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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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.

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.

#Instagram #birds #buffalo #unobservant

I stepped out into a crisp July day at about 7:49 a.m. this morning and was met with the sound of laughter. Or was it crying? Nope, definitely laugh…maybe someone was crying. It was coming from the naturalists’ storage shed, and there were a couple cars parked out front, so I went to investigate.

“Joe?” I asked warily as I came upon the shed. It sounded like she had her leg caught under a fallen piece of equipment and was screaming.
Then there was riotous laughter.

Two of the park’s naturalists, Joe (also known as Joe-Joe) and Melissa emerged from the shed looking like they’d been dipped in honey and then rolled around in massive amounts of mangy looking feathers. It wasn’t far from the truth – while looking for supplies for an educational canoeing program, they had come across a couple of sweatshirts that someone had fashioned into bird costumes. The dark cloth had been extended below the arms to create wings and large feathers had been attached. The hoods even sported two giant white fluffy balls that represented some of the weirdest bird eyes I’ve ever seen, but the whole getup was pretty brilliant in my opinion.

But after a time in the shed, the costumes were beginning to look frayed and worn. So, the two goofy naturalists had put them on and were dancing wildly around the storage shed singing some disco-era tune. It was a pretty funny sight and put me in a happy mood as I walked to work.

Fast forward about an hour. Someone posted an Instagram photo of the park to our Twitter account, so I attempted to check it out and see if it was re-tweetable. The page slowly loaded and the photo I was looking for was strangely MIA, but another buffalo picture loaded instead. It was taken and uploaded at about 8 a.m. by one of the girls who lives in the dorms. It read:

sarah89765: Good morning!!! Buffalo love our volleyball court. #custerstatepark #buffalo

The photo showed a large hulking buffalo lounging in the sand of our volleyball court. This wouldn’t be anything unusual except for the fact that I had gone outside and walked right by that spot and not even noticed him. Had the laughter and the bird costumes really been that distracting?

How does one not notice a giant brown life form sitting mere yards away from them? I don’t know – maybe I was still technically asleep or maybe I just missed him and he wasn’t even there. All I know is that from now on, I’m looking both ways before leaving the dorms.

We’re all just a bunch of buffalo.

When you’re around animals a lot, their daily habits start looking a little less like random behavior and a lot more like a soap opera.

First, it was the deer – the same two deer that have been stalking on my way to and from work, actually. They were apparently a couple and have now spawned an adorable little fawn that is too quick to get a good photo of. So, they still stalk me, but it’s different now that I know they’re a mom and a dad. The baby deer always sees me and runs into the tall grass to disappear while mom and dad don’t move at all and stand there as if to say, “What? Oh, you thought you saw something? You must be mistaken. Move along.”

What's that you say? Oh, there's nothing to see here, I promise. You can trust me; I'm a deer.

What’s that you say? Oh, there’s nothing to see here, I promise. You can trust me; I’m a deer.


And then there’s the buffalo. This time of year is known as ‘The Rut,’ which basically means it’s mating season. The feisty buffalo are a lot more active and are obviously paired off. Groups of yearlings and calves are always accompanied by two or three mature bull/cow pairs, and watching them dance around the inevitable is pretty entertaining (and a little terrifying). It’s as if you’re watching the ‘Bold and the Beautiful’ or ‘Guiding Light’ when a smaller, more feisty bull approaches the big granddaddy and tries to spar for the female – who really has no choice in the matter at all. The biggest and baddest bulls always win, but it’s still kind of fun to root for the underdog.
I present to you 'The Bold and the Buffalo'

I present to you ‘The Bold and the Buffalo’


All of this animal-watching has made me think about our behavior in the employee dorms. After all, we’re merely animals, right? For those of you who disagree; read on.

