A Toast: To Not Drinking My Way to Happiness

“I called to say I love you,” I told my father.

“Have you been drinking?” he asked.

“No.”

“Oh–you sound really happy.” I was, but his surprise at my happiness stopped me cold. Was it really that unusual that I sound happy?

Perhaps it was because calls to Dad always had a purpose, and–like him–I didn’t waste time on formalities like “How are you?” and “I love you.” “Goodbye” was even optional. Phoning my father was often for logistical reasons. “If I fly into Westchester at noon for Meg’s wedding, can you guys pick me up?” Or I called in search of someone else. “Where’s Mom? I called the house and her cell phone but she doesn’t answer.” Or I called for shock value. “So I walked into work after being away for a week, and they moved me into an office.”

“You’re own office?” he said incredulously. “They really like you over there.” He thinks this is a good thing.  I just think it will make it harder for me to resign.  Not that I’m going to resign anytime soon.  But it is inevitable. I haven’t held a full-time job longer than eighteen months.  By choice. And now that I think about it, I’ve only ever had four full-time jobs in the fourteen years since I graduated from college. You do the math.

Two of those jobs had definitive end dates: Americorps was a one-year program and my National Park Service job was just seasonal. The other two–like the one I have now–had no expiration. I still remember the utter fear I felt when I first made that realization as I sat in the cubicle in my first corporate job.

I’m going to pause here as some of you are thinking, “Whoa. Wait. Back up. Did you just say you took a full-time job?” Yes. Yes, I did. I’ll wait while those of you that know me pick yourselves up off the floor.

My explanation (or the story I tell myself) is this: It’s a means to an end. At first, the end was to save some money. Then I floated this idea of doing the Camino again next year sometime. Then I started thinking bigger and thought of buying an around-the-world plane ticket for my 40th birthday.

Then I reconsidered.  Because I really like Asheville. And I’m not sure I want to leave for eight months. I remember a few years ago telling my youngest sister she should join me in an around-the-world trip. “For how long? How much time would I need to take off?”

“Take-off? Oh, no. You’d need to quit your job.” The look on her face told me she would not be joining me.  Not for the whole trip, at least.

“Maybe one day you’ll be like other people, and just take your vacations a week at a time,” said my mother to me one day. “You know, instead of thinking you have to quit your job and do something big.” But we both know that’s not likely.

I’ve run some numbers. For those of you that don’t know, it’s cheaper to travel than it is to live in your home for a year. Part of that is because my trip is due to include visits to South America and Southeast Asia. Cost is also less for me because I don’t require that my place of rest be a hotel. Or even a room to myself. But those details can all be figured out later.

So yes, I have a full-time job. And as I search my mind to figure out why my father thought it was unusual that I sounded happy I thought it could be that he recalls how miserable I usually become when confined to the same space for forty hours of my week. My mother says I’m like a “caged animal” when I have a full time job: you look in the cage and think the animal has a pretty good life, but he’s pacing and really he’s thinking of how to get out. Then one day he snaps.  He attacks a visitor or just disappears.  I usually do the latter. In the form of a resignation.

But yes, I’m happy.  I can’t say I absolutely love my job and look forward to going to it every day.  But I love that it’s providing me what I need right now. It’s just another stepping stone. One day I’ll hop to another stone, or venture out into the water. But for now, today, in this moment, I am content.

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Back on Track!

The backpack I’ll use when I walk the Camino was bought at an outdoor gear tent sale.  It’s a used pack – clearly indicated by the words “Rental EMS” written across one of the pockets.

My backpack - formerly owned by Eastern Mountain Sports

I was thinking it’d be nice to have something to cover those words.  Today, I found one thing that will help me do just that.

My hometown is blessed with four National Parks, all just a few miles apart from each other.  In 2007, property was acquired that allowed all four to finally be connected by walking trails.  Years ago, as a Park Ranger at Vanderbilt Mansion (one of the four aforementioned parks), I would tell people about the trails, but couldn’t speak about them all from experience.  Today, that changed.

