Ranger Kathryn's Arches

August 28, 2011

Fiery Furnace debut

The two dozen visitors began gathering nearly 30 minutes ahead of time, anxious to undertake their long-awaited ranger-led tour of the rock maze. Many had held tickets for weeks or months; all had read in a guidebook that this was the biggest “must-do” in all of Arches National Park. Some were unsure of their ability, which they expressed simply as “we’re older than we used to be.” I knew what they meant.

There is profound joy in having found your niche. Keep looking if you're not there yet!

Trained to look for problems before they start, I immediately noticed one young woman wearing Chaco sandals for the strenuous trek instead of the normal boots/hikers. She had been instructed NOT to wear them but chose otherwise. A German family walked up with their children, the youngest of whom was four. Our tour website clearly says six is the minimum. “Oh, he is a good hiker,” were their famous last words. (Not.)

I had spent the 30-minute drive to the trailhead mentally preparing for these scenarios; if there is nothing I can do about a situation, I choose not to waste precious energy on it. In my most confident ranger voice the safety talk was delivered, my theme was introduced, and within minutes we were off down the hill toward the sandstone fins. The most apprehensive ones had been placed right behind me.

Emerging from the Furnace three hours later, we were all awestruck. The visitors were smitten by the stunning beauty of the rocks; I was shaking my head at the power of Story to engage people’s minds and hearts in learning about their world. In two miles and seven interpretive stops, they eagerly drank in tales of juniper trees, rock layers, and tiny pothole critters. They had no idea this was my inaugural tour.  They had no idea my theme was elusive and often in seminal form. They had no idea I forgot my all-important transitions in some places, and glossed over important points in others. They had no idea I was re-working my topics in my head, searching for more effective ways to communicate while I was also searching for shady locales for our talks and passing a heavy four-year-old through cracks in the rocks.

Is it not reward enough just to reach the end and know that you have given your best — even if it is a ‘dress rehearsal’ of sorts? Then how doubly sweet when Apprehensive Couple returned to the visitor center afterward to talk to my boss and tell her what an incredible time they had just had.

Shhhhh — don’t tell anyone: I have the best job in the world.

August 24, 2011

If only it would write itself

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 11:16 pm
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I wander, notebook in hand, stopping at logical gathering places along this wilderness route. The physical space has a story to tell at each one, and it is my job to listen, look, turn things over in my heart, and discover what is compelling about that very spot. Scribbling ideas and thoughts, jotting down observations of organisms and landforms, the words begin to coalesce into phrases and then into sentences. An interpretive talk assumes a rudimentary shape in my mind.

The Fiery Furnace formations dwarf brother John. Best not to try to find your way through this labyrinth without a guide.

I am in the throes of preparing for my very first ranger-led tour through the “Fiery Furnace” of Arches NP. This rocky labyrinth has neither maps nor trails, and GPS signals do not penetrate the depth of its sandstone fins. Dead-end canyons abound; it is a maze. Every Park Guide must memorize the twisty two-mile route and write an engaging and educational talk to deliver to the 25 tourists who will accompany him/her on this three-hour walk. In just a matter of days, I will step up to my first group of eager visitors, bravely putting on my “I’ve been doing this forever” face, looking confident and polished.

I really won’t be. It will take a while before I catch the rhythm of the tour, adopting the speed of the least-able of my group, asking the cocky ones to please be less awesome, carefully choosing words for international visitors whose grasp of English is tenuous, finding emergency bathroom sites for embarrassed folk, assisting the acrophobic along exposed ledges, urging photographers not to be left behind… all while delivering an impassioned program about the exquisite resource through which we’re hiking.

I’ve got a lot of creative work to do. I’ll be back in a few days.

August 22, 2011

Those ancestral Puebloans

A single course of masonry curves gracefully around the space it once defined.

A hummingbird whirred by in the silence, jarring me back to the present. I was standing at an infrequently-visited ruin at Mesa Verde National Park, trying to wrap my head around the living conditions here in this cliff dwelling 800 years ago. Birth, work, ritual, play, cooking, dancing, death… everything we do, they did. Only they did it in an alcove high above the canyon floor, with little to work with but their marvelous resourcefulness.

