Thanks to a summer of posting ranger photos and hashtags, I’ve had quite a few people get in touch to ask about becoming a park ranger. Since I’ve already scrambled this summer’s blog post topics anyway, I decided to take a detour from my usual posts and reflect a little on this season and the many routes to get into the coveted flat hat.
All statements and opinions are my own and are not endorsed or maintained by the National Park Service. All photos are my own.
Read it all after the jump!
En plein air is just a fancy French way of saying painting outside. I never really considered myself capable of plein air painting until my first season as a ranger in Yellowstone in 2015. While in the park, I had the opportunity to learn from Suzie Garner, a fantastic watercolorist and plein air painter. She opened the door to landscape painting for me and gave me so much confidence! Now watercolors are some of my favorite ways to document my trips and ranger seasons.
Now that I’m back in Yellowstone, I’ll be doing a lot more plein air work this summer, so I thought I’d break down my materials and process for anyone who might be interested. I spent the morning painting the Teton range, so check out the progression below the jump!
My name is Brian Robeson and I am thirteen years old and I am alone in the north woods of Canada.
When I was in seventh grade, during the dawn of dial-up Internet and Angelfire websites, I wrote a fan letter to Gary Paulsen telling him how much I loved his adventure books. He replied with a signed typewritten letter and a Polaroid photo of him on a sailboat in a gray Alaskan inlet. The postscript of the letter went like this:
Read all the time; read when they tell you not to read, read with a flashlight under the covers, read on the bus, standing on the corner, waiting for a friend, in the dentist’s waiting room. Read every minute you can. Read like a wolf eats. READ.
I followed Gary Paulsen’s advice up until I reached grad school, when my life was overtaken by academia and, later, motherhood. But now, with two kids eager to devour the same adventures and worlds I did, and with my re-entry into the world of literature as an author, not just a reader, I’m happily rediscovering his wise advice to thirteen-year-old me. Reading isn’t just a pastime; it’s a gateway and lifeline to a broader human experience. Would I be a park ranger today if I hadn’t been transported to Brian Robeson’s L-shaped lake in northern Canada?
Hatchet was a foundational book for a lot of the scouts, rangers, and outdoorsfolk I hang out with—the story of a kid like us, a city boy from a stressful household, who finds himself lost in the rugged wilderness with a small hatchet as his only tool. It was equally captivating and terrifying to stumble along with Brian as he guesses his way through survival, relying on memories of action movies and shipwreck stories, giving childish names to the things he comes to rely on—gut cherries, foolbirds, food fish. And Hatchet certainly isn’t Gary Paulsen’s only survival story. Most of his work—even his autobiography and sci-fi work—is threaded with themes of struggle and cohesion with nature.
Survival remains one of my favorite tropes in literature. From childhood favorites like Island of the Blue Dolphins (O’Dell) and The Sign of the Beaver (Speare) to recent favorites like The Moor’s Account (Lalami) and In the Heart of the Sea (Philbrick), I’m a sucker for a story that throws a character into a wild unknown and forces them to adapt. And now that I’m a published author, I’m not just a sucker for reading these characters, but writing them, too. In fact, I’m mere paragraphs away in my current manuscript from stripping every bit of gear from my protagonists and pushing them into a fifty-mile expanse of waterless desert. Granted, I’m not sure how I’m going to get them across, but at this point they’re cleverer than me, and I expect they’ll show me.
Part one of “So Your Hero is Roughing It” focused on equipping your characters with the most basic gear they might need to survive a quest. This installment focuses instead on what happens when you take all that stuff away. I’ll make the same disclaimer here as I made in Part One: this is not a survival guide. Don’t screenshot this blog and head off into the Yukon. This is a resource for writers and role-players looking for plot nuggets and worldbuilding ideas. I’ve kept things relatively generic on purpose—a lot of your details will depend on what environment your characters are traveling through. Finding medicinal plants in a temperate rainforest is going to be a heck of a lot different from finding medicinal plants in high steppes. This is just a framework, not an in-depth guide.
Read more after the jump!
“What are you doing, Mrs. Beaver?” exclaimed Susan.
