Ranger Kathryn's Arches

October 18, 2010

The anticipated identity crisis


“When you’re finished changing, you’re finished.” — Benjamin Franklin


The blank before me asks my occupation; I swallow hard. “Former park ranger” is too painful, but “park ranger” isn’t exactly true, so I settle on “seasonal park ranger.” I suppose I could write “substitute teacher” or “motivational speaker,” but I haven’t quite jumped into those roles yet. “Park ambassador” is fun to ponder; I’d love to figure out how to make that one earn a salary. Bottom line: who am I?


A lovely autumn day in the front yard in Minnesota (said with a very round 'o')


My Facebook profile pic, a lively head shot of me in ranger hat and garb, had to be updated; every time I looked at it I gulped and thought, “That was then. I need a ‘now’ photo.” (Again: who am I?) Selecting a new one was an important part of acknowledging that I’m moving forward after one of the most marvelous summers of my life. Many changes accompany the transition.

I no longer reflexively upend my shoes before slipping my feet in, as scorpions don’t live in Minnesota. I drink the tap water instead of filling my 5-gallon jug at Matrimony Springs or Gearheads. My hat is for warmth instead of solar protection. The environment is all green instead of all red. Lizards are strangely absent. My wardrobe is no longer for outdoor activities, but for “hanging out.” Glorious sunsets are non-existent. I’m mocked by the rock climbing gear sitting on a closet shelf, with nowhere to take it. My ‘snake vigilance’ when walking at night is now zero. The misplacing of my sunscreen is not cause for concern. Olive, my car, doesn’t turn into a giant portable oven. The Milky Way is hardly visible to me. Potlucks here showcase dishes with tater tots and cream of mushroom soup, instead of quinoa or wheat berries. Hey — I can even make a left turn onto Main Street without an interminable wait.

Change, even when positive, is tinged with melancholy. I left a good chunk of my heart in the parks and people and landforms of Utah. In exchange, I have hugged, conversed with, cooked for and played croquet with my children this weekend, the very ones whom “nearest and dearest” describes. I’m not more than a mile from my sweetest girlfriends, the ones who would do anything for me. I’m watching autumn take over my back yard as I make coffee for my brother who comes to bow hunt the deer. I’m once again within driving distance of those who matter most in my life. I feel rich.

Ralph Waldo Emerson sums up this trade-off: “For everything you have missed, you have gained something else, and for everything you gain, you lose something else.” These are the exchanges that make up my life, your life, each minute and hour. Today I’m cultivating a grateful heart that can celebrate presumed losses and anticipate coming joys.

October 12, 2010

Influenza: not my favorite sickness

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 11:37 am

Yeah. I look bad, and feel worse.

Fever of 102.8, headache, chills, coughing, all-body muscle aches, excessive fatigue, legs rubbery if I try to stand up… not pretty. I’m basically on the couch or in my bed 24/7. I have two very dear girlfriends who this morning brought over food and beverages because they are so concerned. I’m set with Gatorade, chicken soup, jello, and more. On the good side, when I DO feel strong enough to glance out my back picture window, I see autumn splendor at its peak; it gives me hope that in a few days I’ll be ready to go rake a few leaves in my yard…

Time for some acetominophen. I’ll write some new posts when I’m better.

Backyard tree -- among the yellows, golds, oranges, greens

October 10, 2010

Startle the senses

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 4:38 pm
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Tell me how a yellow and turquoise Collared Lizard is camouflaged on red rock.


If you were to choose one thing to “startle the senses and surprise the mind out of their ruts of habit, to compel us into a reawakened awareness of… that which is full of wonder” — I’m curious what you’d select. Dissonant music? Eye-grabbing contemporary art? Skydiving?

Edward Abbey, the 1950s park ranger at Arches National Park who wrote Desert Solitaire, said that it is nature that does these things. I concur. Particularly effective are natural phenomena that are just outside the bounds of the expected. Look at the examples I give, and then tell me what moves YOUR mind out of its rut. What re-awakens you to the wonderful?


Two gigantic eye sockets in a huge cliff face. How?!?



This cracked spindly leg is holding up all of Corona Arch?!?



Clouds aren't normally lit from the inside like this.


October 9, 2010

Minuteman Missile National Historic Site

I couldn’t quite make it work in my head. Having just come from the interpretive sign that described the Badlands wilderness as a “geography of hope,” I arrived 15 minutes later at the site of our strongest Cold War deterrents: Minuteman missiles in their South Dakota silos. The government decided that it was a good idea to preserve one of the 1960s launch control facilities and an underground silo for posterity, so that we would always remember the threat averted and the ICBMs that accomplished that.

