained therein) will most likely not result in my demise nor change the course of world history. Nor is it likely that anyone (much less Shakespeare since he himself is rather deceased at present) will either write or perform a play about the subject. So I suppose I will have to stick with bear spotting and explaining to people why it is worth planning a trip more than two hours ahead of time so that there is actually a possibility of finding a room or campsite available upon arrival to a national park on Labor Day weekend.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

A Most Memorable Week

This has been quite a week for unusual weather related events in the Mid Atlantic. Unless you have been living under a rock I can hardly imagine you going through this last week without hearing some mention of Hurricane Irene and her terrible rampage of destruction across the Eastern seaboard. As it turns out the reality for most people in the path of the hurricane ended up being rather milder than what had been forecast (though there are certainly particular areas that were much more dramatically impacted). Such was the case for both Alison and myself. Even so, it was quite an interesting period of time in which to be in the area!

Even before Irene made landfall strange and unusual occurrences were taking place in Northern Virginia. Last Tuesday Alison and I were sitting on the couch in her home discussing some verses in Ephesians and what they revealed about God's plan and design for the world when suddenly the room began to shake. It first seemed as though someone was very heavily ascending the outside stairs leading to the front door and then as though a rather large truck were passing by on the street outside. This sensation ceased after a few seconds but before we even had a chance to say anything about it, it started again, only much stronger and more forcefully. Soon the entire house was shaking to the point where we began to fear that pieces of the ceiling were going to fall on top of us. I was just thinking that we had better move and try to at least get under the table when it stopped as quickly as it had begun.

My first thought was that it had been an earthquake, but I dismissed this thought as impossible considering where we were. That thought as quickly followed by the realization that what my experienced may well have been a shock wave emanating from an explosive attack on the US Capitol, less than a mile down the road. I quickly went to the front door where I could ascertain that the capitol was, in fact, still there, and that there was no visible damage anywhere within view.

It did, of course, turn out that what we had felt was, in fact, an earthquake despite us residing on the wrong coast. We escaped unscathed as did Alison's house, apart from several new cracks and a thin layer of plaster dust deposited upon her bed. Several other structures of note in the city were not so lucky. Amongst those was the Washington Monument, which was severely cracked near the top and lost significant pieces of both mortar and stone throughout the monument.

I returned to Shenandoah just in time to weather the effects of Irene, which really turned out to primarily be a large rainstorm for us, largely indistinguishable from other large storms except for the duration (this was significantly longer than others).

These events certainly would have been enough to make for a notable and interesting week, but the week was made more significant for Alison and I because it also marked the anniversary of the official beginning of our dating relationship a year ago. On Thursday I hiked the trail where we first kissed and I later proposed one year after the former took place. On Friday she surprised me by arriving at the visitor center just before I got off of work, having driven out to the park to spend the evening with me.

Sandwiched in between the aforementioned natural disturbances, these joyous moments officially cemented this as a most memorable week indeed!

Monday, August 22, 2011

Delving Under the Apparent Surface

It is oft stated that looks can be deceiving. Things are frequently described as containing more than meets the eye.  It is unmistakably true that there is nearly always more to be seen if one is willing to delve beneath the apparent surface as it is presented before one’s eyes.  It is equally true that in engaging in such a quest one can find great beauty, once the outer façade is peeled away. It is no less true that, in equal measure, one can also unearth completely unexpected and downright strange apparitions.

In my position as a park ranger it is not infrequently the case that conversations with visitors will fall into the latter category. People are strange. There is really no way around that simple truth. People are strange and do remarkably senseless things. Books could be filled with accounts of such things but I feel compelled to share only a few that I have borne witness to here in the park in recent days.
Last week a man came to the park with a hiking group out of Maryland. No one else in the group knew him or knew anything about them. And yet he came. The group began hiking along the Appalachian Trail in an area of the park where the only trail intersection for miles in either direction is with a trail heading to the summit of the park’s highest peak, this group’s first destination for the day. When the group arrived at said summit they realized that one of their number was not with them, none other than the aforementioned individual. Upon further reflection the other 15 people realized that not one of them could positively state that they had seen this man once they had disembarked from the vehicles at the trailhead. They had absolutely no idea where he was.

This moment marked the beginning of what became a four day search, culminating when our intrepid adventurer was discovered sitting in the middle of a creek, soaked through and having clearly been in the water for some time, nearly at the boundary of the park in an area with no trails anywhere nearby. How he got there or why he possibly ended up on such a course remains a mystery. Sometimes there is simply no answer to such questions.

