14 Things You'll Learn Working for the Park Service
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14 Things You'll Learn Working for the Park Service

From Band-Aids to Wool Class A's, You'll See It All

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14 Things You'll Learn Working for the Park Service
Jane Poss

America’s National Parks: Protected havens of beauty, wilderness that stretches as far as the eye can see, and that one trip to Yellowstone when you were ten that you sorta-kinda remember that’s part of everyone’s childhood. And the bastions preserving and protecting these natural wonders? Rangers, the smiling, green-and-grey-clad, funny-hat-wearing part of the furniture that keep the whole damn place running.

Growing up as a kid with outdoorsy parents who’d rather hike to a glacier than drive up to Old Faithful, I spent a good chunk of time in National Parks, both the many in South Dakota and in other places. I saw all kinds of rangers, but never gave them any further consideration than that they worked there, and that was pretty cool.

I didn’t know anything about the Park Service, like that it’s part of the Department of the Interior (but started out as Department of Defense, hence the paramilitary uniform), or that according to studies (link) it’s the government agency with the highest fatality rate, or that there’s (x number) (link) of those flat-hatted minions running around in every field and department you can think of. So why would some idiot want to work there? Apart from the whole, you know, backstage look at America’s beautiful places and a cushy government job where you get paid to do outdoor recreation.

Flash forward ten years, and my first real-life grown-up job is as an intern at Badlands National Park. I got the uniform and the GS pay with a whole ton of experience in a lot of different areas, the variety of which would probably fill several volumes. Yes, I did do my fair share of punching rattlesnakes in the face, but, in a brief summary, here are the 14 things I learned working for the National Park Service:

1. How to repeat yourself

They tell you the first day that you will get the same questions over and over and over again. Some of them are pretty understandable, like “How did the Badlands get their name?” or “How do you tell the difference between a rock and a fossil?”… and some of them are “Where’s the bathroom?” The old adage is that even if it’s the thousandth time you answered it, it’s the first time that person has asked that question—and it’s true. It’s not just questions either—you give the same information and the same directions over and over again, and it’s not as bad as it sounds. Someone walks in while you’re talking about the story behind that really cool Nimravid skull? Bring ‘em up to speed and keep going. It’s cool stuff.

2. Basic first aid

Once again, your first day they will give you a first aid kit. A big first aid kit. You’ll think “oh, this is probably overkill,” but no matter how boring of a desk job you think you have you will use it. I have had people come up to me on the trail or at the desk with anything from skinned knees to badly broken wrists and I have gone through the contents of that first aid kit more than once. You will see so many minor injuries and go through so much Curlex and every time someone comes in you’ll learn something. (You’ll also learn the line between ‘minor medical’ and ‘call the EMTs’.)

3. How to be responsible

People come up to you with questions, with a lost kid, or maybe injured and bleeding—they range anywhere from slightly miffed to completely freaked out, and you have to be the responsible adult and either handle it or get them to the person who can. You’re a uniformed representative of the NPS, and you learn to take it seriously.

4. How to be polite (no matter what)

The vast, vast majority of people you’ll see will be nice. The minority will be rude, brusque, condescending, racist, or flat-out batshit crazy. You’ll see all kinds, put up with all kinds, and be civil to all kinds. No matter if the creationist lady wants to argue with you in the lab or if people don’t understand how “those Indians” live, when in doubt, smile and nod.

5. How to give killer directions

You will read maps. You will read maps upside down. You will read maps you’ve never seen before upside down. You will have to turn the map upside down so you can read it. You will be goddamn Dora with maps out the wazoo. Need the fastest way to get to Cody, Wyoming? I got you fam. Want to go through Missoula on your way to the west coast? There’s a map for that. Want to hit Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse, and Wind Cave all in one fell swoop? We can do that. You will rattle off both interstate, highway, and backroads routes in 100 miles in any direction and know the fastest way to every overlook.

6. The value of comfortable boots

Word of warning: government issued boots suck. Yes, they’re steel-toed-electrical-resistant-slip-proof-security-passable wonders you could probably go to space in and cost half your uniform allowance, but they’re also stiff, uncomfortable clown shoes. To do any serious walking—and I put in between four and eight miles on an average day—you need a pair of comfortable boots with ankle support you can hike (and step on cactus) in. Even if you have a day at the desk, you may get called out to do anything from Search and Rescue to carrying tables into the lab, and your feet will definitely thank you.

7. How to meet the coolest people (ever)

I was expecting to be working with crusty bureaucrats, not technically homeless twenty-somethings that have been to Antarctica or have a PHD or spent summers trapping wild boars in Louisiana. You will meet the coolest, chilliest, most team-player, most interesting people ever and hear all kinds of crazy stories—and you’ll almost meet the people who inspire you to do things like EMT training or people that are the kind of ranger you’d like to be.

8. Appreciation for some seriously beautiful places

This is my walk to work from the parking lot.

You will work, commute, and if you’re in park housing live in places that people plan their whole vacations around. You have the opportunity to get a behind-the-scenes look and even help with operations at the park, and get out and about on government time. I don’t ever let myself get de-sensitized to the beautiful sights I pass on my drive in— my favorite spot in the whole park is along my commute.

9. How to point at things

Yes, there is a whole Twitter hashtag for #rangerspointingatthings, and the saddest part is I find it hilarious. You will point at things ‘til hell wouldn’t have it, and learn how to explain just about anything to a ten year old.

10. The government jokes are groundless

Oh hur hur you work for the government, hur hur paperwork and taxpayer dollars hur hur I bet you don’t get any work done. Not only is what you’re doing needed, it’s also super rewarding. A lot of the jokes people make about the government have zero basis in fact, and you can refute them like a champ. You figure out your team hauls ass and does the best they can do with the resources they have.

11. The government jokes are totally for real

You want to so much as spit and there’s ten sheets of paper to fill out. Want to get hired? Easy thirty forms, right there. Visitor needs a band-aid? There’s a form for that. Want to take a picture? There’s a form for that and some hoops to jump through and red tape and you have to go through the proper channels and a form for that and a form for everything—

12. How to back it in

Government cars have to be backed in, and you will learn how to use your mirrors like a champ and back it in perfectly.

13. Wool pants suck

It’s 100 degrees out. ‘Nuf said. Why are “summer weight” wool pants a thing?

14. How to absolutely love your job

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I absolutely adore my job. I get paid to do what I love, help people, and directly preserve and protect some of the prettiest places in America.

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