I pondered the walls, their builders’ skills varying from ‘passable’ to ‘highly aesthetic’ with perfect corners and edge decoration. The seep spring in the rear of the alcove was ingeniously directed toward small cuplets carved in the sandstone floor, making collection easier. Grinding stations were conveniently placed where the women could watch their children play while socializing with “the girls” as they prepared grains and seeds. Each clan had its own ceremonial subterranean kiva for rituals and worship, with innovative HVAC elements supplying it. Sketchy toeholds and handholds were cleverly carved right into the cliff walls, enabling ascents and descents that would dizzy us today

Perhaps a hundred people called this alcove home during the early 13th century.

Their building boom (i.e., multi-story masonry cliff dwellings of the 12th century) lasted only about a hundred years; then they moved southward to New Mexico and Arizona, abandoning the architectural wonders. Why did the garbage middens have fewer animal bones in the top layers? Why did the last rooms added to the pueblo use far less timber? The likely culprit was that their intensive land use had made trees and game animals scarce, too scarce to support a population dependent on the land for everything.

My 28 hours among the archeological sites of Mesa Verde gives me pause to consider what we are doing to our own world.

August 20, 2011

First Days Back in Rangerdom

I’m back to work as a national park ranger at Arches NP… and loving every minute.

Ranger Bobby and Ranger Kathryn hamming it up last year

Carefully pinning my nameplate above the right pocket and my glorious bison badge above the left, I made certain no wrinkles marred the perfect drape of the gray uniform shirt. I had hung the green trousers, laid out the Sequoia belt and requisite brown socks, checked that the shoes were polished to our chief’s satisfaction, and gone to bed. Getting dressed in the morning would be such a treat.

My first visitor contact was with a French family whose sons had completed our Junior Ranger program. Their 5-year-old had asked his mother to translate “Do you want to be my friend?” and my heart melted into a puddle of liquid joy. Do you think he understood my taking his little hands and saying “Oui! Oui!”?

What is it about the ranger “look” that causes total strangers of all ages to want to be your friend? It is a privilege to wear a uniform that has earned such universal respect.

My co-worker’s first contact that day was a young man who leaned in and said conspiratorially, “My girlfriend is in the bathroom. Can you tell me a quiet place where I can propose to her?” Oh, we know ALL the good spots… and it makes us smile for hours, thinking of what’s happening way out at Tower Arch.

National parks — amazing places!

August 16, 2011

A Day in the Gravelly Range

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 9:37 pm
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Steam escapes distant fumaroles as we pedal toward Old Faithful.

Never been on a nice bike tour? I hadn’t, either. But I will again. Here’s a glimpse of a day on a Western Spirit Cycling tour. (Keep in mind that this somewhat easier trip was rated for those “fit but new to biking.” Many other difficulty levels are available.)

We started in the Gravelly Range of Montana and pedaled our way southward, pushing, pushing, destination Old Faithful. Bird songs and coffee smells awakened us at every wilderness campsite. Within the hour a multi-course breakfast magically appeared, different every day, and we gladly fueled our bodies for the miles of pedaling ahead. Another hour and we had our tents down and packed, and soon our bikes carried us away. A few hours of hard work through breathtaking scenery — while carrying bear spray just in case — earned us lunch.

Andy's iPad played "Here Comes the Sun" at just the right moment each morning. Yes, it's cold...

Every day the noon meal (make-your-own deli sandwich bar) was a welcome break from pedaling; only a few more hours’ exertion got us to the afternoon’s campsite where assorted beverages quenched our thirst. I would then earnestly tend to my self-appointed task of collecting a large quantity of dry firewood. Evening fires were what I/we always looked forward to, and good wood fueled our lively conversation times.

