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.