Among the many people I interact with in the visitor center every once in a while one stands out as particularly unique. Such was the case earlier this week when a boy or around twelve years old obnoxiously and repeatedly interrupted his father as he was attempting to make a purchase at the register in order to entertain all those within hearing with his imitation of a whale. After the fourth or fifth time he engaged in this action his father finally inquired what he was doing, whereupon the boy informed him with an air of great disdain that he was clearly imitating a whale. When he was asked why he was doing such a thing the boy replied, as if it should clearly be obvious without need of telling, that he was imitating the whales which so frequently graced the meadow which he gesticulated toward out the window. Sometimes it is better to not even try to understand.
And yet, in equal measure to such encounters there are also moments that make one’s heart swell with emotion, hope, and respect and sometimes an entirely unforeseen pattern lying beneath the visible surface.

In this last week three such moments stand out in particular relief. The first began with a woman asking me how she might find the Dean cemetery (one of several old family cemeteries’ that are still maintained and used within the park). As I began to describe the location her husband approached insisting that he knew the way. I inquired how he was so sure and he responded by telling me that his grandfather used to own Dean Mountain, that he was himself a Dean, and that his own grave and that of his wife were already laid out in the cemetery. They were at the park to visit their own tombstone.
Just today a young woman approached the desk to ask for a recommendation for a hike, not be any means an unusual occurrence. What quickly marked her as more interesting than the average visitor were the questions she began to ask, questions that revealed not only an experienced hiker, but also  a distinct familiarity with the Park Service. It turns out that she worked for five years as an interpreter at Delaware Water Gap until she finally gave up on perpetually failing to acquire a permanent position in interpretation and took a job last year working at the main NPS headquarters in DC through the SCEP program as a student pursuing her masters degree. I found her situation immensely intriguing as it bore so many similarities to my own. Especially as this very program (which provides continuous employment in a directly related field while one is in school in particular fields of study and results in conversion to a permanent position once the degree is attained) is one that I am pursuing in hopes of doing the very same thing, except that I would go back to working as a ranger on the mall.

I went in to the mall to return the volunteer uniform I had used last winter and to check on the staffing situation as the MLK Memorial is opening this next week. When I inquired about positions being available I was told that nothing could be done until a budget is approved for this next year. But then one of my former supervisors asked if I had ever considered the aforementioned program. I had not. As it happens, I have already been accepted into a program that would qualify for the program and have only to let the school know that I want to reopen my application for consideration for the spring semester to hopefully be enrolled as a student once again. Of course there is no guarantee and this too is dependent upon the budget, which means that best case scenario I won’t know anything until October (if congress actually decides to bother to pass a budget on time this year as opposed to doing so in April), but it is still more reason to hope than I have had in quite a while. Sometimes delving beneath the surface and veering from the well trodden path opens up previously unforeseen possibilities.

A few months ago I acquired a dining room table for free off of craigslist. The surface of this table was badly damaged and looked very uneven and battered, but in looking closer I discerned that it was constructed of good quality wood and that with patience and a caring hand it could be restored to a beautiful and functional dining centerpiece.

Last week Alison and I engaged ourselves in an attempt to do precisely that, to restore this battered and trashy looking table to a symbol of beauty lying beneath the surface. It was a much more challenging project than anticipated and required a great deal of sanding to remove the previous surface and to find bare wood, but we succeeded. And after reconfiguring and reattaching the legs and sanding, staining, and resealing the table we now have a beautiful table, made so through our shared labor of love.

The final moment with which I will close this account occurred yesterday, once again at the desk of the visitor center. A young couple when purchasing several items at the register produced a Grand Canyon Association card. This immediately caught my eye, but I was made even curiouser when I noted that the card was acquired only a few weeks before. I couldn’t help but inquire about the story of how they had found themselves at the Canyon only a few weeks previously (at the north rim as it turns out, as they have deliberately sought the most beautiful, even if more remote, corners of our nation) and now stood in front of me in Shenandoah.

