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.

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.

Outsmarted by an inanimate object…again.

I walked into the office a few minutes ago after returning from a much-needed long holiday weekend. This morning had been a flurry of emails and “Oh yeah, I need to do that like, right now.” But after the noon hour and running a couple errands, things had calmed down.

That’s when the secretary spoke up.

“Oh Anna,” she said innocently, “I need your timesheet.”

The timesheet; the bringer of death and mathematics. The killer of souls and keeper of time. The timesheet.

Pay weeks are weird here, and so you have to remember your hours aren’t just counted on a normal 7-day, Monday through Friday work week. Instead, it usually ends up with a week and a third or two weeks and a couple days being on one timesheet while the rest filters over onto the next pay period, and then numbers and Satan get together and make you forget which days were on last week’s timesheet and…have I lost you yet?

I thought so.

For once though, that wasn’t even the problem. I had kept track of the work week and filled out my timesheet correctly, but the universe had found a way to screw it up again. The secretary’s mention of the dreaded timesheet made me remember that right before leaving for the weekend I had put it in one of my desk drawers. This wouldn’t be a problem normally, but my desk is old, wooden and magical. It oftentimes uses its magic to selectively lock some of the drawers and won’t let me into them until it feels like it.

Or at least that’s what I thought.

So, I went “Down Under” and proceeded to try and break into my desk. I pulled upwards, downwards, left and right until I was almost sweaty, but the drawer wouldn’t budge. Mind you, other drawers on my desk remained open with no problem. It was like the stupid piece of lumber and nails was giving me attitude because it knew I was helpless.

I gave up. One of the guys upstairs said he had a hammer and other supplies that I might be able to use to get into my magic desk, so he got them and we returned to see what damage I could inflict with tools I didn’t really know how to use (He had something called a kitty wrench? Or something? Such an odd name for a tool…). As we approached the big, hulking piece of wood, he said, “Did you open the middle drawer?”
“What?” I asked.
“The main middle drawer, like right where you sit?”
“Oh…no?” I answered confusedly. “Why would that matter?”

By that time I was already at my desk and had proceeded to open the empty middle drawer. I was in the middle of still being confused as to why that mattered when I tried the magical locked drawer and it opened with a sad thud, revealing my timesheet.

“Sometimes, if you shut that drawer in the locked position, it locks every other drawer in the desk,” he explained kindly.

I’ve never felt so stupid in my life. I’ve always considered myself slightly mechanically inclined – I’ve taken apart and reassembled too many strings of Christmas lights to count, I can put together desktop computers, I know the ins and outs of hot water heaters, I’ve installed my own headlights and windshield wiper blades, and for Pete’s sake, I’ve sat at desks before. But this stupid piece of colorless wood outsmarted me. I am humbled.

Kindness

You know when you walk into a room and you immediately get that bad feeling that everybody was just talking about you? Then you start to wonder, “Were they saying something bad? Probably…I bet it was the story from the last office Christmas party, or maybe I forgot to turn my timesheet in…”

Well at Custer State Park, it’s the exact opposite.

Everyone here is just so nice. For instance, on my way to work this morning, a random park employee I had never met before stopped and started singing “High ho, high ho, it’s off to work we go!” to me to get me to smile. Trust me, it’s pretty hard to get me to smile in the morning, but this guy managed it.

I haven’t met one disingenuous person yet. Because I’m a woman, I pick up on little things. I always notice when the waitress is cranky and being passive aggressive when my male friends never do. I notice when other women are pretending to be nice but can’t wait to leave and tell their friends horrible things about me. Some men might say this is a bad ‘skill’ to have, but they don’t get it and never will (ladies, can I get an “Amen!?”).

But again, everyone here is just so nice. An older couple who live in a camper near our dorm cabins once brought us a pizza…just because. Craig Pugsley is always interested in how everyone is doing. A gate attendant named Bobbie is so hilarious and awesome that we’ve all met up for dinner with her a couple times. The secretaries even took time out of their day once to help me figure out where a mysterious cake came from (and then proceeded to help me eat it when we discovered that it was unclaimed).

Everyone my age is great too and on my first night I couldn’t believe it. Sarah was welcoming and hilarious and Beth’s sense of humor put everyone at ease – just to name a couple. The guys were equally as nice, but I still waited to encounter that one person who was going to mess everything up and be…not nice. A couple of days later, a volunteer named Tess walked up to the fire; she was tall, blonde, skinny and beautiful with some of the prettiest eyes I have ever seen, so my first thought was, “Oh, she’s going to think she’s better than all of us.”

I will forever be sorry for thinking that, because it immediately became clear that not only was she down to earth, she was goofy and friendly to everyone. She has turned out to be one of the most honest and hilarious girls I have ever met.

Actually, this is her.

Actually, this is her.


I wish more of the world operated like this place. We’re all going to die one day anyway, so why not be nice while we can? It’s just not worth it to be angry and hold grudges. When I see tourists on the side of the road looking confusedly at a map, I stop and ask if they need directions. When I get annoyed at how long someone is taking to get gas at the park shop, I get out and talk to them – I’ve met some really great people that way and even made friends with the Park Ranger intern (which I feel might come in handy). When I encounter an angry park visitor, I ask them what’s wrong and listen while they tell me about their horrible car/job/spouse/child, which is always the ultimate reason they’re cranky in the first place.

Trust me; it’s much more fun to run with the buffalo than it is to fight with them.