Saturday, December 02, 2006

Foggy Memory

(the sunshine state?)

Add a steady, drizzly, chilly rain to that foggy picture above and you have the Pure Florida weather for today.

Weather like that makes me think of the winter I spent as a National Park Service VIP back in 1981. VIP stands for Volunteer In (the) Parks.

I had worked two summers as an NPS interpretive Ranger and that winter, I borrowed a tiny, tiny camper trailer, hooked it to my green AMC Gremlin and drove to Sylva, NC to attend the Seasonal Ranger Law Enforcement training at Southwestern Tech. Later in my career, I would attend the Federal Law Enforcement Center, but SW Tech was the only place to get sanctioned LE training when you were still a seasonal employee. So off I went.

It was November, the tiny trailer had no heat, and I froze my butt off most nights. The training was good though. Many of the trainers were moonlighting Rangers from Great Smoky Mountains National Park and I made some connections that paid off. The chief Ranger of the Oconalufftee station asked me and a few others if we'd like to volunteer for the winter at the park. The NPS would give us housing and utilities and we would work 40 hours a week for "free" in Ranger support roles. We only had to come up with food money.

Of course we jumped on this opportunity as we were desperate for any experience that would get us into the NPS.

So immediately after the seasonal LE course ended, I wound up living in Ranger housing (think college dorm) with two other Ranger wannabe's, right behind the 'Luftee visitor center and just outside of Cherokee, NC.

We did a little bit of everything. Since we were not "official" Rangers, we could only support the career folks, but we were pretty gung ho and stretched the support thing pretty far.

There were lots of normal things like taking a radio and hiking 10 or 15 miles to be the eyes and ears of the tiny Ranger staff. I loved that. I can still picture every detail of a snowy hike down the Thomas Divide trail. Wind blown snow coming up the slope, crunch of snow, a hawk hovering in a crystal blue sky. It was so quiet.

I was pretty eager ... like a man just released from indenture ... to experience everything a snowy winter could reveal. (Remember, living in snow was all new to me)

I learned to drive in snow, in the mountains, and eventually quit sliding into snow plow drifts and guardrails. I learned that padlocks up north freeze and it takes a road flare to warm them up so the key will work. I learned that rime ice on bare trees on a mountain top in the morning is incredibly beautiful. I finally learned what all those "watch for falling rocks" signs were for. The rocks fell every day in the winter time ... big rocks. I learned what snow chains were and how to put them on. I learned that if you ate a sandwich at Bogarts (the Bogie Hoagie) and then tried to keep up with your beer swilling roommates the vomit you spewed out the window on the ride home would be frozen to the car in a perfect fan-shaped pattern the next morning. (I was a passenger, not the driver)

It was all quite fascinating.

At the time, the park was having a big problem with "car clouts" at trailheads and especially at the Newfound Gap parking area. A car clout is a smash and grab break in of a parked vehicle. The chief Ranger asked me if I'd like to do a stake out at the Gap and of course I was ready to go. My job would be to take a radio up to the Gap and hide near the parking area to watch for car clouters. If anything happened, I was to call the Ranger on duty, observe, and record useful info until he or she got there.

I think their hope was that I would get a tag number and car description of the offenders, since getting up to the Gap from 'Luftee takes a little while, there wasn't going to be any real time LE response.

I also think (now) that they were having a little fun and testing me.
Newfound Gap is at the crest of the mountains and is an incredibly cold place at night, in the dark, in the wind ... hiding in the bushes peering at an almost empty parking lot ... for hours.

I did have one ace up my sleeve. There was a utility room at the rear of the Gap public restroom and I had a key for it. Inside, there was a heater to keep the restroom pipes from freezing. This was my refuge when the boring cold darkness got to be a little too boring, cold, and dark.

I'd pop in there, defrost for a few minutes, and then head back out. As the night wore on, those few minutes would stretch a little.

Around 2:00 am, my shift ended with no car clouting vandals appearing.

This freezing stakeout business went on for several more nights that winter, but never once did the clouters show up when I was the stake. I didn't mind too much, although it would have spiced things up some.

Freezing my butt off was partly why I was there. People from up north come south to soak up the heat... I came from the opposite direction for the opposite experience.