The story that emerged was one of dedication, devotion, perseverance, and inspiration for me in the situation I currently find myself in. They were from Australia, had been married two years previously, and had both long desired to visit the United States but had never been able to do so. So when they got married they covenanted together that they would live as simply as possible, saving all the money they could for as long as it took to allow them to visit the United States. It took them two years. When I saw them they were but a few days away from completing a trip two days shy of three months (so they wouldn’t have to get any special visas) that had taken them across the length of breadth of this nation, with visits to many of the national parks that lie between California and Maine.  On the surface they were but another young couple buying postcards at the visitor center, but in delving beneath the apparent surface I discovered that they were the physical embodiment of a dream made into a reality through dedication and sacrifice.

Yes people are strange. But they are also beautiful. One never knows what one will find when one travels beneath the surface.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Budgeting for the Future

We once again find ourselves on the edge of a precipice, awaiting a possible plunge over the edge into an abyss wrought by the escalating debt of our nation. And once again these matters of budget in Washington have the potential to profoundly affect my life.

I know I can stay here at Shenandoah into November, but after that there is a big question mark. And most parks are very hesitant to look toward hiring anyone as they do not know what kind of budget cuts are going to be imposed. That leaves me in a pretty tough spot.

The same can be said for Alison as she too faces a notable lack of hiring across the government for the same reasons. It is making it increasingly difficult to attempt to make any plans for our marriage and our future together.

Even so, there are many reasons to be thankful and numerous blessings prevailing in our lives.
Chief amongst them at present is that, although the governmental outlook is rather dismal, Alison is starting in her new position at a local Starbucks tomorrow. So at present we are both employed in some capacity. That is indeed reason to be thankful!

I also continue to be amazed that I am being paid to live here in Shenandoah. Although it has been quite hot recently, it is notably cooler up in the mountains than down in the DC swamp and the berries continue to be ripe. Last weekend Alison made delectable muffins with fresh mountain blueberries that I had picked in the meadow here in the park. Yum!

On Thursday morning I hiked out to a nearby peak called "Cat Knob." The name proved to be entirely appropriate as it was along this trail that I spotted my first confirmed bobcat here in the park as it ran through the trees when it sensed my approach.

God is continuing to provide for our needs as we move forward in faith that he has brought us together and brought us to this place according to his purposes. I believe that a way will open, though I cannot see it as I look forward at this time. Even so, it would still be really nice if congress could do what they are paid to do and stop making it so difficult for people like us to survive!

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Setting Forth on a Journey

You never know who you are going to meet or what you might find when you set out on a journey. That is the thing about journeys. They are defined by the unknown, by mysteries and surprises. If you knew what was going to happen it wouldn’t be much of a journey at all. Perhaps that is why the notion of a journey appeals to me so much. Some journeys are epic in scale and others are much smaller. In the midst of the greater journey of life I enjoyed some unique smaller ones here in the park in the last couple of days.

Alison got a job nannying this week which meant that she could not come out to visit me and it made no sense for me to go into DC to visit her since she would be busy for more than 10 hours a day.  So that meant I had the much needed opportunity to both rest and catch up on things here after nearly a month of largely being absent. It also meant that I could do some longer and more demanding hikes here in the park. I decided to do the former today and the latter both Monday and Tuesday.

On Monday I hiked a six mile loop that included the most demanding ascent that I have undertaken in the park. It was ridiculous. One ranger has dubbed it the “Stairway to Heaven” because it seems as though the steps carved out of the steep face of the mountain ascend indefinitely all the way out of the earth’s atmosphere. It feels like that climbing up them too!

So there I was climbing and climbing up these steps when I saw someone coming down toward me at a much greater rate of speed. As he passed he stopped to say hello and in the conversation that followed I learned that I was talking to him in the midst of his third trip up and back down the mountain that day and that he intended to do a fourth. I was struggling to make it up once and he was going both directions  four times consecutively?!?!?

I went on to learn that he was conditioning himself  because at the end of the month he was going to hike to the summit of the highest peaks in Wyoming, Idaho, and Nevada.  He had also recently returned from climbing Everest.

Quite an interesting person to run into out on the trails! Oh, and did I mention he was in his 60s?!?!
Yesterday I decided to tackle a demanding loop in the Northern section of the park that travels up to a summit and down to a beautiful stream, which the trail follows for more than 5 miles as it works its way back up the canyon. It is a hike I have wanted to do for a while, but the loop is 14 miles so it is not exactly possible after getting off of work!

