The end is only the beginning, or so I’ve been told.

I came here in jeans and a bright pink leopard-print shirt. I sped into the parking lot at the office building to look like I was “cool” to the group of college kids standing out front, and I never met one of them. I still don’t know who they were.

Maybe that small, insignificant 5 minutes was the greatest moment in my life, but then again, maybe the greatest moment was the first time I climbed to the top of a needle with Cody. Maybe it was the first time I rode a roller coaster, had a slice of Lintz Bros pizza, laid out at Center Lake with Kori, took my first step, or was the day I graduated from high school – but who cares? What matters is that I’ve had more “greatest” moments this summer than I ever have in my entire life.

I feel ethereal. I feel like I’m floating between two planes and there’s nothing I can do about it. I feel the tug of happiness right within my grasp but I also feel a dark sadness looming over my head like the rain cloud that’s moving over the park as I write this. And yet, I feel like I’ve met too many amazing people here at Custer State Park to indulge in the selfish emotion of sadness, so instead, I’ll tell you about yesterday.

Last night, the people who still remained in the park went to a small picnic. We laughed until our sides hurt and took a million embarrassing photos – my face is still sore from laughing. After the picnic I headed to Hill City to see my boyfriend and as I drove, a strange calm came over me. I think it was because the rain was coming – it had been for about an hour, so there was a deep, black cloud that hung above the park as I trekked onward.

And right when this song came on my iPod, I saw it. Feel free to keep listening while you read.

Some things you can’t capture in a photo or with words – all you can do is try, and even then you know you’ll ultimately fail. What matters is that you tried.

The sun was setting with a bright pink glow in the west while a giant black cloud hung over top of it. It’s like whoever was in charge of the sunset that day felt bad about not letting us see it at the park and pulled back the edge of the clouds just a little so that I could get a glimpse. The fuchsia pink of the sunset over the tops of the glowing green pine trees was too beautiful for words and the picture I took with my cell phone doesn’t even begin to do it justice. And at that exact moment, it stopped sprinkling and warmed up just a couple degrees; enough to make the rain begin to evaporate from the road and create a dancing, swirling mist the shrouded everything near it.

It was perfect, and as I drove through the mist that whispered of Ireland toward the sunset that looked like it would have tasted like fruit punch, I knew this moment was created for me and me alone.

And then it was gone as quickly as it came – the temperature got one degree too warm or too cold for the mist and the cloud finally defeated the sun and blanketed it completely. But that was ok, because just like this summer, it was perfect while it lasted and anything more would have just made my head explode with happiness.

This won’t be my last post, but this is the last time I’ll be writing from my windowless, awesome, hole of an office with my bats, my phone that still confuses me, and the cookies I’ve been slowly and inconspicuously eating out of the freezer (sorry, but they’ve been down here for weeks and nobody has claimed them.) I would love nothing more than to come back, repay someone for those stolen cookies and work here again one day.

Signing off for now from Custer State Park,
Anna the Lightning-Chasing, Buffalo-Stalking, Rain-Dancing, Hiking, Biking, Walking, Gate-Working, Phone-Answering, Scanner-Using, Photo-Taking, Rambling, Happy Intern

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One Last Hike

I’ve been so sore for the last few days that I could barely move, but that’s probably because I conquered the world last week.

Sunday Gulch Trail is one of the park’s most diverse and beautiful journeys, but I still hadn’t walked it. I had to, however, to collect GPS points for my job, so I set out on a cool and breezy day thinking the hike would be mildly difficult, but definitely doable in a couple hours.

The trail immediately corrected my thinking by revealing the railings on either side of the trail that continued down a massive hill of boulders. The railings should have clued me in, but I hopped, skipped and jumped from boulder to boulder while taking in the amazing scenery. I was traveling next to a dainty waterfall that slowly began to encroach more and more on my walking path, but I figured it would go away soon.

It didn’t. In fact, it got much worse. I soon found myself tiptoeing on the points of rocks that jutted out of the flowing creek I was now supposed to travel in. Not even halfway down the hill, I had to surrender to the fact that I was going to get wet because I encountered this:

Death!

Death!


After nearly sliding down on my rear end, I made it down the steep climb with everything soaked up to my knees.
That isn't stairs, it's a man-made waterfall.

That isn’t stairs, it’s a man-made waterfall.


But to be honest, the water was cool in the warm sun and it all kind of felt good – until I realized that the soles of my hiking shoes were now permanently slippery and that I had tripled my chances of slipping and falling like one of the three stooges on a banana peel.
At least there were railings to hold on to.