I remember standing outside the patrol car one evening as we closed down Highway 441 through the park due to hazardous conditions. We had closed the inbound lane and were waiting the all clear signal to shut the outbound lane gate. The temperature was dropping like a rock, the roads were iced slick, and a freezing rain was pelting me. The NPS Ranger I was riding with was inside the car with the heater running.

He rolled down the window and said, " You don't have to stand out there. It's warm in here and we can still see anyone coming up the road."

"I'm okay... this is what I came for." I replied.

I can still see him shaking his head slowly as the window slowly went back up.

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pablo said...

Sounds a lot like Kansas City right now.

Also, I think this qualifies as a tale from your (partly) misspent youth.

Floridacracker said...

I'm setting the stage for my highspeed chase through Cherokee story. Hope the ice isn't too bad there in KC.

threecollie said...

Another wonderful and interesting post! Anytime your nostalgia for freezing your fanny off overwhelms you and you need a refil so to speak, you are very welcome to stop up here in January or so. The kid (who also voluntarily does those cold outdoor things) will hike you up Seven County and through the woods and frozen ravines. There is plenty to see and I can promise you lots of cold. By the end of January this year we will have home grown pork sausage on hand and we already have the tapped-on-the-farm maple syrup for the pancakes to provide the warming up part of the equation. Really....

Patti said...

Oh yea, I can so relate. Being a transplanted Floridian ( two years removed) I am totally enamored with the cold. My neighbors here in Northern Arkansas are stunned to see me cheerfully trucking thru the occasional snows we get wearing lots of Down and a huge smile. We have a mild enough climate here that snows are a treat.
Also got to enjoy the glazed ice on Friday during a short trip to Missouri. The sun hit the trees and grass just right. All appeared to be dripping in diamonds.
Mainly just want you to know I really enjoy your posts. Am here every day but will quietly go back to lurking.

swamp4me said...

I went to Michigan in the middle of winter one time. I remember spending much of my visit staring out the window, fascinated by the fact that the snow never melted. The folks in the neighborhood I was visiting were happy 'cause I volunteered to shovel snow for everyone. Of course, they thought the little southern girl was a bit tetched in head...

roger said...

a green gremlin! LOL!!! and a good story.

hiking in the snow is such a grand treat.

Abandoned in Pasadena said...

I came from southern California and you will cheerfully see me out building snowmen & snowforts with my grandchildren still. I love hiking in the snow too.

I've spent a lot of time riding and hiking in the Smokey Mountains. Beyond the crowds it's a magical place to be. I love the mountain streams and the dense fog makes me feel like I am back in dinosaur times. Did you ever see a bear in the wild there? I never did.

I enjoyed reading your made me feel like I was right there experiencing it with you. You're a great writer and I can't wait to read about the highspeed chase. I certainly hope that you weren't after me...GASP!

swamp4me said...

Roger! No laughing at the Gremlin. I drove a one myself -- granted, it had an unquenchable thirst for oil, but it was still a good car. And so cute ;)

Floridacracker said...

Oh my ... homemade sausage and home tapped maple syrup ... oh my.

Welcome to commenting on Pure Florida! Thanks for dropping by.
Our enthusiasm for the cold is why northerners in the know call us "Floridiots". They may have a point, but bring on the snow!
:) Today it is 72 and steamy, so I'm needing some coldness.

When it comes to snow, we southerners are all tetched. Go Gremlins!!

it had a 20 gallon tank, good mileage, a cruising range of 500 miles, and was zippy. movie producers seem to hate them, the only time i see one in a movie, it's being made fun of or blown up!

Similar spirits when it comes to snow. The only bears I saw were the usual roadside variety in GSMNP.
Were you in a white transam?

SophieMae said...

Believe it or not, I also drove a green Gremlin back in the day. I eventually traded it in on a '72 gun-metal blue Javelin, which I wish I still had.
But this is one cracker who has had her fill of cold. My first snow experience was in IN when I was about 17. I'm cured. 8-}

Floridacracker said...

LOL! The Gremlin legion grows! We should start a group ... Gremlin Owners Anonymous ... My name is FC and I owned a... a ... Gremlin!

The Javelin was kind of a muscle car compared to the Grem.