Ah, the quest—a staple of fantasy literature both classic and modern. Rugged journeys through wild lands, relying on wit and luck and the kindness of strangers. Quests and survivalism remain some of my favorite tropes to both read and write.
However, I have to admit, when I read a quest where there’s no mention of packs or bags—or more blatantly, when there’s a movie adaptation and no depiction of characters carrying gear—the ranger in me convulses a little. You, human, hiking through the wilderness—where’s your water bottle? Your map? Your fire kit? Your blanket?
I get it—bulky packs look silly (which is why Samwise carries one for comic relief), and too much time spent on travel minutiae can bog down a story’s pacing. But in fantasy worldbuilding, it’s often the mundane details juxtaposed with fantastic elements that create a complex, lived-in world. Seeing Hermione trying to stew mushrooms in a billy can in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows shows us how dire things can get, even for wizards. And seeing Mrs. Beaver determined to pack a few necessities despite the complaints of the others show that while strange and wonderful, Narnia is still a dangerous place for the unprepared.
This is one of two segments I’m planning to write on the topic of quest practicality—in this post I’ll focus on the most basic gear a typical human might need to survive in the wilderness, while the second installment will be on improvising the rest from the surrounding environment, like first aid, shelter, and clean water. This is all written for like-minded authors collecting ideas to flesh out their world- and character-building, not for adventurers looking to pull a Christopher McCandless and strike out into the wild. We can have that conversation another time, when I’m wearing my ranger hat.
Read more after the jump!
Quick, when I say Harry Potter, what’s the visual image that springs to your mind?
It’s probably a picture of the protagonists decked out with wands and robes, right? But is that all? Are they drifting in a void? Or do you see the setting around them—vast, mischievous Hogwarts castle, with its shifting staircases and moving portraits? The mysterious library, the murky lake, the rolling grounds?
As writers, we hear a lot about worldbuilding—the art of creating a deep, well-rounded world that provides the physical and cultural setting for our plot. When this is done well, any mention of a story instantly gives the reader a vivid mental picture. But worldbuilding can go a step further! Instead of just being a setting or backdrop for your characters to move through, it can become almost another side character—something that your characters don’t just react to, but interact with. Something that gives heft to the plot and affects the story.
It's summer again, which means it's time to take the flat hat out of storage and head into the wilderness for four months. I will be spending my summer working with the National Park Service again, and my WiFi will be limited. I am working to keep my social media feeds updated, but blog posts will be few and far between. Please follow me elsewhere for updates throughout the summer!
Projects I'll be tackling:
Follow me on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram (@EmilyBeeMartin) to keep up with all this and more!
I can’t believe how fast the summer is going. In just another few weeks, our interns will leave, kids will go back to school, and visitation in Great Smoky Mountains National Park will scale back dramatically, at least until leaf season in October. It’s been a great season full of bug-hunting in the river with Junior Rangers, telling stories on the Mountain Farm, and shaking our fists at the elk standing defiantly in the garden eating acorn squash.
But I’ve been keeping a list.
I started this list last year in Yellowstone. It’s hard not to. So much of a front-line park ranger’s job is visitor services that we quickly figure out how to get to the bottom of what a visitor is looking for in their park experience. I’m currently reading The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker, where the golem can sense other people’s wants and desires. I can’t think of another superpower I would rather have when a visitor comes to the desk, tells their kids to hush, and asks me, “What is there to do here?”
I’ve compiled a few suggestions for folks planning to travel—anywhere, really, but especially to your national parks. It’s not exhaustive. I’m sure other rangers at different parks could chime in with a thousand more things. But these are some basics to keep in mind when planning your trip.
1. DO PLAN YOUR TRIP
I think there is a very romantic idea in people’s heads about hopping in the car with a full tank of gas and half a pack of cigarettes and embarking on a spur-of-the-moment Great American Road Trip. I doubt this method worked well even in the Halcyon Days of Route 66, but it works even less well now, despite what Instagram will have you believe. National parks, at least at high season, are crowded places. Campgrounds fill up. Entrance lines are long. Rangers are harried. And a sure way to make sure your children never, ever want to visit a national park again is by packing them in a car and telling them you’re going to visit Yellowstone today—a park that could easily take a week to see in its entirety. And that’s just the frontcountry.