I decided to add a bit extra to the hike and actually did a 17 mile circuit, all of which on trails I had never been on before. I saw two bears and four people in that 17 miles. I also saw two rattlesnakes. I have not seen a rattlesnake in this park before, but within ¼ mile I came across two, or rather the two guys in front of me did about two minutes before I arrived. They were still trying to figure out what to do about the first snake when I arrived and came across the second with me trailing about 200 yards behind. In both cases the snakes were right next to the trail, coiled and ready to strike. With a little encouragement both the snakes elected to move further away, thus allowing us to pass safely. But in either case it would have been very easy to step right on the snake if one was not paying attention! I sure was glad they were in front of me!

But it wasn’t the snakes or the bears or even the distance that was most unique about the hike, it was the berries. I started that hike about 1200 feet lower than the elevation of Big Meadows where I live. That meant that the berries were much riper there than they are here. And since it is perfectly acceptable to consume berries one finds in the park I proceeded to do exactly that.

It began with blueberries, which I picked and ate as I traveled down the mountain to the stream. I was happy with that and figured that would be it for the day, but as I came back up the other side I discovered that the blackberries there were beginning to ripen. So I enjoyed several handfuls of tasty blackberries. I came out to the drive about ½ a mile from where I was parked and could have just walked down the road to my truck, but I knew there was a trail about 1/10 of a mile on the other side of the road and decided to take that instead. It was well I did for on that trail I discovered Raspberry bushes, also with many berries ripe for the picking.

In fact when I first paused and moved toward them I suddenly heard grunting and a great deal of rustling in the bushes about ten feet away and realized that I had unwittingly disturbed a bear who was in the midst of enjoying the berries himself!

So in the space of a single hike I found and enjoyed blue, black, and raspberries, all straight of the bushes as fresh and tasty as one could desire.

You never know who you are going to meet or what you might find when you set out on a journey.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Blessings of Blueberries

I am blessed indeed to have this job. I have been keenly reminded of that fact over the past few days. I am living in an amazingly beautiful place and getting paid to help people appreciate the wonder around them. That is a pretty good gig!

In addition to the general value of working here at Shenandoah these last few days have contained some extra special reminders.

Normally when I arrive at work in the morning there are several other rangers engaged in various activities necessary to begin the day. Yesterday when I walked into the Visitor Center I was the only one in the building which meant I quickly became responsible for doing everything required to open at 8:30 (a task nearly impossible to accomplish in 15 minutes). While that could have been a bit stressful, any such feelings were mitigated by the sight of two adorable fawns curled up in the grass right outside the main viewing windows of the visitor center.

I watched those fawns for a while, but that was not to be my last experience with fawns. I saw another pair of twins driving back from work yesterday and then saw yet another pair and a group of triplets while hiking today. Fawns everywhere!

I also continue to be amazed at what I get paid to do here. This morning I once again got paid to hike several miles along a beautiful trail, something I get to do with some regularity.  But perhaps the best circumstance in my time here thus far happened Thursday morning when I got paid to go out in the meadow and gather wild mountain blueberries with another ranger while enjoying a spectacular spring-like day.

Our lives are filled with blessings if we take the time to see them!

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Life is the Sum Total of Moments Such as These

The theme of the value and significance of moments in our lives is one that has often made an appearance in these emails. This latest edition is proving to be no exception. It has been quite a while since I was last able to write and the intervening days from then to now have been filled to overflowing with memorable moments.

Between June 20 and July 20 I will have spent a total of five nights in my house in Shenandoah. Every other night I have found myself sleeping somewhere else in locations ranging from Washington, DC to Broomfield, CO. These last few weeks have been rather full to say the least!

Nearly a month ago theaters around the country began a three week special engagement in which they showed the extended editions of the Lord of the Rings on three consecutive Tuesday nights. Sadly Alison and I were unable to make it to either the second or the third films, but we did attend the first, watching all 3.5 hours of the extended edition of Lord of the Rings:The Fellowship of the Ring the only time it has every been shown on the big screen. It was pretty exciting, especially since I thought I would never get to watch Lord of the Rings in such a fashion again!

The night after the film we attended a Washington Nationals baseball game, bearing witness to them creaming the Cardinals 10-0. Although this is this is the only game I have been able to attend this season Alison has made it to four more since then!

The following Monday my Mom and Callie arrived in Shenandoah with Alison, joined by Kristen and Corey the following day, allowing us a couple of days of fun and exploration together in the park. The visit culminated with the official 75th Anniversary celebration of Shenandoah National Park on Saturday, June 25. Definitely a week filled with special moments, lots of hiking, and a plethora of blackberry deserts (Shakes, Ice Cream, Sunday, Cobbler, Ice Cream Pie, and Jam that was so good it was like desert)!

