Saturday, January 22, 2011

A Journey to Remember

What follows is a more detailed account of the four week adventure that Alison and I embarked upon the day following my last day of work on the National Mall. I alluded to it in the last message that I sent, but for those of you who were captivated on the edge of your seat wondering what all we had done, this will hopefully satisfy your curiosity. :)

This story begins on a cold Monday morning. So cold in fact that I had to first scrape ice off of my windshield before we could depart. There was a nice dusting of snow on the ground, the first snow of the year in fact, just in time for us to leave. That first day we drove through Virginia, Maryland, and West Virginia to Louisville, Kentucky. We found ourselves driving through a snowstorm from Eastern Maryland, all the way through West Virginia into Kentucky, a perfect way to begin the trip! We awoke to next morning to find that the skies had cleared, which allowed us to stop off at two National Park Sites while heading south through Kentucky to Tennessee. The first was the Lincoln Birthplace where I posed next to the reconstruction of the cabin where Lincoln was born, now housed inside the first Lincoln Memorial, designed by the same man who designed the Jefferson Memorial here in DC. From there we headed a little further south and west to Mammoth Cave, the last major park service cave on my list (I visited Wind Cave, Jewel Cave, Lehman Cave, and Carlsbad Caverns last year), and the longest known cave system in the world. We enjoyed a great tour of the cave, learning far more history than I expected including the fact that during the war of 1812 they had an expansive salt peter mining operation inside the cave to make gunpowder for the American Army.

After a brief stop to take pictures at Dinosaur World, we ate an obligatory meal at KFC before leaving Kentucky. We continued along much of the length of Tennessee from Nashville to Memphis and into Little Rock where we spent our second night. Since we were in Little Rock we decided we clearly needed to stop at the Little Rock Central High School, the site of the famous entrance of the Little Rock Nine in 1957, the first major test of forced integration in a public high school following Brown vs. The Board of Education. Soon after crossing into Oklahoma we found ourselves driving through one reservation after another, poignant reminders of the lasting impact of the Indian Removal Policy and forced relocation of many  tribes in the 1830s. By the time we got to the panhandle of Texas we were getting pretty tired so when we saw the Big Texan in Amarillo we felt we had to stop and take a look. This restaurant is the home of the 72 oz steak (that is 4.5 pounds) and if you can eat it in under an hour you get it for free. If you fail you pay $72 for the dinner. We did not try. One look at a cooked 72 oz steak was enough to convince me that I would never be able to consume that in an hour!

We instead continued on to Albuquerque, New Mexico, arriving late and leaving the next morning to head on to Arizona. We hit snow again as we approached the Arizona border, but it slackened off enough to allow us to make a quick circuit through Petrified Forest National Park before driving along the Mogollon Rim down to Phoenix. The snow came back along the rim, obscuring the view, but creating an impressive winter wonderland! After a night at my home in Phoenix we headed west again, traveling through Joshua Tree National Park on our way to Valencia, California, our destination for the next night. The next day dawned grey and dreary with lots of rain so our trip up the coast was not nearly as impressive as it might have been. Still, we did enjoy seeing the ocean once again and stopped off in Santa Barbara and at UCSB to visit Alison's alma matter.

That night brought us safely to Alison's home in Livermore where we spent the next several days with a side trip into San Francisco to enjoy the sites of the city at Christmas. The next chapter of the journey took us to Alison's family's cabin overlooking Lake Tahoe where we celebrated Christmas. It snowed on the 23rd and started again the night of Christmas Day, giving us a nice white Christmas. The snow was still falling the morning of the 26th, which made for a slow and deliberate exit as we headed around the lake and into Nevada on our way back to Phoenix where we stayed through January 2. Or rather, we stayed in Arizona through January 2. We also took a bit of a detour up to the ranch on the 27th. In addition to celebrating Christmas we also played cowboy and helped move cattle from one pasture to another, fired by Grandfather's M-1 Garand rifle from WWII, and visited the Grand Canyon.

On January 2 Alison flew to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida so she could join her family in watching Stanford triumph at the Orange Bowl. I left Phoenix myself the following morning, driving all the way to Ft. Lauderdale in the next two days to meet Alison and explore a bit of Florida. We first went to the Everglades and enjoyed an incredible array of birds, beautiful sunny weather, alligators and crocodiles, and our 7th National Park on the trip. Before leaving the area we asked a ranger at the visitor center if she knew where we could get a good piece of Key Lime Pie and she immediately suggested Alabama Jacks, a wonderful little restaurant right along the water in Key Largo, just before the bridge crossing the Florida Keys. It was a splendid suggestion and we enjoyed the most amazing Key Lime Pie I have ever encountered before heading north to Fort Wilderness and a Disney Adventure.

In celebration of Alison's 25th birthday we spent the next two days at Disney World, the first day at Hollywood Studios and the second at the Magic Kingdom. Alison wore her special birthday pen and garnered a lot of attention from the Disney folk and we tried to maximize the time we had there. I feel like we did pretty well in achieving that goal. We rode the main coaster at Hollywood studios five times, the tower of terror three times, saw both the big stunt shows (one was Indiana Jones and the other a high speed car chase), and visited nearly every other ride or attraction of note in the park. We began the next day with eight consecutive trips on Space Mountain in less than two hours before spending the rest of the day hitting the remainder of the park, ending with the fireworks show followed by our 3rd and 4th rides on big thunder mountain. It was great fun to stay at Fort Wilderness (the disney campgrounds), especially because that meant we got to take a boat from the campgrounds to the Magic Kingdom.