Not to speak ill of visitors—we appreciate you all, we really do—but we can easily pick out the ones that have clearly done no research whatsoever. I had a visitor walk up to me when I worked at Old Faithful with a confused look on his face. He said, “Where are the big trees?”
I prepared to go into my little pocket program about the lodgepole pines, and why there were so many dead ones. But he interrupted me.
“No, I mean, like, the really big trees.”
Me (a little perplexed): “We have a petrified tree… is that what you mean?”
Him (irritated): “No, the really big, famous trees! The ones everyone takes pictures with! The ones everyone goes to see!”
Me (realizing): “Oh. You mean the redwood trees.”
Him: “Yes! Where are they?”
Me: “Um, California.”
Do a little research. With the Internet, there’s no reason not to. You don’t have to learn everything, and it certainly shouldn’t replace talking to a ranger. But getting an idea of the general layout of the park, the main highlights, and what you hope to get out of your trip means that when you do come into a visitor center, you’ll be able to…
Visitor centers can be crowded places, with kids screaming for stuff from the bookstores while parents ask about waterfall hikes as Ranger Bob tries to give a raptor presentation in the corner. If you come in and ask me, “what should I do here?” chances are I’m going to take a big deep breath before answering so I can do it with courtesy.
Some parks are big, some are little, but they are all diverse, dynamic places. If I had an hour, I couldn’t cover all the things you could do in the park. And I don’t have an hour. At 1 PM on a Saturday in July, I have maybe four minutes, tops—less if there’s a line. I want to give you the best park experience I can, but first I have to know what you’re looking for. (See I wish I was a golem, above.)
The most relieving moment for me is when a visitor comes to the desk with a map and a list and says, “We have four days. We’re camping near the South Gate. I have two kids under five who like to hike, but not more than four miles or so. This is what we were thinking of doing—can you give me your thoughts?”
She’s given me parameters to work with. She’s anything but a blank slate. She’s looked up a little online, talked to friends, and made notes of what she wants to do. So now I can tell her that sorry, this one trail is closed, but this other one may work well for you. Oh, and if you want to visit this location, I’d do it early so you can avoid the crowds. And if it were me, I’d flip these two days so you can see the bluegrass music we have on Saturday.
The other wonderful, glorious, hand-kissingly gratifying thing this visitor has done is to…
3. Allow yourself some time.
Another thing that will dismay a ranger is if you come to them and say, “I have an hour. What should I do here?”
Here’s the likely answer, borrowed from Yosemite naturalist Carl Sharsmith: “I’d cry.”
Unless you’re visiting a small national monument or historic site, there is simply very little you can do in a national park in an hour beyond sitting in traffic. I can potentially point you to the closest highlight of the park, but as I mentioned before, these are crowded places, and those highlights—think Old Faithful, or Clingman’s Dome—are going to be the most crowded places in the park. Parking will be impossible and people will be everywhere. It’s not going to be a pleasant experience.
Sometimes we can point you to a quiet trail or lookout nearby where you can take a moment and breathe before getting back in your car. If that’s what you and your family are looking for, tell us so, and we can try to make something work for you. But if you want to see the park’s greatest hits in a short timeframe, you may wish you hadn’t.
Allow yourself a little time. Spend a night, stay a while. I had one father and daughter from Brooklyn who spent three days just around our visitor center. They came to each one of my ranger programs and popped up now and again to ask about this hike or that hike. We got to know them so well that on their last day we had the daughter help us feed the pigs and chickens on the farm, and I had her help me take down the flag while her dad took pictures. What a neat experience for a little kid—to pal around with the rangers and have several days to just explore.
Breathe. Plan for a few days. Be realistic about time. You’re on vacation.
Unfortunately, if you visit during high season, you will probably still be running into crowds no matter how much you plan or how much time you have. So as a ranger, I will often advise folks to…
4. Consider looking outside the national park.
I know, I know—a national park ranger telling people to go outside the park. Hear me out.
