Saturday, December 02, 2006
(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.