If you’re like me, you’ve visited a number of National Parks, you’ve been enthralled by the beauty and variety presented by that great national resource, but your personal list of parks-to-see is long. What to do to ease the craving in between trips to our national parks? One answer: read about them.
Bona Fide Books, a young press out of South Lake Tahoe, has put together for a first anthology a rich collection of essays by writers who’ve not only visited our parks but have spent time working and living in them, in some cases for whole careers. Thirty-plus years. That’s the beauty of Permanent Vacation: Twenty Writers on Work and Life in Our National Parks. Volume 1: The West . These essays present the lives, insights, and secrets of people who’ve not only visited the parks but have experienced them from the inside. A handsomely produced volume, it’s readable, fun, and small enough to shove in a backpack.
I’ll admit: I’m biased. I had the luck to once be the writer-in-residence on Isle Royale National Park, and those three weeks gave me my own taste as a National Park Service insider. But as this anthology illustrates, one park, or one experience, is not like the other. There are stories here you won’t find in any parks guide book. The beauty and appreciation you’ll expect; the dark side of working in the parks may be a surprise.
Joseph Flannery writes about encounters with grizzly bears, secret back roads and buffalo carcasses, the differences between grizzlies and black bears, and the way Yellowstone employees pride themselves in experience: “To have a close encounter with a grizzly is to wear a sort of badge of honor around the park.” Troy Davis, a ranger and biologist at Yellowstone for nine years, tells of the management of the famous Elk Number Six, and losing sleep one night while the animal circled his cabin, bugling. “I spent more time, eyeball to eyeball, with Elk Number Six than did any other human being.” Ruth Rhodes, now a professor of English, spent three seasons working at Denali National Park, and writes of the Dash, the end of summer ritual in which park employees strip down and run three miles, naked, in the frigid midnight air of Alaska, from one bar, the Golden Spike, to another, the Chalet.
There is the beauty and the wildlife: sunsets and sunrises, lush forest, snowy wilderness, elk, bear, wolves, big horn sheep, and brook trout. The geology: mountains, petrified forest, volcanoes, canyons. The process: tents, cabins, employee housing, hiking, climbing, summiting, and river-rafting.
But there’s also the rote work, the let-down, the exhaustion of underpaid drudgery, and the drugs and alcohol, the car accidents and deaths, the dark side of the Park Service, the symptoms of young people together in isolation, working in a dream wilderness but with few other outlets. Melanie Dylan Fox talks about escape during five seasons of work in Sequoia National Park: “It’s easier to rely on the feelings alcohol and drugs evoke than it is to recapture that sense of wonder we all felt at the beginning. We keep searching for the intoxication that the forest itself once brought.” Nicole Sheets, for this essay perhaps appropriately named, writes of changing bed linens, pleating sheets and tucking edges, of being a “lowly drone.” For Sheets, the adage “leave no trace” takes an unexpected angle. “My work succeeds . . . if . . . each guest can maintain the illusion that they are the first people to ever stay in their room.”
Like all anthologies, some essays are stronger than others. The best here tell more than one story, using lyrical prose to reveal something personal. Cassandra Kircher tells of a difficult relationship with her aging father, attempting to understand his quiet, his isolation. During one of his visits while she works in Rocky Mountain National Park, “my father arranges pieces of bark with his foot like he’s playing a game, creating a whole world that is more real to him than the one he is in.” By the end of the essay, caught trout slowly dying in a bucket become a larger metaphor for the reader, for the essay’s narrator. Mary Emerick writes of escaping relationships with men, traveling from park to park, a vagrant seasonal worker with a fear of commitment to anything but her “ancient road atlas.” Janet Smith writes about working in the parks to escape feelings of inadequacy, ugliness: “living—literally—in the shadow of Half Dome equated to a better life.” This type of writing is at once painful, revealing, and gratifying.
Other national parks represented include Mount Rainier, Wrangell-St.Elias, Grand Teton, Petrified Forest, Black Canyon of the Gunnison, and Yosemite. A highly recommended collection that will make you want to ditch your job and pack your gear for a nearest or favorite national park, but with a new appreciation for many of the seasonal and full-time rangers, naturalists, and workers helping maintain the incredible National Parks System that most of us will only briefly get to visit.
Andrew C. Gottlieb is the Reviews Editor for Terrain.org. His work can be found online, in many print journals, and in his poetry chapbook Halflives (New Michigan Press.) Find him at www.andrewcgottlieb.com.