Tuesday, April 15, 2014

SOJOURNING IN THE DESERT: The Nature of National Park Volunteering

My first desert was the Rub Al-Khali in Saudi Arabia, where my father worked as a geologist, and where I spent formative childhood years. I was not to make the desert my home again for another thirty-three years when I began to live and work in America’s desert.

Each spring of the last ten years, I have been part of a volunteer wildflower project in national parks. The project is my husband’s and now over 350 of his watercolors are on the NPS web site under Traveling Artist Wildflower Project. Many are flowers that I scouted for him as I learned to solo hike in the wilderness and contend with my fear of snakes.

Our path to living and working in national parks has been an untraditional one. Upon high school graduation, I bought a sleeping bag rated for 30 degrees below as if the wilderness were my next destination. But that took decades. National parks as our springtime home occurred in middle age when the prospect of the children we hoped for was gone, and my husband and I began to explore the other eggs in our basket of dreams.

You might think of us as middle age dropouts, though in truth what made our dream possible was our self-employed, low-budget lifestyle, along with renting out our house back east, returning in debt and working hard to pay that off each year.

Volunteering in national parks became the convergence of many different dreams. The land had always been important to me—from wearing a homemade conservation education placard on the playground for the first Earthday to organizing public land beautification in my own Washington, DC neighborhood.

I inherited no aptitude for science from my father, whose example started me on this journey with the land. But in living among national parks, my understanding of landscape and ecosystems evolved. I learned bite size pieces of natural science by taking classes at a few of the field institutes at national parks like Joshua Tree and Yellowstone. First I chronicled my experiences in letters, and later promoted conservation and environmental awareness through radio essays and articles. In the early years we hopped from park to park, as many as five in a three-month season. Eventually longer stays at a single park were more satisfying and less stressful. A few parks we returned to—Carlsbad Caverns, Canyonlands and Capital Reef, with the Mojave Preserve south of Las Vegas becoming our mainstay.

Each year we left earlier and earlier, and stayed longer. One year we went during fall as well, which meant different flowers in bloom—Saltmarsh Aster and Alaklai Crucifer, sunflower family perennials reblooming if there was a late summer rain, and a chance to experience the desert in another season. During the months back east, random images from my digital archive of photos, taken at what ultimately added up to a dozen national parks, would flash across my computer in screen saver mode. These reminders of our western park life were transported into the heart of our urban existence, and I began to enjoy telling people we were “bi-coastal.”

We didn’t need the same instant gratification as drive-through visitors or those constrained by the desire to jam in as much as possible during a few days or a week. We were there to stay for awhile. We were already off the beaten track, not at the top ten most visited parks, but the ones I would put on a “B” or “C” list. This meant hiking without running into anyone, no crowds, open roads, and still gobs of geological grandeur.

I’ve felt the length and breadth of this land flow through me as I traversed so many of our United States on our annual drive cross country to national parks. Driving to a park assignment meant seeing windmills still pumping, rough-hewn juniper fencing, an oil derrick in the middle of a corn field, and one ecosystem slowly giving way to another. Favorite stretches still stick with me—Highway 40 west of Albuquerque, the rolling ribbon of Route 180 across west Texas, Route 261 through the Valley of the Gods, Utah. And, most importantly, the towns—Torrey, Moab, Alamogordo, Nipton, and Carlsbad—near national parks whose amenities would define our access to simple pleasures like fresh produce or library books.

We have sometimes followed ancient routes of exploration, migration, trade and communications or military action to get to these parks. I would think of the early Anglo explorers who might cover just 20 miles a day, perhaps with a long line of mules carrying woolen goods from Santa Fe to the coast, while we covered 450 miles, vistas flying by, framed by the windshield. Sometimes, I’d be so over stimulated from the views leading up to the park that I’d hide indoors with a book my first days. Once settled in, the enduring landscape outside our front door became ours too, ours to hold any time of day or night. The luxury of this was implicit, especially in parks with no lodges of their own nor nearby motel.

There’s nothing like becoming intimate with a whole new horizon, such as a forty mile sunset over the Clark Mountains of the Mojave Preserve. We’d arrive looking like the Beverly Hillbillies: our pickup truck mounded with bicycles, cooler, gasoline canisters, clamp lamp, linens, radio, star chart, cheese grater, audio books, scrabble, and a multitude of sundry items to outfit a usually barren accommodation with a bit more comfort. I felt like a migrant worker setting up house in so many locations with bare necessities.

All this park homemaking fell to me, and I enjoyed the nest building, other than arriving at a dirty house. On grocery runs, I would track down a thrift shop or a yard sale for a rug for beside the bed, pans to replace ones with flaking Teflon, lamps to read by. Living at high elevations, like at Guadalupe Mountains, finally those cake mix directions on adjusting temperatures when baking over 3500 feet were relevant.

