In addition to being a writer, Ashes to Fire (1/31) author Emily B. Martin is an interpretive park ranger with the National Park Service – she has the hat and everything. In this vignette, she shares her love of America’s national parks, and all of the great outdoors.
Margie Feng stormed up the visitor center staircase, her heavy government-issue boots filling the stairwell with resounding echoes. Her anger hung around her head in a cloud, her tight gray collar hot. She flung open the door on the landing—and collided with a body in full forward momentum.
“Woah!” A hand jumped out to grab her arm. “Where’s the fire, Ranger?”
A modicum of her anger eased, but not entirely. It was David, looking good and sharp in his formal uniform, the National Park Service badge gleaming golden on his chest, not buffed and scratched as hers was. Still, she was in a rush, and she hurried to move past him for the row of ranger lockers.
“Sometimes I wish there was a fire, dammit,” she said. “A nice, thousand-acre wildfire to clear this place out and give us an hour or two without someone howling about traffic or entrance fees or the rain in their tent.”
She flung her locker open and shoved her bicycle helmet inside, drawing out her flat hat. David leaned against the locker next to hers. “What’s up with you?”
“I can’t talk right now, David, I’m way, way late.” Margie jammed her flat hat on her head, disrupting her long, shiny black ponytail. “I’m on geyser predict, and I should have gotten the read off Castle fifteen minutes ago. Who’s on desk this morning?”
“I am,” he said, flashing that inimitable white grin. “Four full hours, baby—on the fourth of July.”
“Oh God, it is the fourth, isn’t it?” Yellowstone would be packed today. No wonder her morning had started off so badly. She snatched her radio from her locker and went to buckle it on her belt. Instead, she snagged the casing, and the whole thing fell out, dropping with an expensive smack on the linoleum. She balled her fists and drew in a sharp breath.
“Hey,” David said, his voice a bit softer. “Talk to me, Margie. What’s wrong?”
She let out her breath and covered her face with her hands. “Just… a bunch of little things. Stupid things.”
“David, I need to be out in the basin right now—people are going to be looking for today’s geyser predictions.”
“Listen, Castle Geyser erupted an hour ago—the guys at the Lower General Store told me. She’s got hours before she goes again. I can handle a few angry visitors—I’ll tell them there’s a bison wallowing out by Morning Glory Pool.”
“Don’t talk to me about bison.” Margie took another deep breath and retrieved her radio from the floor. “There was a bison jam at the crosswalk. The big cranky bull—the one that gored those Australian tourists the other week—he was standing right in the road like an asshole. Folks were stopping their cars. A mom and her toddler were barely ten feet away, trying to get a selfie.”
“So you had to be Mean Ranger first thing,” he said in understanding.
“Right. Nearly blew a fuse trying to get everybody away, and then made a fool of myself shooing the damned animal into the grass. I got cussed at.”
“Oh yeah? I’ll fight him.”
“It was the mother.”
“Ah,” he said in disappointment.
“So then,” she continued, “as I’m locking up my bike, a family came up to me with two kids crying because they had just missed Old Faithful’s eruption. The dad chewed me out for not being able to tell them precisely to the second when the next eruption was, and then went off on us not providing eruption times through the night.”
“Did you tell him rangers have to sleep sometimes?”
“Couldn’t get a word in edgewise. Got cussed at again, and he stormed off to fill out a comment form to send to my supervisor.” She checked her watch. “And now I’m twenty minutes late for geyser predict.”
David picked himself off the lockers and held out his arms, folding her in a hug. He was warm and reassuring, and his gray long-sleeved uniform shirt smelled of fresh detergent, not tangy with sweat as Margie’s was.
“Poor Mean Ranger,” he said. He removed her flat hat and kissed the top of her head.
She exhaled the last of her breath. David had a way of anchoring her, helping bat away the cobwebs that so often frazzled her brain. Geez, she could even smell starch in his uniform. Starch. She leaned back and took him in a little more closely. The dark stubble that often covered his chin was gone, and he was wearing his formal felt hat, not the usual summer straw hat.
“You look nice today,” Margie said suspiciously. “Why so nice?”
“Are you trying to insinuate I don’t look nice all the other days?”