Some national parks are islands in the middle of an urban jungle, but many aren’t. Many are surrounded by other forms of public land—national forests, state parks, wildlife refuges, et cetera. And in lots of cases, these areas are going to be just as beautiful as the national park, and they’re going to see a fraction of the visitation.
This is especially useful for folks looking to camp. Some of the cleverest visitors I’ve met are the ones who pitch their tents in the national forest next door, where camping is free and they’ve got the campground to themselves, and then they hike into the park, skipping the lines and vehicle fees (yes, that’s totally legal). Others will use the national forest as their base camp and drive in from there, planning for the added hour or so it may take them to get in the park.
If you truly want an off-the-cuff adventure, consider sticking to less traveled places like national forests or state parks. Be prepared on the basics: always fill up on gas when it’s available, always pee when you have the chance, and carry plenty of food and water with you. That will give you a little more wiggle room to explore those backcountry roads and remote areas.
And if most of this is news to you, I ask you to please…
5. Dispel with the notion that park rangers are keeping secrets from you.
First of all, if there are places you can’t go, unless it’s the employee break room (our safe space), it’s likely we can’t go there, either. The only secret we’ll keep from you is what our favorite restaurant is, to avoid accusations of the park patronizing certain businesses. Don’t think that we as rangers joyfully snigger at visitors having to plod along the boardwalks in the geyser basins while we prance across the sinter cones. We have just as much chance of falling in a hot spring as you, and we are just as vulnerable to mama grizzlies on trails that are closed because of bear cubs, and we cause just as much damage to revegetation zones, and we wait just as long as you in road construction traffic. (I worked with two rangers who were married and worked at two different visitor centers. It was only about 45 minutes between the two centers, but for much of the spring a key bridge was under construction, so instead they were forced to drive five hours around the loop road to see each other. We used to joke about them standing on either side of the bridge and signaling to each other in semaphore, or else playing Frisbee over the river.)
We’re not hiding the best places in the park from you. The highlights of the park are highlights for a reason—they’re gorgeous or significant in some way, and they’re easy to get to. Is the view down Cascade Canyon from Lake Solitude to the Teton Group better than the view from popular Inspiration Point? Yes, absolutely, A+, 100%, Would Date. But getting up to Lake Solitude takes eight miles of hiking one-way, whereas Inspiration Point is a short walk from the boat ramp. Most people are looking for the latter. This is why specifying is so helpful (see point 2). If you are looking for things that are off-the-beaten track, tell us so, but don’t expect them to be close by or convenient to get to—that’s why they’re less crowded.
If you truly want to be let in on ranger secrets, then you should definitely…
6. Go to a ranger program!
Park ranger programs are called “interpretation” (as in, you’re “interpreting” the park for the visitor) and have evolved waaayyy beyond Ranger Frank clicking the button on a slideshow of sedimentary rocks (although we do still have traditional programs like these, and sedimentary rocks can be pretty sweet). A large bulk of our job is researching, developing, and delivering interpretive programs, and we’re going to pull out all the stops to make sure it’s engaging for you and your kids. We know you don’t have to attend our program. We want you to want to attend our program.
Even if you have a high level of nature literacy and could hike Mount Rainier blindfolded, you might still be surprised at what you can learn following a ranger on a guided two-mile walk. We’re storytellers by trade. We aim not just to explain, but to inspire and provoke. We design our programs with that guiding principle in mind (throwback to that time a few days ago when I squealed and clapped my hands when one of our interns finally got her copy of Tilden’s Interpreting Our Heritage in the mail).
If you walk the south rim of the Grand Canyon, you’re going to see the stone wall along the edge, and you might even know it was built by the CCC. But unless you go on Ranger Molly’s History Walk, you’re going to miss the heart-shaped rock the CCC boys put in the wall right in front of the Harvey girls’ dormitories.
There are so many little stories that whisper through the parks. I’ve seen people in tears while listening to a ranger recount the family ties of the inhabitants of Mesa Verde. I’ve seen the Badlands transformed into Narnia and Middle Earth with a ranger who paralleled the otherworldly landscape with those from fiction. I’ve seen kids laugh with delight as the ranger uses her handkerchief to show how Wind Cave “breathes.” And yes, I’ve seen visitors sway and sing along with the ranger by the campfire as he sings “Home on the Range” in Yellowstone while the buffalo do, in fact, roam behind him.