On Sunday we left Disney World and headed north at last, stopping in Wilmington, North Carolina for the night. We awoke the next morning to find ourselves nearly snowed in so we left rather quickly in an attempt to drive out of the storm. We were already too late, however, and found ourselves right in the midst of it. It was bad enough that I had to stop and put chains on for the first time during our adventure! We did make it out of the storm eventually and arrived back in DC about an hour before Alison needed to go to class on Monday night.

So there you have it. You can officially rest easier knowing the full account of the 8,259.9 mile four week adventure of Garrett and Alison across the country and back again!

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

There and Back Again: A Ranger's Holiday

Life is a journey. This refrain is one that has oft appeared in reflections that I have written, but is no less true by virtue of repetition. Not only is life a journey, but by its very nature an unexpected and sometimes redefining series of moments, connected together in such a way that it forms us into who we are. Our lives are intended to be lived in such a manner, embracing the mystery and the unknown quantities that we are presented with that we might respond to the situations we find ourselves in as best we are able.

I thought I knew what the future was going to hold for me, at least in some respect. I truly believed that I had come here to our nation's capitol to work as a park ranger on the National Mall. I am good at the job, I love doing it, and I appeared to arrive here at the right time to find myself in such a position. On December 12 I worked my last day as a ranger on the Mall, leaving the next morning to embark upon what would become an epic 8259.9 mile journey spanning four weeks and taking me across the country and back again, passing through 18 states along the way. Now I have returned to Washington only to find my hopes dashed upon the rocks of a fairly dismal reality.

Just yesterday I received official word that the upper management at the National Mall has decided to throw out the job announcement that I was in the running for entirely, hiring no one at all for the position, but rather hiring far fewer staff off of a separate announcement that I could not apply for because I do not have permanent status with the Park Service. This decision has come in response to rumors of budget cuts and a hiring freeze from congress and as a direct result of the failure of congress to pass a budget. They are not willing to go through the process of hiring from that application with the ominous shadow of congressional inaction and potential budgetary reaction hanging over their heads. Unfortunately for me that undercuts any chance of me being hired in a permanent capacity on the Mall.

So here I am, back in Washington with a rather large gaping canyon in front of me. It is a canyon I do not know how to cross, a canyon I had genuinely thought I would not have to cross, a canyon of uncertainty marked by the reality that the decisions of those in managerial positions and those who sit in the halls of congress have dramatic impact upon the lives of people like me. It is a place I did not want to be, a place I did not think I would find myself, a place that tries the souls of man. But here I find myself all the same. I don't know how I am going to pay rent next month. I don't know how I am going to live here for very long at all. But I do know that God called me to this place on purpose, and that that purpose has not yet been fulfilled. I thought I saw the path laid out before me, but I have been reminded that you can never be sure about such paths. Life is by nature a journey, a journey characterized by uncertainty and mystery.

In my way of thinking I can't understand why things would point so clearly toward me getting a permanent position on the mall only to have the rug pulled out from under me entirely. It doesn't make sense. But that is exactly what it is, so now I have to decide how I am going to react.

It is well that this news has come following the aforementioned cross country journey and not in the midst of it, as I very well might not have taken the trip at all had I known with certainty that this was coming. Instead I was blessed by the opportunity to see much of the country I had never seen before, visit seven national parks (Mammoth Cave, Lincoln Birthplace, Little Rock Central High School, Petrified Forest, Joshua Tree, Grand Canyon, and Everglades), spend time with Alison and her family in California, visit Lake Tahoe in the majesty of a winter wonderland, watch the snow fall upon the lake on Christmas Day, receive and fire my Grandfather's M-1 rifle from WWII, move cattle across the ranch on a beautiful winter day, spend time with my family in Arizona, and visit Disneyworld for two days on Alison's birthday.

Now in coming back from the journey I have found myself upon another. I had expected to return more like Bilbo in The Hobbit having triumphantly completed the journey and committed to settling back into normal life. Instead my return to the shire is much more like that of the heroes of Lord of the Rings in the part of the story they left out of the film version. Sometimes the homecoming turns from relaxation and triumph into the beginning of another journey, another task, another kind of story altogether. But the shire is still there if you look for it.

It would be easy to be embittered against congress, against management, against the park itself. It would be easy to focus on the negative, to feel deceived and abused, taken advantage of and used. But that doesn't make for much of a story. A year ago I stood at the place where Martin Luther King Jr delivered his "I have a dream" speech, facing a crowd of more than 500 people as the stereo broke, leaving me stranded just as I most needed the assistance. I found myself at a crossroads and in that moment, when I embraced the opportunity and decided to give the speech myself, I set myself on a course. It is a course I am still walking today. So rather than wallowing in despair I went to work again yesterday, one year after that experience, this time attired not as a ranger but as a volunteer.

The day was completely different. Whereas last year was a beautiful sunny day and thousands of people came out looking to see the place where the speech had been given, yesterday was cold and dreary and far fewer people came out. I didn't give the speech before a crown of 500 people. But I did make a difference to some. I spoke to one woman from Germany for 25 minutes, painting a picture of why that speech and the events of that day were significant and exploring the true meaning of freedom. Perhaps that conversation is the reason I went out as a volunteer and froze yesterday. Perhaps there is a larger purpose and plan at work. Perhaps I will never know. Perhaps, in the end, it was one moment of many that make up a life, moments where we have to decided how we will view the circumstances we find ourselves in and how we will respond. Moments when we must determine what is worth fighting for and how we will use the time we have before us. Moments that come to define our purpose and existence upon this earth.

In the end the words of Gandalf continue to ring true, that all we have to decide is what we are going to do with the time that has been given to us.