I am a park ranger at Shenandoah National Park, but my blog represents my own musings and enjoyment of the NPS.
I always think I’m going to have time for a million things and then before I blink, my weekend is over. I’m lucky to have so many options right in my backyard. I ventured just a few miles down the road a few days ago to check out Shenandoah River State Park in Bentonville, VA. I somehow spent $66 on a VA State Parks Annual Pass that I’m not quite sure how I’m going to get my money’s worth out of, but it sounded like a good idea at the time. Hopefully it will force me to check out some other great places because VA has one of the best state park systems in the country. Many of them preserve beautiful lake and river shores or are nestled within the various chains of the Appalachian Mountains. This one, as the name implies, lies on the banks of the famous Shenandoah River. This fairly calm, meandering stream shows its age in its path. Just take a look at a map and you’ll see how many times it bends back and forth as its two forks lap against the Blue Ridge and Massanutten Mountains. Its gentleness, however, is what lends to its appeal. Front Royal, VA is known as the canoe capital of Virginia and a variety of companies provide the novice, such as myself, the opportunity to take an adventure on the river by canoe, kayak or tubing. It’s been awhile since I’ve done this, although it’s on the list for this summer, but about 10 years ago I took a tubing trip and it was one of best experiences ever. At any rate, Shenandoah River State Park has river access in addition to hiking and biking trails of varying lengths and difficulties, picnic facilities, campgrounds and cabins for rent. Now, don’t get me wrong, I love Shenandoah National Park, but, if you’re looking for a lazy day hanging out by the water, head 9 miles south on US-340 from the Front Royal Entrance station on Skyline Drive and get your fill. Take in the sights and the sounds, bring your kayak and go rolling on the river.
(this photo was found at www.freeamazingimages.com)
It’s been awhile since I’ve written a blog post. Actually, it’s been another cross country journey since I’ve written. But, during that journey, I had the opportunity to do two wonderful things at one time. I spent a week with my dad and we fulfilled a dream together. Funny how a place gets stuck in your head. My father flips between the same basic channels every evening, and one of those is TCM. I swear every time I’m there when the channel gets flipped, he says “I’ve seen this one.” I always respond with “Dad, you’ve seen them all.” On more than one occasion these old Western (and even modern Western) movies include a scene in Judge Isaac Parker’s courtroom in Fort Smith, AR. Ok, I’m admitting it, I too have an iconic image in mind. It’s the scene in the well acclaimed mini-series “Lonesome Dove” when Woodrow stops to see the hanging of the infamous Blue Duck. Blue Duck is sitting in a jail cell awaiting his turn at the gallows.
Blue Duck: You Rangers! I ‘spect I’ll kill a passel of you yet.
Woodrow Call: I doubt it; not unless you can sprout wings ‘n’ fly through the hangman’s noose
Blue Duck: I can fly - an old woman taught me - and if you care to wait, you’ll see me
Woodrow Call: I’ll wait. I give you my word on it
He does wait, and Blue Duck jumps out the window. Woodrow walks up to the body.
Woodrow Call: Turns out that old woman didn’t teach you how to fly after all.
Well, for my dad, that is an iconic scene, but not his favorite. His is from the 1969 John Wayne classic “True Grit.”
Ned Pepper: What’s your intention? Do you think one on four is a dogfall?
Rooster Cogburn: I mean to kill you in one minute, Ned. Or see you hanged in Fort Smith at Judge Parker’s convenience. Which’ll it be?
Ned Pepper: I call that bold talk for a one-eyed fat man.
Rooster Cogburn: Fill your hands, you son of a bitch!
What’s my point? A dad and his daughter, on a cross country journey. This is the man that introduced me to National Parks. This is the man that only four days earlier had turned 62 and was just itching to get his hands on a Senior Pass. This is the man that took a week’s worth of vacation to haul me and my crap 2000+ miles so that I could take yet another temporary job. This is the man that taught me to love those brown signs along the side of the highway, and let me tell you, I-40 has a lot of them. We wanted to stop at all of them. I had only been to one or two of the sites we passed so near (my dad had been to handful), I had applied to most of them, but as we approached Fort Smith, we decided we had a few hours to delve into one of them.