I flew out to Colorado the morning following the anniversary so that I could attend the wedding of one of Alison's childhood friends. The next morning Alison and I began driving her car east toward Washington, DC, beginning a three day adventure that resulted in her car finally being with her out on the East Coast (her parents had driven it from California to Colorado).

We couldn't simply drive across the country on the most direct path, but rather had to make a few diversions along the way. These diversions took us to quite a few exciting gems and resulted in us traveling through eleven states including two new ones for each of us. That brings our count for states visited together since Dec. 13 of 2010 to 28 (not bad for seven months!) and my personal count to 42 states in the last two years and 44 states total. We are getting fairly close to all 50!

Highlights along our journey included a brief stop for lunch and pictures in Ogalalla, Nebraska, a visit to a genuine Pony Express Station, a stop off at the Herbert Hoover National Historic Site in West Branch, Iowa, participation in the Taste of Chicago street festival, sticking our feet in the waters of Lake Michigan in Benton Harbor, MI, and a jaunt through Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio. I would certainly have enjoyed more time in each location, but we did have to make it back to Shenandoah by Wednesday night so I could go to work the next morning!

The story continued a few days later when Alison and I successfully found a spot on the grass in front of the Washington Monument for a lovely view of the Independence Day Celebration on the National Mall.

We headed back out toward Shenandoah the following day because I had to be back to take care of cats and water plants. I have been house sitting for the acting Chief of Interpretation of Shenandoah since July 1 which means I have actually had to commute into work each day and also that I have had the opportunity to appreciate and experience the Shenandoah Valley a great deal more than I have before.

When I was picking up one of the items of furniture I attained for free when I first came to DC I also ended up with a raft, which I had never taken out of the box. We figured me living in the Shenandoah Valley was a great opportunity to give it a test, so Alison and I took it out on the Shenandoah River last Wednesday. It performed quite well and we enjoyed a splendid afternoon on the water.

It has been an adventurous and exciting last several weeks and it looks like the next few will continue in the same vein, at work as well as outside of it. I hiked a little over 10 miles in the park today, completing a circuit I had not succeeded in hiking thus far and moving further toward my goal of eventually hiking all 516 miles of trails in the park. I have written several times about my program on the Appalachian Trail which I have been able to actually give a few times in these last weeks, but this past Friday I decided to try something different just for fun and successfully gave my first bear talk at Shenandoah. It was great fun. Everybody loves to learn about bears!

Life is ever an adventure!

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Threads of Connection

Shortly before leaving the visitor center on Sunday I fell into a wonderful moment that I very easily could have missed. 

I was at the front desk when a young girl and her parents approached with Junior Ranger book in hand. As I was the only ranger up there at that particular moment it fell to me to check it with her. Since things were slow and other rangers were soon to return to the desk I was able to sit down with the young lady and really go through the book with her in detail. We spent about 20 minutes going through each page of her book and speaking in detail about her experience in the park. I grew more and more impressed as our conversation continued.

Eight year old Jenna had successfully completed every line of every page in the book. She didn't stop at the 12 activities required or do anything partway. She fully embraced the venture and completed the book in its entirety. Not only that, but everything in it was absolutely correct. There was not an error of any kind to be found.

That alone was enough to gain my admiration and respect, but when I turned to the final page to check on the programs she had attended I was quite surprised by what I found. The second program bore the signature of one of the other rangers, but the first program was a tour of Rapidan Camp given by Martha Bogle, who just so happens to be the superintendent of the park.   I was quite surprised and confused as to how that was possible, but the parents went on to explain that they had hiked down Mill Prong and happened to be in the camp when Martha brought a group down in conjunction with the 75th. When she saw them looking at the trees and working on the book Martha approached Jenna and talked to her about the book. She then took them into President Hoover's cabin and gave them a tour. They went on to tell me that they had not realized who they were talking to until they went on the website later that night and noticed Martha's picture and discovered what her position in the park truly was. Needless to say I informed Jenna that it was pretty special to have that signature in her book!