Today, for the first time, I walked from Vanderbilt Mansion to the FDR Home to Eleanor Roosevelt’s Valkill.  It took me  two hours and 15 minutes and my pedometer told me I walked a total of 7.5 miles in that time.  Wow, did that feel good!

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A waterfall near the Lower Gatehouse at Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site.

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The back of the FDR Home viewed from the Hyde Park Trail.

Turns out that the town of Hyde Park has a nice little brochure that promotes these trails.  I used to give it out to visitors.  If you walk five of the trails on the brochure, you can get a patch.  Each year, they come out with a new one.  Wouldn’t that be just the perfect thing to sew on my pack?  Something with my very home town right on it!  If you click here, you can see the map of the trails I walked today (Trails B, F, and G).  Walks A, J, and K I’ve done many times before – and done them all in the last few weeks.  So guess what?  Tomorrow I’ll head out to claim my patch! 🙂

Three Pillows

I nestled myself into bed, head sinking into the pillow.  I turned onto my side, reached for a second pillow, and stuffed it between my knees.  Then, I grabbed a third pillow to wrap my arms around.  Perfectly comfortable, I closed my eyes and a little old lady’s voice came into my head.  “Travel when you’re young.  And when you have no money.  Because you can sleep anywhere and not feel it the next morning.”

Those words fueled my travels for many years.  I first heard them when I was eighteen years old, standing in the Reception Hall at the Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site.  Bedecked in my Park Ranger uniform, it was my job to greet visitors entering the home.  After checking their tickets, I then told them all the things they couldn’t do: chew gum, take flash pictures, touch anything.  When there was a lull at the front door, I’d eavesdrop on people’s conversations.  If they said, “I wonder who that is?” while looking at the bust in the foyer, I’d pipe in,  “We think that’s Zeus – but we don’t know for sure because there’s no documentation about it.”  Most of the time that’s all it took for visitors to realize I wasn’t there solely to enforce the rules.  I actually knew about this place and could tell them some pretty interesting stuff.

Bus groups were my favorite.  First, because I loved when it was busy.  And in my first season as a Park Ranger, we could have as many as five buses of tourists some days.  Secondly, bus groups were mostly senior citizens and I love those folks.  They’re usually funny and wise, and I got equal parts of laughter and wisdom in my conversations with them.  I didn’t realize it then, but now I know why I like working with them so much: we have the same outlook on life.  Do what you want now, because you’re not getting any younger.

I remember that little white-haired lady, name tag around her neck, dispensing her advice shortly into our conversation.  She lamented that she wasn’t walking so well today and blamed it on not being in her own bed the night before.  The crux of her advice was that, as a young person with little money, I could afford to stay in cheap places with crappy beds – and wouldn’t have to pay for it with aches the next day.  I remember telling my boyfriend (a Park Ranger on duty with me that day) what she said.  I remember we took her words to heart that summer. Though that relationship didn’t last, her words stuck around.

As I recalled her advice snuggled into my bed last night, I laughed to myself  thinking, “You know, Rebecca, you’re not going to have three pillows to sleep with on the Camino…”  Though then I thought, “Maybe I can bring a couple – pillows are light.”  I did just pull out my backpack yesterday and wonder what I would fill all that space with.

How I Became a Park Ranger

Mrs. R, my best friend’s mother, was always on the lookout for eligible men for me and her daughter.  On this particular night, she was eyeing park rangers.  We were at the annual Christmas Open House at Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site.  It’s one of four National Parks in my hometown of Hyde Park, NY.  The staff decorates the home for Christmas each year and, though it’s open nearly every day, the time to really see it in all it’s glory is at night.  So one night every year, all of Hyde Park comes out to see the Vanderbilt Mansion in its Christmas finery.