We parked our rig on a side street, stopped a local sports bar for some lunch and then walked over to Judge Parker’s courthouse. While that was the fascination that led to the stop, family heritage could not be ignored. Our family has some Native blood, and although we’re not 100% sure if it’s Cherokee or Choctaw, both tribes passed through during their forced removal from their homelands. We immersed ourselves in the history of this “Western outpost” for as long as we could. It was a fascinating place where the term “Wild West” takes on a whole new image. It dates back to the time of Andrew Jackson and has seen parts of so many conflicts in this nation’s history. We could have stayed all day, but the fact that our hotel was still a few hours down the road meant we had to mosey on along. It was well worth it for so many reasons: the purchase of a Senior Pass, another Passport Cancellation, the ever sought addition to life-long learning, and most importantly, the chance to bond with my dad.
The NCPH/OAH conference brought to light a subject near to my heart this afternoon – history in the NPS. The panel consisted of Marla Miller, Gary Nash, David Thelen and Anne Mitchell Whisnant. On the docket was the discussion of their report on how the NPS stacks up in the history department. I have to admit, I haven’t read the report. And, as a detriment to my profession, I didn’t even know it was something that was being analyzed. In considering this, however, I realize that my failure in having even heard of the study speaks directly to the findings. As it turns out, a panel of historians gave the NPS a mediocre grade when it comes to their interpretation of history, and I’m not surprised. I had found it odd, in my five seasons as an interpreter, at four different parks, that there had been a clear delineation between interpretation and history. But, how could you have one without the other? Yes, the material was there for me to research as I prepared my programs, but how was it that in my most recent position, doing only one program, a house tour (in costume, no less), I was told, in no uncertain terms, that no one had time to allow me access to archival material. At my summer home, in Shenandoah, we are introduced during training about the most recent information on climate change, emerald ash borer concerns, deer populations, and weather and air monitoring, but only an hour was devoted to an introduction of the massive amounts of research material available on a cultural level. Ok, some would say, it’s a nature park, but it also has a history that lends to the story as a whole.
The more I thought about the study, the less surprised I was to hear about the gap between interpretation and cultural resources within the park structure as a whole. The more recent push to cohesively develop themes, objectives and construct connections for visitors to take away from interpretive programs all seems moot in light of the realization that I might not yet possess all the knowledge I need to do this. When asked who was going to get this ball rolling and what would prevent this study from collecting dust on a shelf like all the others, the answer given was straightforward … you! I’m willing to take that challenge, but at what cost.
A more in-depth discussion later with some of the panel members spawned a new thought: who in the NPS was consulted on this study? It turns out I already knew the answer. Director Jon Jarvis was obviously a key component, but the others consisted of regional directors and other management level employees. The problem with that … they don’t interact with the public on a daily basis like I do. And who am I? Just another seasonal staff member that shows up on Memorial Day and leaves with end of the autumn splendor. So, I’m expected to get the ball rolling, but as I’m sure other seasonal NPS employees would agree, my voice is small and in what precarious position am I placing myself if I do push the envelope? Sure, I might create a movement, spark an epiphany, give rise to a multitude of positive comments from visitors … or, I might find that next year, when the budget of our National Parks is trimmed yet again and another influx of returning veterans is vying for the same position, that I’ll be left out in the cold. I’m going to push for an increase in more interdisciplinary work at parks and the ability for more communication across lines because my goal is to make the NPS a better and stronger unit. They are, after all, my parks, too.
Two great afternoon sessions! Had a panel of NPS folks discussing how we can work on opening dialogue and reinterpreting our Indian War sites out West. I am excited to join the conversation tomorrow where we look at getting more cross-training and more inter-disciplinary work in the NPS. I actually broached the subject with Associate Director of Interpretation & Education, Julia Washburn and she encouraged me to be a voice for that change. The other session discussed how we can deal with sites on the brink of closure. Again, the idea of community engagement was brought up together with ideas of how to more readily engage the youth. Partnerships with schools and other community organizations as well as the idea of the re-use of space were some ways in which we all agreed we’ve seen success. Off to the reception now and then some fine Milwaukee fare.
Day 1 of the conference is already turning out to be amazing. The duel combo of NCPH (National Council on Public History) and OAH (Organization of American Historians) makes it hard for me to pick and choose which sessions to attend. I just attended a morning session about sites of conscience and it really got me thinking about how we can use history to engage the public in discussions about current topics. History isn’t always pleasant and remember, our current issues are what we are leaving for the future to study. Communities can and should be involved in the conversation about their past and how we perceive choices made back then versus how we think we would handle them today.