The significance of this family and the connections to the park did not end there, however.   When I went to sign her certificate I discovered that her full name was Jenna Mather. Since we have a life-size picture of Stephen Mather (the first director of the National Park Service and the man who pushed to have a national park in the east, which resulted in Shenandoah) right there on the wall of the Visitor Center I pointed to him and asked if she knew who he was. She did not, and neither did her parents. I went on to tell them about Mather and his importance for to the Park Service as a whole and to this park in particular. They promised they would go and do some work on the family tree to see if there was any connection!

Jenna maintained a high level of enthusiasm throughout our interaction, and was especially excited about the pledge at the end as well as her sightings of a black bear and newborn fawn. I was able to capitalize on that as I gave her both an explorer sticker (picturing a fawn) and a Jr Ranger Patch (picturing a bear). Her parents videoed much of our interaction and took pictures of me shaking her hand and presenting her with her patch, but allowed it to be her special moment.  

The whole interaction was inspiring. It wove together a geological hike, the interaction with the superintendent at Rapidan, their experience hiking in the park, stories of the sacrifice of the families who had to give up their land in order to make way for the park, Stephen Mather and the National Park Idea, the 75th anniversary, the excitement of seeing a bear and a fawn for the first time, and a general since of wonder and admiration for the park.

I was blessed indeed to be a part of it. 

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Responding to the Call

You may remember that a few weeks ago I went through Search and Rescue (SAR) training so that I could respond to incidents in the park. Last Sunday I had my first chance. I responded to a call with two other rangers but had only made it about 2/3 of a mile up the trail in question when the injured man (who had fallen 50 feet onto solid granite while rock climbing) was successfully airlifted off the mountain in a helicopter, thus rendering us unnecessary. It was well that he was for he was in critical condition and would have faced a six-eight hour carryout had we had to use that option.

Today, however, was a different matter. Shortly after 11:00 this morning a call came over the radio for a medical emergency at Old Rag Mountain, one of the toughest summit climbs not only in the park, but in the state of Virginia. Shortly thereafter the call went out for a litter team and the visitor center received a phone call requesting anyone that could respond to the incident. I was supposed to be going on lunch at 11:30 and then be on the desk for 6 hours this afternoon, but my coworkers said they could find a way to cover without me and I was able to respond.  I arrived at Old Rag with four others and headed up the mountain. We intercepted the litter about 1/4 mile from the summit and were quickly pulled into service as the only other people there were the old rag mountain stewards (volunteers who help take care of the mountain and its visitors on weekends) and two other park personnel.

I spent a substantial portion of the next 3.5 hours helping to carry and maneuver the litter down an incredibly steep and rocky trail. Old Rag is a very difficult trail in any circumstances, and when carrying a litter it is challenging indeed! We twice had to set up a belay line to help control and guide the litter down slick and steep sections.

The task was made more interesting when a thunderstorm hit us out of nowhere, quickly soaking everyone and making it that much more difficult to find good solid footing.

But in the end we got her down, and a woman that would otherwise still be lying in agony on the top of the mountain is currently safely in a hospital as a result of our labors. The experience was a model of teamwork, as we had to communicate to those behind us about what was coming up in the trail and frequently had to pass the litter from one person to the next as the trail was so narrow and steep that it was impossible to walk with it. Six people must always have hold of the litter in order to control it and carry it successfully. That is not easy to do in those circumstances.

With one person it would have been impossible. But with a team working together we got her off the mountain. It was a powerful picture of what a difference one person can make when a part of something bigger.  I am exhausted now, completely physically spent, but it was well worth it. It is highly likely that I will be on a carryout again before too long as it is not uncommon for someone to get hurt in this park, particularly on Old Rag.

So instead of working at the desk I spent most of the day carrying a litter. That marked the fourth day of consecutive work that I spent doing something unusual.

On Wednesday and Thursday I backpacked into the wilderness of the park on a Leave No Trace training course, spending the night sleeping under the stars and learning how to camp with as little impact as possible on the environment. I am now certified as a Leave No Trace trainer myself.
 Yesterday I spent the day in a training course on interpretation and how to develop interpretive programs. So in four days I found myself doing three very different sorts of things.  On the way back home last night I stopped and hiked down to White Oak Falls. On the way back I ran nearly smack into a bear on the trail. It is the closest I have come to a bear thus far and the first time we have been face to face. I also finally got at least some decent pictures, two of which you can find posted in a new album.

So one might say that this has been a rather interesting week!

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Life Gets Busy

Life gets busy. Even when one is living in a National Park, life still gets busy. Too many things to try and figure out and manage can quickly overwhelm even the stoutest individual and it is very easy to lose focus of what matters in life. This past week has served as a significant reminder for me of what some of those things can be.