The only other woman and I daily relished the experience of a couple of solicitous men looking after every detail of our comfort. They made morning coffee or tea before we were up. They assembled afternoon appetizers while we rested our legs. They chopped and diced veggies while we told stories over our beer or sparkling water. They washed dishes while we ate chocolates or dessert. Heck, I had Suzi pinch me once to see if I was dreaming, but the attentive/witty/accommodating men were reality. Somehow we never grew tired of watching “Guide TV.”

Chef Ed's blueberry buttermilk pancakes

When the light began waning, we took to our tents; often rainclouds chased us into bed. Life takes on a different rhythm when it is dictated by nature’s whims instead of by a clock. A couple of mornings we woke with ice on our tents and tablecloths. My ten-degree sleeping bag was just right for the high elevations and brisk temps. I relished not coming indoors for five days, avoiding a shower for 107 hours. If you’re grossed out by that, we may need to re-evaluate our friendship…

Would I recommend such an adventure? HIGHLY. Anything that moves you out of your comfort zone will stretch you in a good way. You say you are not daring, not a risk-taker, and like your familiar surroundings? All the more reason to step toward something completely different! I am glad, very very glad, that I tried something I’ve never done before. Maybe it will be a jumping-off point for future bike adventures for me.


August 14, 2011

The bike and I

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 7:23 pm
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A boiling water spring in Yellowstone lures me off my bike for ten minutes.

Tossing my dirt-caked gear and sweaty clothes into the back of my car, I felt changed. Tired but invigorated. Spent but refreshed. Somehow made more ready for whatever was to come, as a result of this five-day bike trip in Montana and Yellowstone NP.

One of my paradigms has subtly shifted. I’ve never viewed bicycling as a legitimate way to travel more than a few hours’ journey at a time, for me — and that had better be on level ground. Something happens in one’s brain when you join a group of folks who know better.

I’m sold. Self-powered journeys are remarkably satisfying. In the spirit of full disclosure, let it be known that I used the support vehicle on Days 1 & 2 for some long uphills… but managed on my own the remainder of the time, to my great delight. Got top-notch mountain biking instruction from my guides, lots of encouragement from my fellow bikers, and basically couldn’t stop smiling on this adventure. Highlights to come; stay tuned.

August 7, 2011

While I wait for my clearance…

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 8:18 am
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In the Park Service, you can’t begin work or even move into housing until a crucial piece of paperwork comes through; it stalls more start dates than everything else put together. It is not unusual for an employee to be delayed a number of weeks past their hoped-for EOD (Enter On Duty); one is left high and dry with no knowledge of where the hang-up is or how many more weeks it might take. Meanwhile, one’s supervisor is furiously re-working the staff schedule for the nth time while the co-workers heave frustrated sighs at the heavy workload that shows no sign of abating.

I’ve missed two EODs already, through no fault of my own, and am desperately hoping it will clear this week. I have time to kill. Should I do something adventurous? Should I go see breath-stealing sights? Should I push myself physically? Should I go someplace I’ve never been? Should I refuse to come indoors? Should I do it in a way I’ve never done before???

Okay then.


Ennis, Montana, to Old Faithful in Yellowstone. Five days on a bike. In the mountains. At pretty darn high elevation. With foxes and grizzly bears and moose and wolves and pronghorn. And, because there were only three people on the tour and it is last-minute and the guide is a good friend of mine, the company gave me a great price. All I have to do is drive to Bozeman, 630 miles.

I guess this will take my mind off the clearance glitch. Do I have trepidation? You bet. I’ve been sedentary the past month and this will be a huge push in many ways. What I lack in muscle strength, I plan on making up in attitude and heart. I’ll take lots of pics and be back online next weekend. With a sore butt.