What’s funny is that we totally do the same sorts of things the wildlife around the park does. The most experienced male, the unicycling park veteran Cody, was the alpha male. Even though he lived with two other guys who we all liked equally as much, it was always “Cody’s cabin” or “Cody and the guys.” He always was subconsciously given ownership. It wasn’t a conscious choice – it just happened. Then, when Cody was gone for a week at a unicycling nationals, it kind of just morphed into “Charlie’s cabin” and “Charlie and the guys,” because he was the next in line. No voting, no decisions – just nature.

It was the same with the girls. Sarah, the loudest and most boisterous of the group, was just automatically rallied around as the alpha female because was the first one here, she was the one who motivated us all to hang out together, and well…she was just kind of the loudest, so it wasn’t exactly easy to let her fade from your mind (and I say that in the most loving way possible).

But then, just like the buffalo, as the summer wore on we separated into smaller groups. Yes, we all still hang out together and we all get along, but we’ve separated into smaller herds. Mouse-finding Kori and I have split off with our respective boyfriends because, well, that’s what animals do. It’s biology. Sarah has kind of created her own smaller herd that all hangs out together, and another quieter herd has also formed with some of our group’s more docile members.

It might be a little offensive to refer to humans and friends in such animalistic terms, but I’m trying to make a point. While we’re a more intelligent species, when you break it down, we’re just as wild and primal as the buffalo. It’s not a choice – it’s a feeling, a pull toward something you don’t even realize is happening until you reflect back on it. And yes, our ability to reflect back on things – heck – our ability to use utensils and drive racecars and bake cookies and eat worms for $5 as a kid all make us a more superior species.

But we’re a species nonetheless; nothing but animals. Maybe that’s why I like it here so much – it’s bringing me back to my animal roots. Who knows?

Anna the Intern – Lightning Chaser Extraordinaire!

It has been a lightning-filled summer here at Custer State Park. I’m not a meteorologist so I have no idea why, but the sky has been filled with lightning almost every night whether it rains or not. Sometimes it’s a distant thunderstorm over Rapid City and sometimes it’s just dry lightning directly over the park, but it’s been pretty cool regardless.

But not everyone agrees with me. For reasons I cannot grasp, Dennis and my boyfriend and a couple other people who work with me are afraid of lightning. Ok, when confronted with the phrase “afraid,” they’ll deny it fervently, but let’s just say they are extremely and, in my opinion, unnecessarily cautious when it comes to thunderstorms. My boyfriend insists that lightning is powerful and should be respected while Dennis launches into rants about how dangerous lightning strikes can be…yadda, yadda.

But I want a lightning photo!

Like this!

Like this!


Or this!

Or this!


Or even this!

Or even this!


I don’t even know if my camera(s) have a fast enough shutter speed, but I’d like to try and capture the light as it shoots across the sky in bolts. Because of this, when stormy clouds rolled into the park today, I headed for Mount Coolidge.

Mount Coolidge serves as the park’s lookout point for almost anything; fire, buffalo, nuclear warheads, Batman – you name it. It’s high up and has lots of tall metal posts, so I was breaking pretty much every lightning rule there is and I acknowledge that it was mildly stupid. You see, I respect weather, but I also surrender to it. I’m not going to go 20s-era pole sitting during a storm, but in my opinion if lightning wants to strike you, it’s going to strike you. There are too many “I was in the safest place possible and I still got struck!” stories out there for me to ever think I could hide from fate.

So, I drove up the steep winding road hoping to capture something cool for our Facebook page (facebook.com/custerstatepark – like us!) or for a future brochure, I didn’t know. I just knew it would be cool.

And then the clouds cleared. As if by some magic, the clouds moved on and I was left standing on top of a hill in the brilliant sunshine. I was disappointed, but I still snapped some photos. This is the best one I got:

You'll notice there's a lack of lightning. Or bad weather at all.

You’ll notice there’s a lack of lightning. Or bad weather at all.


Or maybe this one:
Of course, it looks like Narnia when I need it to look like Mordor.

Of course, it looks like Narnia when I need it to look like Mordor.


So, I’ll keep chasing the lightning until I get what I want. Maybe it’ll never happen and maybe it will, but until then, I’ll be that crazy person driving toward the storm instead of away from it.