My role with the Traveling Artist Wildflower Project was evolutionary. Foremost, I was an eagle eyed flower scout, but also the trip organizer and researcher, marketing and grant writing assistant, helpmate and cook. Being an adjunct to my husband’s project was an interesting shuffle in the dynamic of our marriage, for my career had generally been more lucrative than his; and, I welcomed this shift.

Because our housing arrangements varied so greatly, we tried to arrive with no expectations. Sometimes we lived off the grid in a research facility where it was a major drain on the solar batteries if someone left the coffee maker on. We also lived in an 1840s adobe house overlooking the Rio Grande, a dry walled shed without a bathroom, many a nice pre-fab house, former army officer quarters, as well as a Civilian Conservation Corps built stone house that had the feel of a monk’s cell. It had beautifully white washed adobe walls, a bare ceiling bulb which moths, large and small, whirled around in the evenings while we read, and two iron army cots pushed together with old mattresses clad in blue striped ticking. At Zion we had to camp. Other times, it was group house living, with everyone else a twenty-something—kids who could have been ours. The anomalies to life back east could be dramatic. We lived without television but with hanta virus. We lived on a former underground nuclear test site where residents were offered free annual radiation tests. We lived with huge spiders, and once even a baby scorpion that crawled across my pillow while I lay reading.

We could go three months without a drop of rain, but a five minute spell; or arrive to find a late last snow and the sere desert fogged with rime. The wind could blow sand so insistently grains would lodge between my teeth. Out here guns were recreation not urban violence, and people, including park volunteers living on the cheap, hunted on public land for their daily meat. We lived with a kind of scarcity and isolation that evoked an earlier era, a simpler lifestyle. For entertainment, we might start a scrabble game over breakfast, continue it over lunch and finish it with dinner. We’d make up different rules, work collaboratively to fill all four corners of the board. If we weren’t on the trail eating peanut butter and jam sandwiches hiding from the sun in a declivity, we would siesta during the heat of the afternoon, then go back out until the sun went down.

In the early years when cell service from parks was rare, we used our own walkie-talkies, and there was limited internet access from the park office. Library privileges were a boon. Being far from medical care didn’t matter until my husband broke a crown while we were at Bryce Canyon, and had to drive the two-plus hours to Cedar City to get it fixed.

Arriving at each park for the first time was like starting a new job, laced with fear. Each park had its own management culture with different rules accentuated. Some rules weren’t clear until you broke them. Sometimes we felt resented for our independent status, for raising funds to support our work. Among the unspoken tensions, that varied from park to park, was that volunteers were making it easier for management to not fill vacant staff positions. Yet there were also staff and others who went out of their way to share something special. At Capitol Reef the maintenance manager, a Mormon church elder, took us out horseback riding. An astronomer who was a park contractor at Joshua Tree took me to a hidden spot to watch an ancient spring equinox ritual: the sun coming through a crevice in boulders above us and arcing across a flat stone into a hand-carved pocket.

From park insiders and locals came all-important tips on where to find treats: unadvertised fresh smoked trout for sale two towns over out of a cheese factory; the free day-old wholegrain bread for the taking at the community center; and local honey sold out of a self-serve trailer. Tips on trails, the locations of ancient rock art and granaries not on any guide, and favorite spots helped us sort the plethora of options: “When you get to Grand Staircase-Escalante don’t miss the hike to the Lower Calf Creek Falls,”…which turned out to be a glorious 126 foot waterfall at the end of a three-mile trek on a very hot sandy trail, and well worth it.

Water in the desert was always worth searching out for the respite and the flowers one was sure to find. I’ve hiked an old sheep herder’s trail, along the still visible wheel ruts of the Butterfield Stage Coach, and in footfalls of the Old Spanish Trail, my solitary strength augmented by UV filter sunglasses, SPF 45 sunscreen, and a boatload of supplies on my back.

I thought I was roughing it, living an empty hour’s drive from a grocery store. I would lie down and read along the trail to keep my husband company while he drew, getting comfortable on rocks using the padding of my backpack. Often all it took was shade to get comfortable. I was finally living my dream of a rural western life.

To better understand the land, I read John McPhee and other famous naturalists to learn the words to describe landscape, the poetics of naming and defining, the terms of geology and biology, and I listened for regionalisms: washboard road, fossil water, escarpment, talus, endemic, refugium, desert varnish, alluvial fans, bajadas. I learned the colorful common names of the local native flora: Pink Ladies, Bastard Toad Flax, Princes Plume, Teddy-Bear Cholla, Paintbrush, Mormon Tea, and Western Wallflower.