August 4, 2011

Women’s Emergency Committee (WEC) and the Lost Year

“The men have failed… it’s time to call out the women.”                                                                                    — Adolphine Fletcher Terry, founder of the WEC

It was the fall of 1958; public education in Little Rock was under siege. The segregationist governor was invoking a law hastily passed by the state legislature, closing all four of the city’s high schools in a desperate attempt to halt desegregation. (While it was unconstitutional to keep blacks out of the white schools, it was perfectly legal to close the schools down entirely.) Segregationist intimidation and threats of economic boycotts silenced the city’s civic and business leaders. Into this leadership void stepped the women of the Women’s Emergency Committee to Open Our Schools. A group of respectable middle-class white women, faced with the prospect of no schools as well as the further loss of their city’s good name, turned militant. Fifty-eight of them attended this initial meeting and vowed to work to reopen the schools under the district’s desegregation plan.
The governor set an election date for September 27 for the voters of Little Rock to decide whether they wanted integrated schools or no schools. Infuriated by the lack of response from business and community leaders, mothers rose up and united their voices to try to salvage their children’s education. The Women’s Emergency Committee became a highly effective organization that bombarded the city with ads, fliers and statements challenging Governor Faubus and the segregationists’ action.

In spite of their efforts, Little Rock’s citizens voted almost three to one against integration. Governor Orval Faubus closed all high schools in Little Rock, locking out 3,665 black and white students from a public education, and locking in almost 200 teachers and administrators to contracts to serve empty classrooms. Some students moved in with relatives or friends in other towns to attend school, but many received no instruction at all during the year. 1958-59 is commonly referred to as “The Lost Year.”

It was a period unmatched in its peculiarities. Students had no schools to attend, but football continued at all campuses by suggestion of the Governor. (Governor Faubus accused the Board of trying to arouse public sentiment against him in canceling the popular football programs.)

While their efforts made them targets for harassment, the WEC persevered. At peak membership, it numbered about 2000 women who were largely inexperienced in politics but who became articulate, confident promoters of the public schools. A documentary about the WEC has a title that makes me smile: “The Giants Wore White Gloves.” These giants were ultimately successful: Little Rock’s high schools re-opened the following fall.

Integration involving substantial numbers of students did not occur until the 1970’s.


Material for this post was found on the NPS website for the Central High School National Historic Site.


Your intrepid blogger has spent a few days in Little Rock visiting her parents while en route to Utah. This post has nothing to do with Arches National Park. Become of fan of your local history, wherever you are!

August 3, 2011

Little Rock Nine

You can see the emotions on their faces in the life-size statues of the nine teenagers who stood against the status quo.

These were nine courageous youths. I would have been terrified.

The bronze faces spoke eloquently of fear and courage, determination and apprehension. I found myself walking among them, touching their arms, nodding my head in affirmation of their and their parents’ willingness to confront the unjust status quo.

The statuary commemorating the Little Rock Nine, on the lawn of the state capitol of Arkansas, deeply moves me. When I was just learning to walk, these brave high school students were the first to de-segregate Central High School in Little Rock. The story’s details astounded me as I researched the goings-on of September, 1957.

The fortress-like Central High must have been extremely intimidating with mobs of jeering whites surrounding the Nine.

  • nine young teenagers trying to do what kids need to do: go to school
  • a de-segregation order by the federal government
  • a powerful governor who called in the National Guard to keep black students out of white high schools, in violation of the law
  • a determined president who summoned the governor to Washington for an official chewing-out. Eisenhower then federalized the Arkansas National Guard so Gov Faubus could not misuse them again.
  • an atmosphere of hatred and fear; mob mentality
  • abuse of power: the governor closed all four Little Rock high schools the following year so de-segregation could not continue. (“The Lost Year” is what it is called; nobody went to a local high school that year. Unthinkable.)

What would I have done to stand against prejudice if I had been a Central High student? Don't we all need to ask this?

When I see courage in action, I am changed. These nine families exemplified the quiet determination to do the right thing in the face of mistreatment, injustice, and the likelihood of no positive outcome for their children.

This was a difficult piece to write. The mindset and behaviors from that era are so foreign to me, and so dishonoring to fellow humans, that I hardly can believe it happened. I’m sobered to ponder the emotional devastation that those nine endured when they were prevented from entering, or were ushered from, Central High School by armed escorts.

Perhaps, at its root, this is a plea for zero tolerance of abuse, and generous tolerance of those who are different from us.

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