My first published story

Letter to My Replacement at the U.S. Park Service

Help Wanted

The United States Park Service seeks a Junior Park Ranger, to start immediately. Area of coverage: Beaver Dam Wash National Conservation Area and West Mountain Peak, Utah. No experience necessary. Low pay. Must enjoy camping.

Dear Applicant,

The Park Service won’t tell you about the snake bites, not during the interview at least. They’ll ask if you own a pair of thick hiking boots–and mark a ding on your application if you don’t.

They won’t tell you because the 1.5 million acres of southwestern Utah that you’ll be covering are home to the Western Sidewinder snake, one of the most venomous reptiles in the continental U.S. They don’t want you knowing that Sidewinders can kill a person with a single bite until you’ve sold all your personal belongings and moved across the country to a cheap motel in Shivwits or Gunlock, where the engines of the long-haul trucks on Old Highway 91 will keep you awake all night.

They also won’t mention that, due to budget cuts, the supply of antivenom has not been replenished in years. After the Great Recession in 2009, Congress cut funding by thirty percent, making syringes and antivenom luxuries that the Park Service can no longer afford.

As I unfortunately discovered, the biggest snake of all is Ranger Magilla. He conducts the final interview and he’s the reason you must like camping. Pity there’s no antivenom for him.

Ranger Magilla practices the opposite of Equal Employment Opportunity hiring. He insists on only hiring women, the younger and more wide-eyed the better. Each applicant must submit a photo and he devotes a good portion of the interview to staring at the interviewee’s breasts, as if assessing whether they’ll bounce under the olive drab shirt that would be her new uniform. Rumor has it he has never yet hired an A-cup.

If you’re like me, you’ve experienced one college internship, spending the summer before graduation in a bleak cubicle farm. You struggled to stay awake during afternoon PowerPoint presentations, envying your less-employable friends, who texted from Cape Cod describing intense games of Frisbee on the National Seashore. While they played Beer Pong, you fielded customer complaints for Chief Service Officers and wrote marketing copy for product brochures. As they rode the waves, you endured a stiff censure from the Human Resources Director the one time you were caught surfing the web during work hours.

You emerged in September a sickly shade of pale that only fluorescent lighting can produce. You’d gained ten pounds from sitting all day and your once-supple muscles, which aced the Peacock pose in college yoga class, make a mockery of the company’s ergonomic chairs.

You returned to campus desperate to avoid a decades-long stint answering emails, rushing to strategy meetings, and dreading your annual performance review. You’ve always loved animals and hiking, so you dream up the idea of escaping the grinding boredom of Corporate America by becoming a Park Ranger. All senior year you fantasize about an exciting career fording cold mountain streams and exploring ancient Native American settlements. You long to commute by horseback, not subway.

When you accept the job as a Junior Park Ranger, life appears bright. Your salary is so low you’re advised to apply for food stamps, but you hear the mating call of Western Bluebirds as you arrive at work each morning. Even though you constantly need to remind tourists—who never listen—not to feed the wildlife (“Patting a cougar is a terrible idea,” you say to a New Yorker with deep gouges on his arms), you wear a badge, the wind tussles your hair all day, and sunlight warms your cheeks from dawn to dusk. Sure, Ranger Magilla blows on the nape of your neck when no one’s looking, but you’ve survived lecherous professors. You can handle him.

Everything changes the day you’re assigned a black bear survey, with him supervising. The Park Service is concerned that the population of bears is exploding, so you win an entire week alone with him, following trails of reeking scat and counting bears through your binoculars.

When you’re told of this assignment, your stomach lurches, but he prepares like it’s high school and you’re his C-cup prom queen. The morning you leave, he’s slapped on so much Brut cologne that your eyes sting. He’s even dyed his combed-over hair dark brown and wears it gelled, like his idol Tom Cruise, whom he resembles in no way whatsoever.

He jumps into the driver’s seat of the Park Service Jeep and inserts his favorite CD, “Greatest Love Songs of the 1980’s,” into a boombox. You sit in the passenger seat, jammed against the door. Whitesnake screeches “Is this Love?” as you roar up the mountains on Hell Hole Pass Trail. While a California Condor circles overhead, you remove his liver-spotted hand from your knee and decline—politely, of course—to call him “Top Gun.”

It’s only when you reach the most remote forest in the Beaver Dam Mountains that he will announce that he has forgotten his camping tent. Darn it. He’ll have to share yours. You debate stealing the Jeep and fleeing back to headquarters in New Harmony, but you don’t. A stint in Timpanogos State Prison on a grand theft auto conviction just wouldn’t look good on your resume.

You awake hours before dawn, stuck 7000 feet up a canyon, with him begging to climb inside your sleeping bag. A Western Sidewinder is slithering into your thick hiking boots and, outside the tent, a black bear is scratching his itch on a Joshua Tree. Trust me, as you fend off Ranger Magilla, the snake and bear will strike you as preferable adversaries.

So, best of luck on your application. I’m going to give him a swift kick in the ass and then I’m becoming a yoga instructor. I wish us both success.


The former Junior Park Ranger

Originally published on Rue Scribe/ Underwood Press on September 30, 2018

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