Here I was, looking at a weapon designed to carry a 1.2-megaton nuclear warhead and kill millions of people — while still wrestling with a puzzling turn of phrase that wouldn’t leave me alone. What does fear — the fear that caused people to build personal bomb shelters, and prompted unavailing duck-and-cover drills in every school — have in common with hope? Do they exist simultaneously? Does hope dismantle fear, temper it, put it in perspective?

About fear: we leaked our own secrets to the Soviets. There was such significant concern over their inferior missile safety mechanisms that our government used the straight-up approach and printed top-secret details in Aviation Week & Space Technology, and then made sure copies got into Russian hands. Wanting to minimize the chance of an accidental misfire, we handed them the instructions for improving their own weapons. We also let their satellites observe the construction of the 450 silos across the northern plains, making no effort to disguise what we were building — or how maintenance-free they were once constructed. We WANTED them to know what we had.

About hope: every mother and father hoped they could raise their children in a world free of the threat of nuclear devastation. Our military hoped that the Soviets would notice our powerful missiles and move very thoughtfully and carefully over the knotty political/ideological landscape. I, as a young child during the Cold War, hoped I could jump rope, cut out paper dolls, play jacks and listen to my “Puff, the Magic Dragon” record each day after school.

Could something that travels over the North Pole to its intended target in just 30 minutes, with the equivalent of over a million tons of dynamite, be compartmentalized in my brain alongside the Mesohippus and Leptomeryx that lived here 30 million years ago? Earlier mass extinction scenarios danced around my synapses; I shuddered.

October 8, 2010

Badlands National Park — a geography of hope


The Badlands are made of congealed ash heaps.


The silly critter had dug his burrow entrance in the middle of the dirt road, but fortunately the sun’s low rays illuminated the prairie dog just before I almost ran over him. As I continued to the next pull-out to walk closer to the prairie dog town for photographs, a herd of bison blocked the road. Most stared hard at me (the horns seem to grow larger when they’re staring, you know?) and then ambled genially off to the side as I inched closer, but a couple of them stood their ground and would not let me pass. Far be it from me to honk at an animal that could probably destroy Olive, and maim me, with one angry charge. I would let them take whatever time they needed. Only a matador should be that close to a large ungulate.


Wish I knew what he was thinking when he was eyeing me.


As I arrived at the dog town and grabbed my camera, I looked down the road a little to see a massive bull ambling toward me. I quickly calculated the distance to the overlook, my top running speed, the lack of any protective cover, and the mph of a charging bison; I’m a risk-taker, but… no photos today. Today I planned to get home. Intact.

Utter desolation surrounded me. It made me happy that it was wilderness, but it was the kind of wilderness that did not feel very welcoming. Gray volcanic ash heaps lithified into the stony hills millions of years ago; their surfaces crumbled under foot. Erosion proceeds rapidly here, perhaps an inch a year — and every drop of rain that falls carries pieces away. Cairns aren’t useful when they weather so quickly, so iron stakes marked trails. Signs warning BEWARE RATTLESNAKES! were pounded in the ground at every overlook and trailhead, prompting me to wonder how many visitor/snake interactions happen yearly. The harsh beauty that is Badlands felt rather inhospitable to me.

A handsome non-venomous snake called a ‘racer,’ sub-species unknown, lay across my path on the hike to the Notch. Up close and personal — exciting! I got close enough to see the yellow under his throat and then gave him his space. Bighorn sheep (re-introduced after extirpation) clogged the road further ahead, and prairie dogs seemed too numerous to count. On the Fossil Trail are casts of some of the interesting remains found in the park of ancient Oligocene mammals, which were plentiful here.


Tell me how 'hope' fits in here.


The early explorers of this barren wilderness predicted it would never be good for anything at all; the same things were said about southern Utah’s barrenness. I beg to differ with this opinion! Wallace Stegner, environmentalist and writer, summed it up poignantly when he said:

We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.

I thought about that odd juxtaposition, “a geography of hope,” for the rest of the day. How can landforms supply hope? How can what is on a map rekindle a sense of promise, of expectation? I have my ideas; I’d like to hear yours.

