I have been thinking about how being a ranger is all about the here-and-now. We have a couple of supervisors who either just retired, or are retiring soon. One of the permanent rangers observed, “I’ve seen a few people retire. Some are ready, and some fight it tooth and nail. Some try to establish a legacy and think nobody will be able to replace them. But you know what? The day after their retirement, it’s as if they were never here. We’re all replaceable.”
This is true. It is a paradox of being a park ranger. We are critical to the well-being of both visitors and park. We are well-trained, with hundreds of hours of preparation for medical emergencies, search and rescue, law enforcement emergencies, wildlife management, boat operation, swiftwater rescue, high angle rescue…the list goes on. It takes a lot of time and money and experience to make a ranger, and yet when one retires or quits or dies or is fired, the hole is easily plugged. There’s always another ranger, someone who’s put themselves through law enforcement academy or EMT class or language training, someone’s who’s logged hundreds of hours of their own time on the crag or in the mountains or in the water, ready and eager to step in.
Which leads to the existential question: why are we here?
Lots of things happened at work this week. I was interviewed by kids for our Junior Ranger program. A woman gave hugs to me and all the people who put her husband on a backboard and carried him down a rocky trail to a waiting ambulance, and refused to be deterred when we protested that we were sweaty and dirty and she really didn’t need to, we were just doing our jobs. I explained soil compaction and the reason for exclosures to people who’d jumped the ropes into a revegetated area—and was backed up by a guide who said when he started working in that area 20 years ago, trees that are thriving now appeared dead. I was the first on scene and medical lead for a serious climbing accident; it was my first “big trauma” and, fortunately, it was a win—the patient has a lot of recovery in front of him, but will probably be able to climb again one day. I cannot emphasize strongly enough that I did not save the young man’s life, but that I was part of a group of 40 or so who probably did.
These are small things and won’t matter much in the large view, but in the moment they do. It has taken me a long time to learn to be right here, right now. I’m not very good at it still, but more and more I see how vital it is. As a ranger, the meaningfulness of my work isn’t what my legacy will be decades hence—because it probably won’t. It lies in what is happening now. Two days ago 40 people saved a life and it does not matter to me that we can and will all be replaced one day. It matters to me that we were there on that day.