News & Politics

Confessions of a National Park Ranger

As a national park ranger on the Mall, my job was to make sure tourists came home with good stories

When the author returns to her old stomping grounds, it takes her a long time to get where she’s going: “I stop to talk to people, offer directions, take their picture.” Photo by Benjamin C. Tankersley

“Do you want me to take your picture?”

I’m standing at the top of the Washington Monument, near the line for the elevator down to the bottom. I’ve come around to the line from the wrong side and have accidentally cut ahead of the 20 or so people already waiting. By the time I realize my mistake, going to the back would mean a long wait. So I stay put.

Behind me are a dozen or so Chinese tourists, all men, taking pictures of one another in groups of two and three. Hoping to distract them from the fact that I’ve cut in, I ask: “Do you want me to take a picture of all of you?”

They seem excited by my offer, but rather than cluster together and hand me a camera, they line up one by one to take a picture with me. For each man who poses, three cameras go off. One man holds up his fingers in a peace sign.

“Xiéxié,” they say, one after the other. Thank you.

This goes on until the elevator arrives. I’ve always hated having my photo taken, and today I’m sweaty from a long bike ride. But they’re tourists on the Mall. Six years ago, it was my job to make sure they had a good story to take home with them.

Just out of graduate school, I’d spent a summer and fall as a Student Conservation Association intern in Utah at Arches National Park. When my six months were over, I got a “real” job in San Francisco. I was no longer earning $10 a day, but I also wasn’t living in a national park, hiking for a living, and meeting people from around the world. And while my time at Arches had been wonderful, I’d always felt a little robbed—interns don’t get to wear the park-ranger hat. So when the grant for my job in California ran out in the spring of 2005, I took an internship on the Mall with the hopes of landing a summer ranger position in a national park out west.

I’d been to DC before—on class trips to the Capitol, with my family, passing through on the way to camping in the Shenandoahs. But being a ranger on the Mall, even an intern, gave me a key to the inside of the theater when I had only ever seen the stage.

“Excuse me—where’s the visitors center?”

I was working the desk at Survey Lodge, the small hut between the Washington Monument and the Tidal Basin that looks more like a place where gnomes might live than the official visitors center of the Mall.

“You’re here,” I said. “How can I help you?”

The man was holding his daughter by the hand; she was six or seven.

“No, the real one,” he said. “With the films and the exhibits and the stamps.”

I looked around. Two single-stall restrooms in a space whose name, “lobby,” was generous. It could hold a family of four and one stroller, provided no one else was waiting in line for the water fountain and the family was fairly close-knit. There was a wall of brochures—the same brochure, row after row after row.

“This is it,” I told him.

Built of marble left over from the Washington Monument and meant to serve as the boiler room for the structure’s elevator, Survey Lodge has no film. Or exhibits. It does have the rubber stamps of each monument, which are a staple of National Park Service sites and a destination themselves for the visitors who collect them.

I took a map and drew the places where he could find films and bookstores and exhibits. He asked once again for the “main” visitors center, and when I told him, again, that this was it, he sighed and looked at his daughter. She looked at me, then back at her father.

“I don’t understand,” she said.

I wondered again why there wasn’t one large visitors center somewhere on the Mall with movies and history, a bookstore and maps, where tourists could spend an afternoon learning about the history of the area. It would be a place I’d like to visit.

I told her, “I don’t understand either.”

All national parks have a code name, usually the first two letters of the first two words. The Washington Monument is WAMO, and it’s one of my favorite places on the Mall. WAMO! It’s like something exciting is about to happen.

When WAMO reopened that spring of 2005 after a months-long renovation, lines wrapped around the monument. People waited hours. Online tickets were sold out far in advance, and by 7:15 am the first-come, first-served tickets were gone for the day.

I lost my voice from shouting a pop quiz to folks in line and took pictures of, and with, more tourists than I can remember. Some got in; some were turned away. The entire day felt like “WAMO!”

A few lucky tourists got a walk-down tour of the inside of the monument, led by a ranger who could tell the story of each of the commemorative stones—donated by the states, some cities, a few foreign countries, and the Vatican. Part of this talk is still given today during the elevator ride from the top back to the lobby, but it’s not the same.

Next: The time the cherry blossoms refused to cooperate

In an ideal world, the reopening of the Washington Monument and the blooming of the cherry blossoms would have occurred simultaneously, allowing visitors to stroll the cherry-blossom-strewn grounds before going to the top of the monument.

The cherry blossoms were refusing to cooperate.

I was three hours into a shift at Survey Lodge. I had spent the past 2½ hours explaining to visitors that cherry blossoms had their own schedule. I was displaying a chart of the budding stages of the blossoms when a woman walked in.

“Ma’am?” she said.

The woman was sweet as could be, the type of visitor we loved. She was holding the hand of a young boy, and they waited until the person I was speaking with moved to get his stamps.