“If you’re going to make jokes, I’m twenty-two minutes late for geyser predict.”
He straightened his dark green tie where she’d mussed it. “I’m giving a special program to that group from the historic society today.”
“Oh.” The barely-perceptible trace of disappointment in his voice told her exactly what program he’d been asked to give. “I see. The Buffalo Soldiers?”
“Yep.” David’s great-grandfather had been a Buffalo Soldier, one of the African-American cavalrymen who had served as some of the very first park rangers, well before there was ever a National Park Service. David had an old photo of his great-grandfather taped in his locker, and the family resemblance was clear—the same inky black skin and upturned lips that always looked like a little smile. He was proud of his great-grandfather, and proud of his connection to the national parks, a connection that for a long time had been smothered in the volumes of history.
But history wasn’t David’s first love. It wasn’t even really his strong point. He was a geology nut, drawn to Yellowstone for the outrageous landscape and phenomena found nowhere else in the world. Margie had met him the previous year when he accompanied a survey team doing a radar study on the cone of Old Faithful. She’d been asked to act as a Mandarin translator for one of the other team members. She often got trotted out for jobs like that—sometimes she wondered if the supervisors who had hired her in the past skipped over her two degrees in park management and six years in the Northern Cascades and Olympic and just honed right in on that one credential. Fluent in Mandarin. It was certainly a useful skill, but she disliked how often it became her primary identity. Just as David was often called on to give an authentic history program on the Buffalo Soldiers. Such was the nature of the Park Service—grasping at what little diversity they managed to attract with their shrinking budgets and history of exclusion. History that, granted, was slowly being righted—so long as the higher-ups in DC thought it worth their time.
Which was never a given.
Margie sensed the seconds ticking away against her wrist, but suddenly she didn’t want to leave David’s embrace. She could almost hear the hum of incoming crowds outside—she could feel the world pressing in through the visitor center windows. She leaned into him again, tucking her nose under his smoothly-shaved jaw.
Her phone buzzed in her pocket. Reluctantly, she slid it out halfway to glance at the text. It was from one of the Law Enforcement rangers. She groaned.
“What?” David asked.
“Bix wants to know how to say no parking in Mandarin.”
“Tell him how to say park anywhere.”
The intercom on the wall crackled. “Hey, uh, is anybody else up there? I’m alone at the desk—and where are our geyser predictions?”
They both let out a similar sigh and let go of one another.
“I’d better go rescue Mike,” David said. He tilted her chin and kissed her warmly. “And you have a date with Castle Geyser.”
She nabbed a second kiss, for fortitude. “I’ll radio in when I’ve got a reading. Good luck at the desk. Don’t call Law Enforcement for lockdown.”
“And you don’t get gored by a bison.” He set her flat hat back on her head. “Later, Ranger.”
They parted ways—he heading down the staircase for the public area of the visitor center below, she taking the opposite one to head outside.
It was a cool morning, her favorite time of day to be in the Upper Geyser Basin. In the middle of the afternoon, the white sinter around the boardwalks would blaze with heat, but now the basin was crisp and quiet, wreathed in columns of steam as far as the eye could see. Old Faithful smoked quietly in its cone, sending white clouds billowing against the dark backdrop of lodgepole pines. Despite her earlier encounters, and the promise of a full parking lot later in the day, not many people were out this early. Soon the ambient buzz of cars and buses was lost to the bubbling and frothing of the geysers and hot springs. The air was thick with the smell of sulfur, a scent she’d come to love with an almost absurd devotion.
She walked down the paved trail toward Castle Geyser, the jagged cone thrusting up like a turret against the bright blue morning. Thankfully, there were no bison plodding along the path. Instead, she saw a family heading her way, the parents flanking a little girl in a wide-brimmed bucket hat. As Margie drew closer, she could see the telltale booklet clutched to the girl’s chest. She was working on her Junior Ranger badge.
The parents’ eyes lit up as they saw Margie approaching. The mother shook her little girl’s hand.
“Sasha, honey, look—it’s a park ranger!”
Sasha stopped in her tracks, her two brown pigtails frizzed by the geyser steam. She looked shyly up at Margie.