At least there were railings to hold on to.


After that, the trip was fairly easy for about a mile. The trail winds through a beautiful, lush forest with lots of tiny creek crossings and tons of towering Ponderosa Pines flanked by amazing rock formations.
Breathtaking...and really really difficult.

Breathtaking…and really really difficult.


But then, I came upon a legitimate river. Seriously, the little wandering creek I had been following turned into this wide, fast-flowing river where my trail was supposed to go, so I was left with no choice but to scale the rocks flanking it. They were steep and moist from all the water, but I made it around by clinging for my life. I did accidentally lose my green water bottle, and as it fell back down to the ground behind me, I wished it well and kept going because there was no way I was climbing that again. I hope whoever finds it gives it a happy home.
Notice I have no photo here because I was busy clinging for my life.

Notice I have no photo here because I was busy clinging for my life.


After skirting the river, I thought I was home-free. The trail opened up on this steep, flat piece of granite that shot into the air and was glowing with lime green algae – very beautiful and very strange.
Worth it.

Worth it.


That’s when I realized there was nowhere else for me to go; the river dropped off into a waterfall that cascaded down about 40 feet and the rocks were too flat to climb on either side. Why had nobody warned me about this? Was this trail supposed to be closed?
Rushing rushing rushing water...down down down to my ultimate clumsy demise.

Rushing rushing rushing water…down down down to my ultimate clumsy demise.


But then it hit me; I was going to have to jump over the waterfall. If I had done it at that moment, I don’t think I would have gotten as scared and it wouldn’t have been a big deal, but as I watched the drops rise up in the air after splashing down into the depths at the bottom of the falls, I began to panic. There was no way I was going to make this 4-foot jump and I was going to slip, fall, and end up in the water with a broken ankle.

Somehow, I made it (after perilously balancing on several small rocks and shaking like an idiot.)

I was freaked out, but like a true professional, I still took a picture of the waterfall through my legs right before I took one last leap.

I was freaked out, but like a true professional, I still took a picture of the waterfall through my legs right before I took one last leap.


Once past the waterfall, the trek was surprisingly less grandiose. The trail abruptly began to look less rocky and scenic and I followed the road back toward where I had started. I encountered a family who asked me, “How far do we have left to go?”

“Oh, quite a bit farther,” was my reply, to which they all began to squawk about how that just wasn’t possible.

I pulled out my GPS and saw that, in fact, as the crow flies, we didn’t actually have that much further to go – so, after admitting my mistake, we headed off separately.

That’s when I began to get hot and sweaty as the climb got increasingly more vertical. The trail looped around and around and around until I realized that sadly, my first reply to the family had indeed been correct.

An hour later, I came off the end of the trail and abruptly ran into Sylvan Lake. My feet were still soaked and I was hot and sweaty, so I headed off to grab a late lunch at the Sylvan Lake General Store before heading back to my blessedly cool (and still smelly) office. The bikers from the motorcycle rally were still filtering through the park at that point and a rowdy group of them actually picked one of their friends up and threw him in one of the giant troughs that contained ice water to keep the sodas cold. While the resort employees laughed and the bikers clapped each other on the back, the poor guy gasped and struggled his way out of the giant metal bucked full of ice water…and I wanted nothing more than to jump into it myself.

12 things that will never be the same after this summer –

1. Fried egg sandwiches. I was taught to make them with ketchup on wheat bread and always hated it, but the unicyclist Cody showed me the light by using less healthy bread, grape jelly and mayonnaise. Delicious!

2. Healthy cooking. Our resident French chef and twerking expert, Kevin, has showed me some amazing recipes, including a kimchi salad that is healthy and scrumptious. He also made amazing vegetarian gravy, but let’s face it, I don’t want to mess around with gravy.

3. Sunsets. I’ve never seen ones as beautiful as I have here.

4. Bats. I know their smell now. Thanks to a guy in the office, I also know that if you coat a 2×4 in foil and let some light reflect off it in the dark, bats will fly into said piece of lumber and knock themselves out long enough for you to dispose of them however you see fit.

5. Cell phones. Never again will I take them for granted. You have to work so HARD here to get them to pick up anything and most of the time that sucks the battery dry. We currently have a system of duck taping them to the window of an outside door and it’s been working pretty well.

6. Cheese. I’m pretty sure every time I eat cheese I’ll think of all the times we just sat around and ate cheese. By itself.