By returning to the Island in the Sky area of Canyonlands I saw how the Sego Lily could uniformly be cream one spring and pink the next—the scientific conjecture was that this color difference was due to precipitation. And, I learned that it was the plant community which defined which desert we were in—Chihuahuan, Sonoran, Mojave or Great Basin.

Woody Guthrie’s line from his timeless song of my childhood: “This land is your land…this land is my land,” resounded in my mind. But lots of other people felt that way too—miners, rancher, and townspeople. And some, quite vocally, didn’t like the park service, and let me know it.

The anti-federalist mentality of the west had found an accessible target in public land managers. I learned quickly the importance of understanding place beyond its natural beauty, that there was always a dynamic between “townies” and “parkies,” as I thought of them. Much antipathy was focused on the conversion of private land to public at the Mojave Preserve—a relatively new unit in the park service. Locals would complain that the National Park Foundation or Nature Conservancy had swooped in and bought land before any private owner could, and then donated it to the park. This fundamental distrust seemed to be intrinsic to the prototype western personality.

The politics of land management in the west was another education. I wager not many east of the Mississippi know that in states like New Mexico, Utah and Nevada, the federal government owns well over 50% of the land, which is managed by the Interior and Agriculture Departments. State culture imprints park culture in places like prideful Texas and Mormon-dominated Utah. In New Mexico, the diversity created by the dominance of Hispanics and Native American culture was a welcome relief.

Politically, living in parks mostly meant living in a “red” state. Living in parks also meant acknowledging the first residents, the indigenous peoples. I would hike to see ancient Native American petroglyphs and pictographs, saddened to see where defacers had come in and sawing off panels to sell; to see the stone-built Native American granaries still standing, hidden under ledges. 

Park land before it was used by homesteaders, miners, ranchers, or for a fort or encampment, was most likely tribal land first. The townspeople today who expressed their violation by the federal government rarely seem to acknowledge that their forbears were trespassers on Native American land.

Parks are where all these layers of history co-exist and are at least brought to light in handouts or the visitor’s center, such as at the Mojave Preserve’s beautifully restored Mission Revival railroad depot (the building a piece of history itself). The park communities we lived in primarily housed park rangers, though many lived off-site, commuting long distances. Other residents were a mix of researchers, “SCAs” (Student Conservation Association volunteers), “seasonal” (temporary summer staff), and more traditional volunteers whose jobs were helping in the visitor center. There were occasional temporary residents, like the roving firefighters who came in for a prescribed burn and seemed like modern day outlaw cowboys. And there were the perennial invasive species eradication workers—a dismal starter job for somebody with a biology degree.

Because of the competition for limited onsite housing, we sometimes had to find a place to live outside the park. We’d look for commonalities to make overnight friendships for the duration, and found easy camaraderie with the researchers and the SCAs. Some friendships formed over shared meals or memorable hikes have lasted, and we meet up out west or they visit D.C. and stay with us. 

The serendipity of human contact could bring the vastness of America down to human size, especially when I met a ranger at White Sands who turned out to be my high school principal’s son. 

Some insider knowledge was sobering. We befriended a law enforcement ranger at Canyonlands and heard about search and rescue versus recovery missions, mostly over cliff sides. When he came to D.C. to be decorated for heroism we went to the ceremony.

The more common downside of park living was not life and death scenarios, but that it could take a gallon of gas to go buy gas. Pre-9/11, we worked at two parks on what was then the very porous Mexican border where the interdependence of the communities on either side was very evident. It was at Organ Pipe Cactus that I first saw a group of illegal immigrants coming across. A ranger later told me that 1500 poured through per week as tracked by satellite photos. We saw water jugs spray painted to match the sand.

At Big Bend, the little town of Santa Elena, directly across the Rio Grande, bought its electricity from the park because they were so remote from Mexican infrastructure. It’s hard not to have your politics affected by exposure to such border realities. Being easterners we were regularly treated to rude comments, which we generally took in stride, not wanting to reinforce negative perceptions of Washington, DC.

The animosity towards a park could be dangerous, as when my husband was instructed not to go into the nearby Pine Ridge Reservation in his park uniform, never alone and never, ever, at night. Parks exist in a context of not just the history within their own boundaries, but more broadly of the region. There is a strong sense of connectivity and responsibility to the past in areas, now sparsely populated, that once held more people before conversion to public land.

Many locals took their history seriously enough to found a surprising number of one-room museums in their small towns, including Shoshone, Searchlight and Barstow. These eclectic collections captured life before the parks, from Paleolithic bones to ranch relics, ore samples to grain grinding stones called metates. Just like the sensitive issue of unrepatriated Native American remains, environmental management issues could be contentious. While visitors from afar appreciated park staff, attending public meetings with the community, I witnessed the fundamental distrust from the environmental activist quadrant. In essence the parks could get verbally swatted from all sides.