“Go ahead, Billy,” she told her son. “Ask the nice lady.”

Billy cleared his throat, shuffled his feet, and asked me, “Do you know when the cherry blossoms will come out?”

Taking the chart, I walked around the desk and crouched down. I showed him the different stages of budding, asked if he could tell which stage the buds were at.

“Um, four?” he said. I nodded.

“Well that can’t be right,” his mother said, still smiling. “According to your chart, stage four means we’re still up to ten days from peak bloom.”

I nodded.

“Well that won’t do. They need to bloom now.” She smiled at me, charmingly, as though I were a hostess denying her a window table. “Surely there’s something you can do?”

I shook my head and said I would if I could.

“But we came all the way from Topeka.”

“Don’t tell anyone I told you,” I said, looking around, “but if you squeeze the base of the bulb ever so lightly, you can encourage them to bloom faster.”

The woman reached out and touched me on the arm. “Thank you,” she said with so much gratitude I felt a twinge for the fib.

“Come on, Billy,” she said. They walked outside, and through the open door I saw her lift him to the lowest branch of a tree. I hoped they would remember the day as a touching memory and not as the day they got conned by an intern on the Mall.

On my way out that evening, I gave one of the blossoms a pinch. The next day, it had bloomed. Who’s to say it was a lie?

"That won't do," the woman said. "The cherry blossoms
need to bloom now." 

“Excuse me, miss?”

I was standing at the light in front of the World War II Memorial cursing the traffic, the subway delay, the people on the Metro escalators who didn’t know to stand on the right, walk on the left. My supervisor hadn’t called, but that didn’t mean she hadn’t noticed I was late.

I was so lost in my thoughts that it took me a moment to see the older man trying to get my attention. A couple of decades older than my father, he had the same white hair, the same weathered Irish skin, the same blue cap with gold letters my dad always wears. Same hat, different ship.

“Good morning, sir,” I said. “Can I help you?”

“I’m looking for my friend,” he said. “I can’t find him anywhere.”

Scanning the crowd, I spotted a ranger with a school group, clusters of three and four veterans gathered around the memorial, a couple walking their bikes, a woman with a stroller. Two elderly ladies were sitting on a bench, one of them snoozing. But no elderly man wandering, searching for someone else.

“Where did you last see him?” I asked.

“Germany, 1942.”

He had my attention. “Okay,” I said. “Let’s go see if we can find him.”

We went to the memorial’s visitors center and searched without luck through the online registry of veterans. I gave him a sheet of paper with instructions for adding a name. “You’ll have to come back,” I said. “When your friend’s here, you’ll have to come back.”

He took my hand as though to shake it but instead just held it for a moment. “Thank you,” he said. “Thank you very much.”

“What’s behind that door?”

I was working at the Jefferson Memorial, in a room off the main portico. My sole purpose for the day seemed to be keeping people away from the door.

“Oh, nothing,” I told the teenager. “It’s just a closet.”

He grasped the doorknob and shook it. “Why is it locked?” he asked.

“So you won’t run off with our cleaning supplies.”

“Whatever,” he said, then put his headphones back on and walked away, convinced I was lying.

Which, of course, I was.

Beyond that nondescript door is a hallway leading to the underground backbone of the Mall & Memorial Parks unit of the National Park Service: The archives, with its rich photographs and signed letters. A library where rangers pore over books and old newspaper clippings to prepare their talks. Training rooms, a break room, and more. Directly beneath the domed memorial is a round room with dirt floors called the pit. There’s one just like it at the Lincoln. Both are closed to the public. They’re cavernous and damp, and they echo with hundreds of years of history.

The fact that the Mall & Memorial Parks unit has this underground facility helps explain why the Jefferson—one of the less visited memorials—has the largest and most elaborate of the memorial visitors centers. Grander than the bookstore at the Lincoln Memorial and more high-tech than the displays at the FDR, it makes the wall etchings at the Washington Monument seem like scribbled afterthoughts. It’s the sort of visitors center that’s standard in most national parks. But it’s the only one like it on the Mall. And it’s all smoke and mirrors. The real history, the stuff you don’t see, is behind a locked door off the portico.

As my time on the Mall came to a close, I was offered a seasonal ranger position in Alaska. During my time there, I always was baffled when people said to me, “I used to be a park ranger.” I could never understand how, if you were lucky enough to be a ranger, you would ever decide to do anything else. Until I left the park service myself, in search of stability and a single place to put down roots.

Several years later, I moved back to DC, and the Mall was my first stop. Every time I’m there—whether for Screen on the Green, a rally, or just hanging out with friends—it takes me a long time to walk anywhere. I stop to talk with people, to offer directions, to take their picture. Because I know where all the restrooms are, how people’s names get added to the World War II Memorial, and what’s behind the door. And I know how to make the cherry blossoms bloom.

This article appears in the July 2011 issue of The Washingtonian. 

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