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.