The first few years we lived in parks, we were startled how white both staff and visitors were. Coming from a diverse city and a highly integrated neighborhood, it was an adjustment we had to make, but it bothered us. The exceptions were parks in northern New Mexico. Mixing with foreign tourists or even an overseas volunteer could easily be the most diverse and cosmopolitan experience to be found in the middle of nowhere. While volunteers do quite a few unusual jobs like archeological scuba diving, dusting the Statue of Liberty and picking up turtle eggs, few are self-starter projects like my husband’s.

The support of the now former chief of interpretation was sometimes a critical door opener, but mostly it was the willingness of an individual ranger in interpretation or natural resources at any given park who decided it was worth his or her time to fit in something unique that would surely add to their work load.

Living and working in proximity to wildlife is one of the greatest gifts of national park residency. It takes living in parks to log encounters like my first and only Gila monster sighting. It was dusk, our last hike at Big Bend and there it was lumbering across a sandy wash. I knew how rare the Gila were to see (it was another seven years before I saw another, this one a captive on display, its knobby skin leaving patterns in the sand like those in a Japanese garden).

At Carlsbad Caverns, I woke before dawn to watch 200,000 bats swishing overhead into their cave, including the stragglers after the sun had come up. Hordes of visitors were relegated to watching them fly out of the cave at dusk before their 45 miles drive to the nearest motel. At Carlsbad, I also helped band cave swallows, untangling their trembling bodies from the net stretched to catch them.

My scorpion and snake encounters gave me bragging rights, and bespoke of my sensitized peripheral vision. One week, I saw five endangered Mojave tortoise—more than I had seen in three spring times. At Agate Fossil Beds, I watched a huge 40 poundish snapping turtle dig a shallow hole in a dirt road and lay eggs. Hiking where there were mountain lion warnings, I would carry a fist sized rock in my pocket.

One had to get used to being in proximity to wildlife if not contact. I liked to be the lead hiker, to have my view unfettered. That is probably why I saw snakes. If I averaged one a month I felt lucky—and that sighting usually lasted just a second or two as it slid away. Snakes didn’t want to encounter me anymore than I did them. The mantra in snake country is to always look before you step or set your hand down. Rare was the long languorous look at a huge rattle snake, but I had it, and my hiking buddy’s picture of it is on my fridge to prove it.

No matter how long we stayed in a park it was never enough time. There was always another trail I wanted to hike, a sense of so much yet to learn and discover. In my decade in the parks, I came to appreciate common disparaged flora like the creosote bush, whose density and height might fill the distance with yellow blooms and greenery. And, also to see flora that did not bloom every season but only in a spring following a year of heavy rains—the Joshua Tree’s football size blooms in profusion. And, to experience a once in a 100 years blooming, after unprecedented fall and winter rains, when dormant seeds sprang to life, and the wildflower profusion made international news. I relished finding a new to us species, an uncommon one, or a surprising multitude: the first Ajo Lily we’d ever seen; Supreme Sage—a rarity among a common desert genus; 25 brilliant orange Mariposa Lilies along a single trail; the spark of color up a cliff that turned out to be an Alcove Columbine. It was the thrill of being a flower hunter or discovering idyllic growing conditions in the midst of an arid setting—like at Zion, where I found a Shooting Star growing in a drip garden on a cliff side.

Our experience living and volunteering in national parks—begun quite simply as an offer to exchange botanical illustrations for housing—has ultimately led us to opportunities on public land managed by other Interior Department agencies—the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, including caretaking a historic ranch. But, after ten years of being bi-coastal, my need for friends, community and a blue-state social life has become too necessary a component of my daily life. And, I am tired of the long haul cross country. So our public land assignments are shorter, and consequently we fly in like the visitors, though I can name the mountains as we fly in. 

Back in D.C., I don’t have to go down to the Washington Monument or all the other memorials managed by the NPS to indulge in a national park foray. It turns out there is a piece of national park in my own backyard—a one block square of it—Ft. Bunker Hill, a high point, that once guarded the city during the Civil War. The trees I see from my kitchen windows grow on that high point. I was thirteen when I saw my cousin perform in a naturally set amphitheater there in a production put on by a local theatre group. Now a neighbor has started a non-profit to help restore the amphitheater and clean up the park. I probably won’t join this effort, having already done my stint of urban public space restoration. My conservation aims are more tied to the unspoiled now.

My dream is to go further afield—to volunteer and live in national parks in other territories, other countries. We have taken a step in that direction. Soon, we are going for a month to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Refuge on the island Vieques, off Puerto Rico’s mainland, where my husband will paint tropical native flowers. This adventure will be in ecosystem so different from the American Southwest. It will be lush, green, temperate.

After having crossed the deserts, we will find ourselves on the shore of what might be another promise land.

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