Park rangers aren’t gatekeepers or armed guards. We’re ambassadors for the parks we represent. Come see us. Prepare a little beforehand. Let us know how we can help you. Our goal is to give you the best park experience we can. We want you to leave with fond memories, a greater appreciation for our country’s resources, and a heightened sense of the world around you. We want your kids to believe in the magic and majesty of our public lands. That’s why we do what we do. That’s why we wear the hat.
That’s a pretty sweet deal for the price of an entrance ticket.
Tomorrow my paperback releases. Several months ago, I asked my editor if I should be planning some kind of launch party. He replied with an emphatic yes, that this was an accomplishment worth celebrating. I worried a little bit because I knew that at the time of my release, I wasn’t going to be at home—I was going to be several hours away in Great Smoky Mountains. I couldn’t really throw the kind of party he was thinking of.
But tonight something wonderful and spontaneous happened. A whole bunch of us rangers got together for a bonfire and s’mores, swapping stories of other parks we’d been in and geeking out about interpretation. And then, in a sort of spur of the moment kind of decision, several of us decided to drive to a nearby trailhead, where we’d heard reports that our native synchronous fireflies had been flashing.
Woodwalker is set in a fantasy southern Appalachia. The Silverwood Mountains are the Great Smoky Mountains. And to Mae and her folk, firefly season is a sacred time full of celebration and reverence. So it struck me, as I walked up the trail in the dark with my fellow rangers, that this was, in fact, the greatest way I could have chosen to celebrate Woodwalker’s release. We reached a bend in the trail, near a patch of that damp, open woodland the fireflies like so much, and we were met with a dazzling wave of synchronized light flashing through the forest. Six, seven, eight bursts of coordinated flashing, and then darkness, like the flick of a lightswitch, and then a few seconds later—they began again. And the evening fireflies were out, swooping yellow with each blink. The flashbulbs were out, their strobe-light lanterns so bright they cast visible shadows on the path. And my favorite—and Mae’s favorite—the blue ghosts, were out, drifting gently among the flickering and flashing, glowing that soft, moonlight blue.
I am filled with gratitude for everyone who has helped and encouraged me along this journey—my family, my friends, my agent, my editor, my publicist, my fellow Harper Voyager authors whose camaraderie means so much to me. And I’m filled with gratitude simply to this place, and to these bugs, and the pillowed moss and the curling mist and the tumbling creeks that have saturated Woodwalker with so much life. Magic exists, and it exists here in these hills.
It’s that time of year again. Summer. Travel season. When vacations planned years in advance finally come together. The kids are out of school. It’s time for families to take some time and just be together. It’s time to create memories everybody can share further down the line.
For me, though, summer is starting to mean the opposite. Summer is when I pack my suitcase, get my ranger uniform out of storage, and leave my family behind. My life as a stay-at-home mom transitions abruptly—not just into being a working parent, but being a working parent far away from my husband and daughters.
It’s not as extreme as it sounds. Last summer, I spent a month on my own in Yellowstone before my husband and kids came out to spend the summer with me. They aren’t able to stay with me this summer, but being in Great Smoky Mountains means I am only two hours from home. They are visiting right now—the kids are napping on the couch cushions spread on the floor of the living room, since I only have one bedroom. So it’s not so bad. Some people face much more intense separations from their family for much longer lengths of time.
But that doesn’t make saying goodbye any easier, and it certainly doesn’t alleviate the significant level of guilt I feel as I drive away from my husband—left alone to be a single parent, and my kids—without their mom for a chunk of the summer. I have gotten pretty good at driving while crying. I usually end up holding lengthy conversations with myself to talk through this decision to put my two degrees in park management and visitor services to use. They often start with the same questions.
Why am I doing this? Is it really worth it? I have my degrees my whole life—my kids are only young once. Is it unfair to them? Will they be sad? Will they miss me? What if they don’t miss me? Will they behave for their daddy? Is it unfair to him? At least when I stay home during the school year, he comes home at night. He says it’s okay, that he likes having the chance to spend more time with the girls than he does during the rest of the year, but is this going overboard? Those other moms at church—the ones who homeschool their children and teach Sunday School and host juice and cookie parties—they wouldn’t do this to their families. Their families are more important to them than a career. And that’s right, isn’t it? That’s how it should be for a mother.