7. “Crazy Kids” by Ke$sha and “We Can’t Stop” by Miley Cyrus.

8. Batman.

9. Secrets. In reality, there are none. I’m pretty sure almost every person I live around in the park knows everything about my summer and I know everything about theirs. (And if they don’t know, someone else does and would totally clue them in.) This includes but is not limited to sleeping, bathroom, and eating habits, along with previous relationships, family, “that one time at band camp” stories, accidental nudity in front of windows, and online shopping purchases.

10. Bugs. While I still don’t enjoy their presence, I’m much more tolerant now.

11. Ferrets.

Meet Penelope.

Meet Penelope.

12. Boys’ bathrooms. Seriously, the cabin we always hang out in is inhabited by three guys who I don’t consider to be hairy men, but the way their bathroom looks says otherwise.

Narrative

I am 21 years old and I have the legs of a boy half my age who has spent the summer away at camp for the first time. I am itchy with chigger bites and my knees bear the scars from nights playing sand volleyball and days spent hiking. My feet are covered with a kaleidoscope of tan lines from various sandals and my pink toenail polish is all but worn off. As I lie in bed at night and stare blankly at my computer screen, a tiny gnat – one of many – lands on my bright screen. I am surrounded by the type of wood paneling that makes you think of dank flannel shirts and as I try not to think about the ghosts that surely inhabit these walls, I have never been happier.

But summer is ending. I can hear my new friends outside in the hallway saying cheerful goodnights to each other, but we all know this bacchanalian is about to end. Nobody wants to talk about it though, because frankly, we all might start crying, and the scary part is we’ve all become so close that it would totally be ok.

I have one week of work left and I am almost hoping my boss forgets and just lets me keep working. The only thing keeping me from begging for a full time job and dropping out of college completely is the fact that my mother left school after 3 years and I know I can’t disappoint her like that. But it would be so easy…and it would feel so right. And the whole point of college is to go out and get a job, right?

It isn’t just the woods and the animals and the smell of campfires accompanied by the joyous laughter of children. It isn’t just that I love my job. It isn’t the buffalo and it isn’t the deer who live so near to our dorm that we talk to them like they’re our community dogs. It’s the people here that have made this experience so amazing, so the only comforting thought I have about leaving is that perhaps, in years to come, the same people won’t be back here and therefore it won’t be as awesome and I won’t be missing out. It’s selfish, but I’m a girl and I’m feeling sentimental, so cut me a little slack.

You see, I have Fomo Syndrome – a term we coined at the dorms that stands for “fear of missing out.” I’ve always been like that; Fomo kept me from taking naps as a child because I thought I was going to miss out on something important and I hated going to bed early because I knew that was when all the juicy stuff happened. I don’t want to miss out on more of the phenomenal experiences I’ve had while working at Custer State Park. Hopefully in the future we all will still see each other; a few of us already have plans to visit and those of us with significant others in the park are all going to try and make it work. There are quite a few of us who are going to come back for the Buffalo Roundup in September, so as I look forward to that I can only bite my lip, carry on through this week, and soak in every last drop of goodness in the air.

Bats; they’re a problem.

Custer State Park has some really cool wildlife, but I’ve kind of had it with the bats.

Earlier in the summer, a group of us younger seasonal workers went on an evening swim at Legion Lake. I chose to sit on the beach and watch, and was rewarded with the sight of a couple hundred bats swooping and diving through the air above my friends’ heads. It was dark enough that no one was the wiser of what was happening, and I got to see these cool little creatures catch their dinner in midair.

Now, move forward in time to last week. We leave the doors on the dorm building open a lot if it gets stuffy or we’re all right outside. Last week, Dennis was laying in our lounge watching Netflix when a group of us walked through to go sit on the stoop outside. The door was open already and I saw what I thought was a giant moth flying around the tiny room.

“Hey is that a…”
“That’s a bat!” somebody chirped.

Sure enough, there was a freaked out bat doing circles in the lounge in a constant search for the door.

And the funny thing was, nobody really did anything. We all just filtered through the room and onto the porch. Once we were through, somebody turned around and said, “We should do something?

“What?”
“Should we shut the inside door?”
“Probably.”
“Think it can get out on its own?”
“I don’t know.”
“Maybe if it stays in there it will eat all those little gnats that get inside.”
“I don’t want it to get into my room.”
“Nah, it’ll be fine.”

And we all just kind of stood there and stared at the thing as it continued its search for the door. This went on for about 30 seconds before the creature lucked out and flew back out of the building and we continued with our evening.

