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 fa├žade 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!