At the most recent goodbye, when I pulled out of the driveway for the Smokies, this narrative got me through civilization and into the national forests at the state line. The sprawl of urban South Carolina gave way to the Chattooga River and the evening light of the Georgia mountains. The land began to rise and fold. I wound up, up the steep road through Flowers Gap while the Avett Brothers serenaded from my speakers, I just want my heart to be true, and I just want my life to be true, and I just want my words to be true—I want my soul to feel brand new. Shifted into low gear on the far side and careened down, down, flanked on all sides by the emerald swells of the Appalachian foothills. Turned north to Cherokee.
It’s no secret that this landscape is magic to me. I wrote an entire novel romanticizing the mountains and the culture and the flora and fauna. Heck, I sanctified our native fireflies. And here in the Smokies, we’re in the thick of firefly season! I get to give a ranger talk to people who have traveled from far and wide to see them! The synchronous fireflies, the evening and flashbulb fireflies, the blue ghosts—my favorite—I get to be the cover band for folks riding the trolleys to see them.
The Catawba rhododendrons are blooming at high elevation—bursts of ostentatious purple-pink amid all the green. Women’s Work festival is coming in a few weeks—women will stream into the farm to show visitors how to spin yarn, cook on a hearth, and forage the forest for medicinal herbs. My programs on mountain farm life, birdsong, and stream creatures have to be researched. I’m surrounded by ranger hats! Surrounded by the background chatter of the park radio, the rooster screeching down on the farm. Kids bringing me their Junior Ranger books, ready to show me their work and be officially sworn in and given their badge.
My family got to be here for my first day back in uniform. As I got ready to head out the door, Amelia put a Frisbee on her head and said she was a park ranger. Lucy has already learned to identify mountain laurel and veeries, just as quickly as she learned aspen trees and ravens last summer. They leave tomorrow, and I’ll spend my days in uniform and my nights writing and drawing (except when I’m with the fireflies). During the week, I’ll Skype with them and hear about how they got to go to the hardware store and how Dad had a surprise for them and it was pudding! And then on my next set of lieu days, I’ll drive back down to see them. And do it over again.
The goodbyes might get easier throughout the summer—but I doubt it. Despite this, I am happy with what my family has chosen to do with our summers. I was happy about it last year, and I’m happy about it this year. There are sacrifices to any lifestyle. Because I have a family, because I have kids who will be in school and a husband with a solid job, I know I will not be pursuing a full-time ranger position, not for a long time, if ever. I will be working seasonally long after my colleagues have landed permanent jobs or moved on to a more stable field. But I’m happy with that, too. And I’m happy to think about where we might go in the future—what new places and exciting adventures might become just another part of my kids’ childhoods. Last year it was seeing Old Faithful erupt every day. This year it’s probing deep into the rich forests of southern Appalachia. That, to me, is worth it—even if we have to say goodbye for a little while to make it happen.
The "how I got my agent" post is a traditional rite-of-passage for any aspiring author, so here we go. When I first heard from my agent, I was a ranger at Yellowstone for the summer, focusing mainly on telling people when Old Faithful was going to erupt and trying not to be murdered by the most murder-y park in the NPS . That was in 2015. Woodwalker came out in the spring of 2016, and its companion will be out in early 2017. But signing with an agent was my first huge step forward. The first, and potentially most significant.
The story about how I got my agent is, perhaps, no more intriguing than anybody else’s, except there were probably more bison involved than most. Here’s more or less how it went, written inexplicably in second-person.
To everyone still in the grips of querying—there’s no advice I can give you that you haven’t already read a hundred times over. Keep at it. Keep writing. Make a point of connecting with people going through the same journey. Vent (but not unprofessionally). Cry (long and hard). Rejoice (longer and harder).
And stay the hell away from bison, because seriously, all they want is to see you suffer.
Emily B. Martin
Author and Illustrator