I ended up driving down to DC last Sunday right after getting off here in Shenandoah to attend the Memorial Day concert in front of the capitol. Alison had gone down earlier and had a spot on the lawn and I showed up in uniform which allowed me to sneak through the security entrance (they assumed I was working the event, which I had last year, so I knew where to go!) resulting in me getting to the blanket where she waited at 7:54 for an 8:00 show. It was a splendid show, honoring the sacrifice of troops past and present, and focusing and the larger ideals that this country represents. I am really glad I got to go. It was a fitting way to begin my week and to honor the memory of those who paid the ultimate sacrifice for this nation. I am deeply proud to be an American, a part of the ongoing story of this country and what it is founded upon.

On Memorial Day itself I managed to escape from a busy visitor center (we logged 2444 people on Saturday and 2500 on Sunday just in the VC, maybe 5% of the people actually visiting the park) and get out on a trail for a couple of hours. It was a hot day, but I still wanted to hike! I hiked about 4 miles on the AT, stopping off to visit one of the shelters here in the park where I checked the logbook to see what the through hikers had to say. I also spoke to five different through hikers along the trail, all five passing through Shenandoah after having already hiked 910 miles, with another 1268 to go. What causes people to take on such an overwhelming journey? That very question is the subject of my terrace talk, which I gave for the first time last Thursday. It is my one chance at an interpretive program here in Shenandoah, and I figured the AT would make a pretty good story!

Today was National Trails day and there were two different special programs at the VC about the AT. I sadly did not get to attend either one because I was stuck at the desk, but I did get to talk to one of the presenters after he had finished. He has hiked the entire 2178.3 miles (give or take--it changes on a regular basis) 5 times. FIVE TIMES! I don't even know how to comprehend doing that! Thinking about such a journey helps to put my own life journey in the proper perspective!

I did have the pleasure of embarking upon my own trail journey yesterday. I actually got released from the desk for an entire day, the first time that has happened since I got here, and I decided to make the best of it! I did two hikes way down at the southern end of the park, which required 75 minutes of driving just to arrive at the trailheads! The first was a 3 miles circuit that included some lovely views and a stop off at another AT shelter where I again consulted the logbook for interesting entries (can you tell someone is looking for fodder for his program?). The second hike was a 10 mile loop which took me to a stunning vista from chimney rock, down to the riprap run to splendid swimming hole (I could unfortunately not partake in uniform!), and along nearly 4 miles of the AT. Now that is the way to spend a day working as a National Park Ranger!

During my travels yesterday I encountered a turkey with four little chicks waddling behind her, a doe and a newborn fawn (I saw another while out hiking Monday; that fawn walked up to me and curled up at my feet!), and a mama bear and three cubs. Methinks is it the time of year to see young animals!

And then there is the wedding. Alison and I have nearly decided on what we are doing for a save-the-date card and also done the initial work to design and set up a website. It is becoming significantly more exciting as the reality of the wedding continues to take shape!

Life continues to be an adventure, and amidst the adventure I continue to be reminded of why I am here at this time in this place and what it means to be a part of the larger story of creation that God continues to write with each passing moment.

Living always in dangerous wonder!

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Blazing a Trail

For the past two weeks much of my time off the desk at work has been spent learning about and designing a program telling the story of the Appalachian Trail. It is really quite a fascinating story and quite a fascinating trail. Did you know, for example, that the 2178.3 miles of the trail not only pass through 14 states, but also involve a total gain in elevation of 471,151 feet? To put that in perspective, that would be like spending five months climbing to the summit of Mt. Everest from sea level 16 consecutive times. Sounds fun huh?  I would love to hike the entirety of the trail someday, but for now am contenting myself with reading about the accomplishments of others and hiking bits of the trail here in Shenandoah.

Just last night I hiked another mile of it as I descended to one of the park's many waterfalls. Hiking the trails here in general is always inspiring, but there is something about that particular trail that places it in a different league. It is a great way to feel part of something bigger than yourself and that is never a bad lesson to remember! It is this feeling that inspired me to use the AT as the centerpoint of the program I am designing. I don't get to do much interpretation here in Shenadoah, so I want to maximize this opportunity! It is just a simple talk given on the terrace of the Visitor Center, but why not make it something more and leave people with something more valuable than information itself?

