May 1, 2001

Pulling into the Current

How I broke away from the so called American Dream and became a Seasonal Park Ranger:

On my 30th birthday I was freshly divorced from wife, mortgage, child, and a job that, I think, was supposed to be an "american dream". I had a '75 chevy pickup truck with a blown motor, a canoe, and a 3'x5' storage unit in Missoula with books and other oddities.
A few months later I found myself in Seattle living in a crack house, with my girlfriend at the time, and about 5 other people. I didn't want to be there very much and they didn't want me there because I didn't want to do crack, or whatever they were doing...don't know/don't care. Thankfully, I had a job working in a car wash, which I did as many hours a day as they'd let me, 7 days a week. I worked hard and made about $75/day in tips. When I wasn't at the car wash I went to the library to surf the internet, or I went to the bars overlooking the wharf in Ballard.
I'd sit inside and look out at the grey December sea-mist and think about which direction to steer my life. Once in a while I'd BS the fishermen as much as they'd let me. I'd quiz the boat-savvy crew about how to land a gig as a rookie on one of the crabbing vessels. One day I was introduced to the owner of 3 crabbing boats. He invited me to stop by for an "interview". The interview consisted of one question; "why I wanted the most dangerous job in the world?" He wanted one answer and the escape from my self-imposed shit-hole was balancing on the head of a pin. I responded "for the adventure of it". He hired me, on the spot, under one condition. It turns out that he had crews put together for all of his boats except one, which had one position. The position I was to fill, was to replace an experienced hand that didn't know if he wanted to go back for another crabbing season in the Bering Sea. If he decided that he wanted to go then I was out. On Christmas night the captain called me at my parents house in Hood River and told me that the experienced hand decided he would go for another season. To my dismay, and my mothers relief, I was out!
After 12 years on my own, I couldn't bear the thought of moving back home so I went back to Seattle and my routine, where I could at least make some money. A definitive moment came one night when I was sitting at a computer station looking for jobs online at the library. I was at a paralyzing impasse and asked myself "what does Mick want to do?". I was desperate, yet I sincerely responded that I wanted "to camp, and... float the rivers, ski the big lines, hike the wilderness, and bag the big peaks". I laughed at myself and thought how ridiculous an idea it was to suggest being paid for that. I thought about my answer obsessively after that. I knew I was onto something because the vibe felt right, but making it happen made me shake. As ridiculous as it was, when I refused to be swayed from that answer my life developed a distinct center, outside of which, everything else was to happen.

In the weeks that followed I kept on with the internet job searches. During one of my sessions I stumbled onto a listing of government jobs. I discovered that my military service gave me a preference of sorts. I applied to several jobs all over the west. The job descriptions sounded fantastic, with terms like hiking long distances, spending long periods alone, and navigating swift water rapids, in vast spaces of public lands, with romantic sounding names like Grand Staircase, and River of no Return. After I applied, I'd go back to the library to check my email almost daily, but heard no response. Unfamiliar with the lethargy of the government system the days turned to weeks, and slowly my spirit sunk. Things at the drug-house were getting more and more crazy and my girlfriend was no longer much of a friend since I refused to join in the fun so I decided it was time to go.

When I got to Seattle I bought an '83 Subaru, for $900. I put in one more shift at the carwash then said goodbye to the crew. I pointed my Subaru for the Montana winter and drove all night. I had no idea what I'd do, or where I'd stay, when I got there. I stopped in Wallace, Id. for some breakfast, and saw an ad for a log home builder in a tourist pamphlet, reminding me of the few months experience I had working for log home builders in Ennis and St. Ignatius. I sure didn't want to go back to that line of work especially during the dead of winter, but that's just what I did. I got a job in the Bitterroot Valley that afternoon before it was dark. I rented a one room cabin by the Bitterroot River and was out the door at dawn the next morning to go to work. I was a log peeler, ripping the bark from big fir and spruce logs with a drawknife so they could be used by the next crew to assemble the walls of a log home. It was filthy work, and stone cold from dawn to dusk, hard as chewing nails. My hair and beard grew long, and I had blisters on my hands for days on end. During the military we referred to something exceedingly difficult as requiring "intestinal fortitude" and I can tell you that peeling logs during a Montana winter required intestinal fortitude that I'd forgotten about for a while.

Once a week, or so I would drive up north to see my kid for a few hours. On the way back I'd stop in Missoula at a late night internet cafe on Higgins Street to check my forgotten email account. On this particular night in April I was tired and thinking of not stopping, but did anyway. I got online and discovered an email from my mom that said she'd heard form a guy named Craig Sorensen In Escalante, Utah. She explained that Craig wanted to know if I was still interested in a job as a backcountry ranger, going on to say that he was in a hurry to fill the position and needed to hear back from me within 24 hours. I looked at the time stamp on her email and it was from that day. I couldn't believe my luck! It'd been a week since I checked that email and I just happened to check it on the one day out of the entire winter that really mattered. I remembered the cliche "it's too good to be true" trying not to be too excited as I drove up the Bitterroot Valley. I stopped at a 24 hour gas station in Stevensville to get enough quarters for the pay phone to call Utah. I called Craig at midnight to leave a message saying I was indeed still interested and would call back tomorrow during lunch hour. The old cliche turned out false, it was too good, and it was true!

I don't think I slept for a week. Craig asked if I could be there in two weeks. The next day, I quit my job with no notice, and moved out of my cabin, which involved loading my backpack. I was pretty sure my old Subaru would die enroute to Utah so my strategy, if it did die, was to ditch the car and hitchhike the rest of the way to Escalante with my backpack. As it turned out my Subaru kept plugging away for the 7 days it took me to get to Utah.
My route to Escalante took me over a narrow ridge, no wider than the road, between Boulder and Escalante. I stopped at a view point where I saw, for the first time, those here-to-fore thought romantic Canyons of the Escalante, thanks to a Seattle computer. I walked down onto the Navajo Sandstone where I sat for a long time. I contemplated and wondered if I'd made the right decision by leaving Montana and my kid behind. I listened to the immensity, and hoped for an answer. I was about ready to go when I heard the breeze scoop someone's shout out of a canyon bottom, the depth of which I could not determine. The shout was the answer I was hoping for and told me to not worry. On my arrival in Escalante I went to work for the Grand Stair-Case Escalante Nat'l Monument. Amazingly, they paid me to hike the wilds. During that summer I spent 100 nights in the those Canyons of the Escalante, alone. I realized over and over that my question, during a desperate moment in Seattle, and it's answer maybe wasn't so ridiculous after all, because it was my sincere desire.

During my season in Escalante I made the connections necessary to go to work on the Green River in Eastern Utah where I have worked as a river ranger since March of 2002.

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