“Good morning,” Margie said, trying to inject enthusiasm into her voice. “It looks like you’re going to be a Junior Ranger soon!”
“Just one more activity,” the mother said excitedly, nudging her daughter again. “She has to interview a park ranger.”
Ah, yes. That page. Margie mentally filed through the standard answers she usually gave to the kids who came to her throughout the day.
“Go on, Sasha,” said the mother. “Look at your book, and then ask the park ranger the questions.”
But Sasha was suddenly shy, hiding her face behind her booklet. At Margie’s hip, her radio crackled. She was aware of her wristwatch again. Tick, tick, tick. She was probably well over a half an hour late with the geyser predictions—the hotel staff would be righteously pissed by this point.
Hurry up, kid, she thought. This ranger is hella late.
Then Sasha pointed into the basin and said, “What’s that?”
Margie looked over her shoulder.
Her jaw dropped.
“Oh!” Instinctively, she held out her hand to Sasha, all her anxiety instantly dissolving. “Come with me, hurry! You don’t want to miss this!”
Together she and the little girl rushed up the boardwalks toward the river, her parents hurrying behind. As they went, Margie fumbled for her radio and held it to her face.
“David, it’s Margie. We’ve got water in Beehive’s Indicator!”
“Wooo, Beehive!” came the staticky response.
They reached a viewing platform overlooking the river, where just a few feet in front of them, a short jet of water was issuing at an angle near the base of a squat cone. Margie hefted Sasha onto one of the benches.
“Have you seen Old Faithful erupt yet, Sasha?” she asked.
“Yes,” Sasha said.
“I have news for you—you’re about to meet Beehive Geyser. That little jet of water tells us it’s about to erupt, and when it does, it goes taller than Old Faithful, and it lasts longer than Old Faithful, and coolest of all…”
With the roar of a jet engine coming to life, water shot from the little cone like a firehose, rocketing two hundred feet into the air, filling the early morning tranquility with steam and spray. Sasha’s little head flung backwards to watch its ascension, her eyes wide. Behind them, Margie could hear the rapid click click click click of Sasha’s mother’s camera.
“Best of all, Sasha, nobody knows when it’s going to erupt,” Margie said, squeezing the little girl’s hand. “You just have to be lucky.”
“Beehive!” Margie heard David’s voice break through her radio, announcing the eruption to the others in the basin. “We’ve got Beehive at zero-eight-three-six, Beehive at eight thirty-six AM.”
“It sounds like a train,” Sasha said quietly, her face still turned up to the distant crown of water.
Margie watched it quietly with her for a moment. The water misted down, the early morning sun throwing rainbows through its spray. The radio crackled at her waist. She heard Mike’s voice. “This is the Visitor Center, does anyone have the geyser predictions?”
Margie turned her radio off.
“I believe the question in your booklet is about why I became a park ranger?” she asked the little girl.
“Yes,” Sasha whispered.
“Sometimes, Sasha, I don’t know. This job is hard. There aren’t enough of us to do all the work that needs doing, and sometimes it’s hard to take care of the park and the people. I live in a little run-down trailer with mice in the walls, and the money is terrible.” She squeezed the girl’s hand again. “But this place is pretty amazing, don’t you think?”
“Yes. I like the blue-colored hot springs the best.”
“Those are some of my favorites, too. Our national parks are so special, whether they’re geysers here in Yellowstone, or giant mountains down in the Tetons, or historic houses, or battlefields, or ancient cities of the people who came before us. All these places tell the story of this country, long before there were park rangers, before this place was ever called America, even before there were ever people here at all. And these places will be here long after we’re gone—if you and I protect them. I think it’s pretty special to be part of that—just a little, tiny speck in the story of our national parks. How would you like to help me with that?”
Normally when she asked kids that question, they responded with, “That sounds like fun.”
Sasha didn’t. Her face turned up to Beehive’s jet, she said thoughtfully, “That sounds important.”
Oh God in heaven, Margie thought. Finally, someone gets it.
She squeezed the girl’s hand again. “Yes. More than anything, it’s important.”
Special thanks to Ben Hoppe and Danielle Tom for their input.