Life is indeed a precious gift and the celebration of life continues to call to us. As you may have noticed, the world failed to end last Saturday when it was scheduled to do so. Apparently now the date has been revised to October 21. It was rather convenient that it didn't end at 6:00 Saturday evening as that was right in the middle of my friend Wes' wedding, which Alison and I traveled to Kansas City to attend. Instead of the world ending we were blessed with the opportunity to see two individuals join together as one, something we ourselves will be doing in 232 days in case you are not counting down yourself!

When we returned to the house in which we were staying following the wedding we soon found ourselves hiding in the basement in fear of a tornado headed in our direction. Thankfully the tornado did not strike that particular house, but it came pretty close. The next day, after a visit to the Truman Library and some very tasty barbeque we arrived at the airport only to find that our plane was delayed, resulting in us missing our connection in Minneapolis where we would have been stranded had we not been rescued by old friends who lived in the area whom I had not seen in 13 years.  Though delayed until the following morning we still made it back to DC in time to drive out to a pretty amazing ropes course by the name of "Go Ape" in Rockville, MD where we spent more than two hours traversing various suspension bridges, swinging on tarzan ropes, and sliding down ziplines.

It was a splendid celebration of both my birthday and the manner in which our lives have become so intimately connected to each other.   It is sometimes nothing short of amazing how the interweavings of the web of life come together to form new and interesting patterns. As Alison and I continue to look forward to our own wedding and the beginning of our own new life together we find ourselves not out on our own, blazing a new trail through unknown wilderness, but instead walking a path that has been trod by others if we have the eyes to see the blazes marking the way. It is all too easy to find oneself lost in the forest of life, cut off from seeing the path ahead. In such moments the blazes of those who have walked the trail before us can provide the guidance we need to reach our destination.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

A Promise of New Life

It has been raining here in Shenandoah. A lot. The sky appears to have decided it must dump water upon us at every turn. That has made life a bit interesting this last week, especially as I was making several trips to and from the park in order to be in DC for both of Alison's graduation ceremonies this past weekend. It has also come to serve as a powerful picture of the glory of the promise of new life. Each time it rains, as the clouds dissipate, the sun shines forth all the clearer and the land is filled with the promise of life.  It makes me think about the way I look at life. All too often I see the negative side of the "rain"; the inconvenience of having to run through the rain and getting wet, not being able to go hiking as planned, being stuck inside when I would rather be outside, nearly having Alison's graduation ceremony on the mall rained out, having to drive much slower on Skyline Drive due to the rain and fog.  

Thankfully my thinking does not stop there, for those are but a few small areas affected by the rain. This same rain is what has made the waterfalls so glorious. This same rain is what has caused thousands of beautiful wildflowers to spring up all around the park. This same rain is what creates absolutely spectacular depth in the clouds in the sky as it begins to clear. this same rain and the storms that come with it is what held Alison and I captivated as we sat in my truck simply taking in the sheer power of the storm swirling around us. This same rain represents the very force of life itself. 

These last two weeks have been quite busy for me, but they have also been filled with the celebration of new life.  Last Friday my Fiance walked across the stage and received her masters degree. Two days later she joined her fellow graduates in a celebration on the National Mall. Despite having to work the day in between and make several trips back and forth to the park, I was able to attend both ceremonies. It was more than a celebration of accomplishment (though it certainly was that!), it was a celebration of new life and new beginnings.  Tomorrow I go back to DC again, just in time to catch an early morning flight on Saturday to attend the wedding of a dear friend in Kansas City. It too is a celebration of new life as two become one.  

Two days ago four new seasonal interpretive rangers arrived. I have already discovered commonality with two of them, one who worked at Fredericksburg and another who worked at the Statue of Liberty and Petersburg. The latter has both a BA and MA in American history and appears to hold many similar interests to my own. While I could be jealous that these rangers are getting paid significantly more than I am and getting to do many of the programs that I would love to do, I would rather give thanksgiving for the fact that I get to be here at all and also that I have new friends, people while whom I can share both stories and experiences.  

This afternoon I looked out the window and saw a newborn fawn struggling to walk behind its mother. It too was a picture of new life and the promise of change that comes with spring.  So perhaps the rain in life is more than something that gets us wet and makes our lives more inconvenient. Perhaps there is more to the rain than first meets the eye. Perhaps there is more to our lives than we often see. Perhaps new life and the promise of the same is rising around us all the time if we take the time to see it.