I wasn’t much for talking to strangers at this point in my life, but Mrs. R took care of that.  She loved chatting with anyone.  Especially good looking Park Rangers that may be marriage material for her daughter and me.   It was during one of these conversations that Mrs. R found out about jobs at Vanderbilt’s.  Not for her, but for us.

“That ranger told me you girls could work here!  They hire people to work just for the summer.  You two should apply,” she encouraged us.

I was more familiar with Vanderbilt’s than most people.  When I was in high school, I played the 110 year old Steinway in the living room for visitors as they toured the house.  As a shy teenager, I played piano for others only if they pretended they weren’t listening.  If we had company at our house, and I was asked to play, I would go into the living room and sit down at the piano.  My mother would bring our guest to another room where they could still hear me, and engage them in conversation explaining that if they stopped talking I’d get nervous thinking that they were focusing on me.

Playing at the Vanderbilt Mansion was a great place to fool myself into thinking the visitors weren’t listening.  The grand piano was in a dark corner.  And the music stand came up to such a height that it was difficult to see me behind it.  When visitors walked into the room, I would hear them ask, “is there a real person back there?”  They thought the music was being “piped in.”  The Park Ranger would tell them I was there, but rarely did I look over the stand at them or get up and talk to them.

So on the application, when they asked if I had any experience in a park, I listed my piano playing.  I came out of my shell that first year in college and was a tour guide on campus.  So I listed that as job experience.

And by April, I had been offered full time summer job at Vanderbilt Mansion NHS.  My best friend never applied.  But her mother was thrilled at the prospect of my meeting my future husband at the park.

How to Become a Park Ranger

Of all the things I’ve done, the one I get asked about most is my job as a Park Ranger.  I’ve met dozens of people who want to do it.  And I’m here to tell you how!

If you’re a Renaissance Soul like me, you don’t want to do it forever.  You just want to try it out.  And lucky for you there are oodles of positions for Seasonal Park Guides.  If you get one of these positions, you get allotted 1039 hours to work for the National Park Service (NPS) in that position.  Those hours equate to about 6 months of full-time work.  However, I know of parks that will take you if you can only work a few months, and some that will even hire you for part-time work.

For example, in 1995 I worked as a Seasonal Park Guide during a summer I was home from college.  It was full-time from June through August.  In 2006, I worked two days a week for a park.  I worked part-time for them from April until the following April as they needed me.  So you can work those 1039 hours in any way the park wants over the course of a year.  Or bundle them all up and do them full-time.

These are seasonal positions.  They don’t include any benefits except paid time off and sick time (which you earn based on the number of hours you work).  But the experience is priceless:)

If you want to become a bonafide ranger wearing that grey and green uniform, with the gold badge, and that lovely straw hat, the place to find your job is at usajobs.com.  Unfortunately, gone are the days of just walking into your local National Park and seeing if there are openings.  Openings for all federal government positions are posted on this site.

Unless you’re a student.  If that’s the case, you CAN walk into a park and see if they’ll hire you.  Students can get hired without the park having to put out an official announcement of an open position.

When you go to usajobs.com, you want to do a search for “Park Guide” positions.  When the list comes up, you want the ones that have an Appointment Term listed as “Temporary” or “Seasonal.”

Now remember, this is a government operation.  So there’s lots of paperwork and forms and backlog.  So if  you work in a school and want to work in a park for the summer, start looking at usajobs.com in November.  You can set up a search engine to send you an e-mail when a job in your radius gets posted.

Make sure you follow all the directions and send everything that’s asked of you.  If you don’t, you don’t make the cut.

Now, if you just want to work in a park, but not necessarily as a Park Guide, those positions are out there too.  The concessions in many parks are run by an outside operation.   For example, if you want to work at the lodges in the Grand Canyon, they’re operated by Xanterra (xanterra.com).  So you’d go to their website for more info.

I’ll write another post about my specific Park Ranger experiences:)