I feel as though I only just arrived in Yellowstone, yet here I am, packing and cleaning, getting ready to move again. Picking up and relocating frequently is the lot of the seasonal park ranger, and there are things I like about it. I never get bored with the inherently repetitive aspects of my job, for instance, and I welcome the chance to delve into a new homelandscape every six months or so. But staying put for two years of graduate school in Vermont spoiled me with “normal” life: I got to taste the joy of immersing myself more deeply in a place. To many of you, who may have spent your entire lives in one place, two years without moving may not sound like much. But for an itinerant park ranger, not having to move three or four times during that period was a heavenly taste of what it’s like to settle somewhere.
I will have that chance again, as I find myself heading back to the mixed-grass prairies and otherworldly rock formations of Badlands National Park in southwestern South Dakota, where I worked two winter seasons before grad school and where I have been offered a term position as an environmental educator. I will miss Old Faithful, to be sure, but I must say I look forward to putting down roots of a sort, and being somewhere a little quieter and more peaceful for the next few years.
The summer rushed past me like the tide of pedestrians on a Manhattan street: hectic, distracting, relentless. Despite my intention to write regularly in this blog, I seem to have allowed two months to slip by without any new posts. Once things got really busy in July, with 10,000 people passing through the Old Faithful Visitor Education Center on a typical day, I fell back into my old, forgotten habit of coming home from work and curling up with a good book to rest and recharge myself.
Just at the moment, I’m reading the New York Times bestseller Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, by fellow Princeton alumna Susan Cain. There is a lot in there that is especially relevant to my chosen life: I am a deeply introverted person who, paradoxically, is happiest in a job that involves talking to hundreds of strangers every day.
When I first arrived at Old Faithful in the spring of 2006, my supervisor gathered all of us new interpretive rangers in a room at the end of our two-week training period. The next day, we were to don the gray and green uniforms of the National Park Service for the first time. I vividly remember what she said in an attempt to settle our nerves: “We’re all extroverts here. We all love to talk about how amazing this place is, about the geysers and the wildlife and the history of Yellowstone. Trust yourself to do it well.”
I don’t know how the other trainee rangers reacted to that statement; if they felt reassured, or energized, or what—but I sat in that little room, feeling isolated and thinking, “Uh-oh. Do I have to be an extrovert to do this job well?”
What I discovered, that first season, was that I could put on a cheerful, outgoing ranger persona every morning at the same time that I put on my Smokey Bear hat. At first it was an act: I felt like I was merely playing a role. But as time went by, I began to internalize that friendly self, who—unlike the usual me—could readily make conversation with strangers and effortlessly speak in front of audiences ranging in size from a handful to over two hundred. After a few years, I began to wonder if I had actually become more extroverted, or if I had just become more skilled at faking it. The answer may be a little bit of both.
Quiet addresses this question in a chapter called “When Should You Act More Extroverted Than You Really Are?” I’m not alone in being an introvert in a job that, at first glance, appears better suited for very outgoing personalities. And I seem to have arrived at similar strategies for dealing with this paradox as other successful introverts in a wide variety of positions that make similar demands. My need to go home and recharge quietly—usually in solitude, often by sitting and reading a book—is not unusual. Interestingly, though, Quiet made no mention of my favorite method for recharging: getting out into the backcountry and reconnecting with nature.
Part of the reason this summer got away from me, I think, is that I failed to take as much advantage of Yellowstone’s thousand miles of hiking trails as I have in years past. This was unfortunate: I don’t know if or when I will live here again, and I feel as though I’ve missed a grand opportunity to explore some of the wildest corners of backcountry in the lower 48. Perhaps more importantly, I didn’t avail myself of the best therapeutic activity I’ve yet found—hiking on trails where you may not run into anyone else for days at a time.
Luckily, I have about ten days between finishing up at Old Faithful and starting at my new job in Badlands. I’m looking forward to a little vacation: I’ll be going up to Glacier National Park and doing some hiking in the high country there, then coming back and spending a couple of days in the Beartooths. Can’t wait!