October 7, 2010

Little Bighorn vs Wall Drug

Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, in southeastern Montana, is a serene and tranquil memorial to fallen soldiers and Indian warriors. The battle in 1876 was one of the last armed efforts of the Northern Plains Indians to preserve their ancestral way of life before being forced onto reservations. Heroism and suffering, brashness and humiliation, victory and defeat, triumph and tragedy — these are the things people come here to ponder. I was immediately choked up as I exited my car and saw a cemetery of countless white headstones, some with names, some saying “Unknown Civilian,” some saying “U.S. Soldier.”

The five-mile drive with its interpretive signs at pull-outs along the way assists visitors to reconstruct the events of those two days in June. I meandered along the rolling ridges, spying an occasional red granite marker dotting the hillsides where Indian casualties occurred. I wiped my tears on my sleeve; although the Indians won the battle, they subsequently lost the war against the military’s efforts to end their independent, nomadic way of life. It was a somber place.

Five hours and 56 road signs later, Wall Drug stood before me. I don’t know what provoked me to exit the freeway here; I didn’t qualify for the free coffee and donut for Vietnam veterans, priests, truck drivers, hunters or honeymooners. Perhaps it was the “free ice water” or the chance to take my photo with a T. rex model. Cool photo ops like that shouldn’t be passed up.


Would YOU buy one of these?!?!


I was appalled. It looks nothing like it did when I was a kid. It is a giant Emporium of the Inane, Fatuous, and Vacuous. I shuddered as I made my way through the labyrinthine collection of tourist money traps stores, searching anywhere for a South Dakota map or the famous backyard with the T. rex model. What I had to pass along the way began to annoy and vex and irritate me. (See photo.) I found the backyard but there was no T. rex model. A stupid 8-foot jackrabbit made of concrete was there instead. I wanted to bolt and run. The free ice water was probably blocks away on the other end of the torture chamber shopping complex.

“Get thee to a nunnery,” Hamlet implored Ophelia. No nunnery for me, but I AM going to find me some wilderness today to cleanse myself from Wall Drug. It’s the only antidote. Badlands National Park, here I come…

October 6, 2010

To everything there is a season

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 12:01 am
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Last photo of KCB at Arches

I laid everything I owned out in the garage, opened all five of Olive’s doors, and began with the largest items. Ninety minutes later my entire Utah life was strategically shoe-horned into the Prius. I stopped by the Visitor Center one last time to turn in my key and give Ranger Lauren a final hug. Swung by the ARCHES NATIONAL PARK entrance sign to grab a final photo. Drove north on Highway 191 and saw Moab in my rearview mirror for the last time. A bittersweet collection of emotions, rather like a complex soup or a nicely layered wine, swirled about me and within me.

I’ve been in Utah more than seven months this time, as opposed to a mere nine weeks last summer. I’ve worked full time in two national parks, becoming good friends with both sets of personnel as well as with headquarters folks. I also have friendships forged outside the park service that have been a source of delight, so “goodbye” is one of the more painful words in my vocabulary. Saying it multiple times in my final days was sad.

There were three potential adventures that could have been exclamation points to end my season:

1. Remote Horseshoe Canyon, site of some of North America’s finest rock art, has an old sheepherder’s trailer at the trailhead of the 6.5-mile hike. Volunteers live in it (electric lights, propane stove, outhouse, no water) and patrol the length of the amazing canyon on foot every day. I could have taken a shift of five to ten days, but the roads were too damaged from severe rains. Olive would not have made it in. Or in, but not out.

2. Ranger Steve wanted me to join him on a mountain bike patrol of the White Rim Road. This would mean bicycling with a fully-loaded bob-trailer down steep switchbacks, enduring three days of self-supported wheeling on rough terrain, and then riding 1200 feet UP the switchbacks (hahaha!!!) to end the trip. Remembering that I have never ridden a mountain bike, pulled a bike trailer, or for that matter haven’t even sat on a bike since last fall, and am three decades older than Steve, who spilled (courtesy of the crazy trailer) six times the last patrol he did, I wisely decided to postpone this trip until next spring when I can be in better biking shape.

3. Girlfriend Tara offered to backpack with me to a remote ruin site. Archeology fascinates us both, and this was a bona fide wilderness overnight. I’ve been wanting to tag along with her to a backcountry site all summer. However…

My gut told me that it was time to go. I knew Saturday night that I would pack and leave on Sunday. There were no tears, no pit-of-stomach gnawing, just a staunch realization that I was turning the page at the end of this chapter. A new one was to begin. I’ve saved some adventures for next spring — along with hopes for a river trip or two, and plenty of wilderness of every kind.