But it’s not over. Yesterday was the first day back in my office after working entrance stations and when I walked down the stairs to “Down Under,” I was greeted with the smell of sewage. I asked Karla the secretary for some air spray moments later.

“It’s probably the bats,” she explained. Apparently, they had been trickling down from the attic into the main part of the office and one may or may not have somehow gotten into the basement.

The air freshener helped, but now it just smells like sewage covered in flowers and peaches, so I hope the bat is gone.

Fingers crossed he doesn’t fly over my head. Any second now…

Blue Bell for life!

On my second day of working at Blue Bell gate selling bike bands, the ladies, who I consider my friends, cornered me.

“So, you know I read your blog.” Barb said. She’s the matriarch of the gate and one of the funniest ladies I’ve ever met.

There are no words to describe the awesomeness.

There are no words to describe the awesomeness.


“Yes…” I trailed off, not knowing why she was standing so close to me with her hands on her hips in a stance that said don’t mess with Texas.

“Well, I’m just hoping you don’t plan on writing anything about us…you know…and some of the stuff we’ve said,” she menaced above me.

I giggled.

So, I can’t write about any of the insanely hilarious comments we made about bikers as they passed wearing nothing but pasties and ¼ of a shirt. I can’t write about the dogs on bikes in their little doggy goggles and little doggy Harley Davidson gear. I can’t write about getting locked in the Port-a-Potty. I can’t write about how badly we wanted a clean, good-looking guy to offer to give us a ride. I can’t write about the stories Melissa and I swapped and I definitely can’t write about…well, I’ll stop there.

I can, however, write about how much I respect and revere the gate attendants so much more than I ever did before. Technically speaking, it’s easy work, but I had no idea how mentally and physically exhausting it can be just to get people to drive in the right lane of traffic. Even with chairs and a fan, it’s really draining talking to people, answering the eternal question of “Where are the buffalo?” and selling entrance passes. Blue Bell is the gate at the west entrance of the Wildlife Loop, so if you came through in the last three days, you proabably saw me. I was usually the one dancing around waving neon green bands in the air.

And in case you were wondering, THE BUFFALO ARE SOMEWHERE ON THE WILDLIFE LOOP ROAD. Just keep driving until you see giant, hulking brown mammals.

Print this off. Bring it with you.

Print this off. Bring it with you.


What makes this park great is that everyone working supports each other during the rally (or at least that was my observation). One of the park administrators brought us brownies and the resort company gives us lunch if they aren’t busy. I even got some coffee delivered after begging for a while, and Barb and Sheila were constantly making sure nobody was nauseous at the gate because heat exhaustion is a real threat.
Must...have...water!

Must…have…water!


On my last day at the gate, the ladies even made me a makeshift goodbye card – I’m Blue Bell for life now!

Bulletin Board Drama

So, apparently, someone creates a collage of sorts and uses the bulletin board in the back hallway of the office to thank the volunteers who work here all summer. This year, I get to do it.

You might think this is a simple task, but it’s the opposite. In previous years, they have taken mug shots of every volunteer and just stuck them up there with some sort of “Thank you!” message. This year, nobody remembered to do this until July, so the volunteers were scattered throughout the park. At first, I tried tracking them down, but this proved to be time-consuming and tedious.

Sometimes people wouldn’t let me take their pictures because they were too sweaty/had bad hair/didn’t do their makeup that day and so they’d offer to come into the office later. The ones that did usually came on my days off, so that didn’t help. Some of them didn’t live in the park and some of them didn’t work that often, so tracking these folks down turned into a fiasco.

So, instead of killing myself trying to hunt everyone down, I thought I’d do a more fun board and use fewer pictures. The plan was to involve a couple group shots of volunteers at the visitor center and at their campers, but I was informed by one of the secretaries that if I didn’t include ABSOLUTELY EVERYONE, people would get angry.

ABSOLUTELY EVERYONE includes a list of names that’s three pages long.

Seriously? Over a bulletin board that most people don’t even see? Are these people five years old? If this summer has taught me anything, it’s that as some people get older and older, they tend to act younger and younger.

But apparently it’s a big deal, and if I include one I have to include them all. I was stumped for a while until one of the girls I live with came into the office and suggested I include everyone’s name and just forgo the photos.

Eureka!

So here I sit, tediously cutting out letters to spell out “Thank you volunteers!” and trying to figure out what I’m going to do. And if anybody has a problem with the finished product, they can come “Down Under” and complain directly to me.