I spent some of the happiest days of my life working as a ranger for the US Forest Service and the US National Park Service. This was something I looked forward to from the time I started camping as a child, and marveled that someone could actually make a living hiking and talking to others about nature.
My official title in the Forest Service was the inspiring and somewhat intimidating (to me, at least) “Wilderness Guard” – as if my uniformed presence were the only thing keeping vast hordes of interlopers from decimating the beauty of the Uncompahgre Wilderness. Since I didn’t pack a gun and weighed all of 115 lbs, the reality was a little different. Although I carried a red card for firefighting, my customary duties involved more trail clearing, outhouse cleaning, and talking to hikers and campers than fire suppression. And though I frequently traveled alone and might have felt a little apprehensive if truly threatened (it never happened), my personal arsenal of chainsaw, axe, pulaski, hoedad and other firefighting and timber maintenance tools could have been employed in a pinch… the Uncompahgre Chainsaw Massacre (sounds a little more fear-inducing than the Uncompahgre Self-Defense-Motivated Hoedad Injuries)!
I lived and worked in one of the most scenic places in the US, the area around Trout Lake in the San Juan Mountains of western Colorado. I don’t know how I was so fortunate to land this assignment – a few years previous, I’d been given a coffee table-type book of beautiful photos of Colorado, and the picture I turned to most often was of a full moonrise over a lake surrounded by craggy, Alp-like peaks – the caption read “Trout Lake.” When I was called and offered the position, my reaction was, “How many Trout Lakes can there be in Colorado?” Lucky for me, only one!
Situated at nearly 10,000 feet elevation, the area around Trout Lake was an important segment of the Rio Grande Southern narrow-gauge railroad from the late 1800’s to the mid-1900’s, and although that segment was eventually abandoned, some sections of track, part of an old wooden trestle, and an original water tank can still be seen. I was fascinated by the history of the place, both railroad and mining related.
My co-worker, whom I dubbed the Six-Million-Dollar Seasonal (his name was Austin, and this was not long after the Lee Majors TV series), accompanied me two or three days out of the usual week, and when we finished all the work we could find for ourselves to do (or sometimes in the midst of carrying it out), we found other ways to occupy ourselves, or relieve some of the boredom (yes, being alone or nearly so in the silence of the wilderness can sometimes lead you to do some crazy things!). We took photos of each other pretending to be engaged in “recreating” in the National Forest Recreation Areas – this involved some planning, as when we carried a boombox and golf club with us just so we could be pictured rocking out or teeing up on the flat of a huge, ugly pile of mine tailings. We also set up a scenario that made it look as if one of us had been accidentally swallowed up in a trailside outhouse, balancing a hardhat on a couple of invisible wires strung across under the toilet seat, accompanied by a wire-stiffened and paper-stuffed pair of rubber gloves made into claw-like hands that looked to be desperately gripping the seat from below. (Somewhere, I have slides, which we thought would make good motivational training for future rangers, memorializing this event – I need to dig them up.)
Our favorite boredom-relieving activity was a sport we called “Beer Can Jockey.” Now that I’m thirty years away from that particular posting, and probably not likely to seek employment with the USFS again, I can relate the details of this admittedly-unsafe and definitely not government-approved pastime. For Beer Can Jockey (more accurately called Beer-Soda-Bean-etc Can Jockey, but Beer Can was catchier) we needed to be in the truck, and we only engaged in this behavior on a little-used red-dirt road whose main traffic consisted of the occasional Hereford bull that somehow skipped the cattle guards. One of us would be the driver, the other the jockey – either position was challenging, but jockey was infinitely more fun. The driver would tool along the road pretty slowly (necessary because of the ruts, the quantity of dust, and the possibility of the aforementioned “wildlife”), with the jockey hanging down out of the opened passenger-side door (lap-belted? and gripping tightly to some handle or other, of course). When the driver spotted the requisite piece of trash, he or she would call out, “Can!” and steer the vehicle so that the can would suddenly appear directly under the passenger door, to be scooped up by the jockey and tossed into the bed of the truck – score!
Most of my work with the Forest Service was not quite so entertaining, at least not in that vein – and it was frequently dirty, tiring, and sometimes dangerous, but I remember those days as practically idyllic, and wouldn’t trade them for any other experience!
PS: The title of this post comes the fact that so many people had trouble pronouncing the name of the national forest that those of us who worked there nicknamed it the No Comprende!