I’m filled up. I get to go back to Minnesota, don my green-and-gray uniform, and share with school children all about the national park service. What a clever way to keep doing what I love most.

October 5, 2010

Climbing South Mountain

Kathryn working her way up South Mountain

The aspens were peaking, the temperature perfect, and the calendar said GO TO THE MOUNTAINS. Fortunately, if one lives in Moab, the La Sal Mountains are a mere 45 minutes away. I hadn’t climbed a real mountain since, well, I can’t remember when. Ed’s an accomplished alpinist and a good friend, and would escort me to a summit. We camped at 9900 feet, enjoyed a crackling campfire, and fell into a tired sleep.

A band of vocalizing coyotes interrupted the tranquility an hour before dawn. That was the first animal noise heard all night; I was surprised at how silent it was in that old forest. Tea and fruit for breakfast energized us for the task at hand. The preceding evening’s nausea and loss of appetite were gone and I kept telling myself that altitude sickness was no longer an option. I had cautiously trekked at high altitude in the Andes (Cuzco — 11,150 feet) three summers ago, and didn’t want to wimp out here.

Our goal was South Mountain: 11,798 feet. Its bare top lay above tree line, with glorious golden aspens skirting the ridges, and an azure sky setting them off. Bushwhacking through the understory up (up, always up) to a nearby knoll, we came to a saddle which beckoned us across — to a crazy, intimidating talus slope that would take us the final 700 vertical feet. Ed left the ‘Up vs. Down’ decision to me. I admit with embarrassment that I entertained the notion of quitting there; we were SO close, however, that I knew I would kick myself if I abandoned the plan. Up we went. An elk bugled in approval below us.

We were up there. But now we're down.

The ‘How To Walk On Talus’ learning curve is about as steep as the angle of repose. Chunks of jagged sharp granitic rock were all we could walk on in any direction; they seemed delicately balanced on each other, ready at any second to be dislodged and careen hundreds of feet down, knocking others as they went. Some were like dinner plates, poised to scoot sideways when stepped on. It didn’t take long to learn not to put my foot on the EDGE of any rock, and to always weight it partially before shifting all 120 pounds of me onto one sketchy piece. There is a definite technique that we lowlanders need to learn, to lessen the danger of a rock slide:

Movements occur whenever the talus slope exceeds the critical angle. The exact angle at which failure takes place depends upon the materials (e.g., rock type), rock size, moisture content, but dry homogenous materials in a pile generally experience slope failure when the angle of repose (the resting slope angle) exceeds 33–37°.

Slope failure, eh? One glance at the ridge line and I asked Ed if we were looking at a 40-degree slope. “Not quite,” was his answer, “but for sure you want to stay up here on the ridge at all times.” The debris falling away on the sides was significantly more unstable than the unreliable stuff we were already on. Thank goodness for agility, good balance, and the ability to quickly recover when a slab slips out from under your foot. I tried not to walk above or below Ed, as I didn’t want to know what a sharp boulder would do to my climbing buddy’s foot or leg.

At the summit! -- holding a rusty steel spike. Two peaks over 12,000' grace the background.

One spot of tricky climbing got us up over a vertical portion and we soon made the summit, ate peanut M&Ms and apples at the summit cairn, and used the timer function to take this photo of us holding a summit artifact. Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park, and many other landmarks were easily visible from way up there, despite the wildfires that have blanketed the area with much haze of late.

I have a fresh appreciation for why mountain climbers like to reach the summit. A rich sense of accomplishment (“I’ve earned this by my own sweat and risk”) garnishes the gloriousness and magnificence. It is serene and tranquil and private. Views are vast and incomparable, and nothing is higher than you. (OK, except for Mt Tukuhnikivats, 12,400, and Mt Peale, the highest of the La Sals at 12,700, which I’m saving for another year.)

I heartily recommend this endeavor. Find out what the highest point is in your county, or township, or city block, and climb something. Please leave a comment about some summit you’ve reached, no matter how humble.

October 2, 2010

I have more to write…

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 7:30 pm

… but am in the throes of moving, forgetting things, returning things, paperwork, submitting a badge, taking a Search & Rescue training, etc.

Not to mention saying many difficult goodbyes.

There are unfinished pieces waiting to find their way into my blog, though, so be patient. Stories will be written.

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