“We haven’t had a ranger on this side of the park in a few years. Just, ya know, fair warning,” Andrew, my supervising officer said as he waved his hands around. “I think ‘bout, two- three years ago one of our guys retired and we just, ya know, got some budget cuts, and just had everybody on other patrols take turns checking on it every few days,” he transitioned between rubbing his scruffy chin, shrugging, and back to hand gestures in what felt like one flawless motion.
I nodded, hoping he’d finally give me the keys and leave. I thought after the hours drive to my watch tower, he’d be out of things to ramble about, but just as I thought that, his mouth opened up for more.
“Not the best, or safest system, ya know. But we got by- and hey, new senator’s a big hunting guy, so we’re making arrangements for that new EPA budget,” his big, lopsided smile squished one eye to a squint.
“Let’s hope so, for the sake of my paycheck,” I smiled back. No teeth though, for fear my annoyance may seep through the cracks in my lips.
He chuckled, and waited for me to say something back.
Nothing. An awkward silence mingled with the sounds of a crisp Montana morning.
I figured this was my best opportunity to get him out, so I pointed at the keys on his belt. He brought his hand to his chest, and then flailed it in the air, as though he’d forgotten the reason I was hanging out with him in the first place.
“Oh, yes, heh. I’m not here to babysit ya,” he unhinged the key ring and extended them toward me, “you gotcher walkie, flashlight’s on your desk, and uh, flare gun is in the bottom drawer. I think you can figure out the rest. We should have a patrol car ready for you in a few days, those things take some time for licensing and insurance stuff, ya know, and you wont be patrolling too far on your first few days, anyway,” he walks towards the window to gesture at the area I’ll be in charge of. He steps on a floorboard, and continues his rambling without a beat,” Oh yeah, this is one of the older towers, so the floor gets a little creaky, and there’s also no TV like they got at mine, ya know, so if you’re ever on patrol and-”
I kindly take the keys out of his hand. “Thank you, I’ll stop by your station if I ever get the chance.”
He rubbed the back of his neck, and then started to walk towards the door.
“No problem, son. Enjoy your first shift, I’ll catch ya later,” he stepped out the door.
I heard his feet start their way down the ladder, and as they faded away, I got to feel the first few seconds of complete isolation. My god, was it wonderful.
While my patrol shift ended tonight at sundown, I wasn’t punching out of the park until October. This little cabin, 2 stories above the trees, was my abode for the next five months.
For the last few years, what I would’ve called home wasn’t that different from this, same size, same elevation, same amenities. Minus, of course, the 3 extra cohabitants, upstairs neighbors with lead shoes, and a car honking contest outside every night. The view in the apartment was a little more interesting when the last call bar fights broke out, but I wouldn’t call it prettier.
But, after four years of study in ecology, I’m finally back to what I called home when I was a kid. My parent’s home in Wisconsin looked like it does up here. Evergreens don’t seem to change too much in the thousand miles between here and there.
I plopped down onto my desk, and untie my boots. After relieving my feet some, I began shuffle through the pile of things laid out for me. Employment documentation, reminders on the rules, the code of ethics, and oh yes, that flashlight Andrew mentioned.
It was pretty big, the glass pane was nearly as big as my hand. I picked it up, and fiddled with the switch. It didn’t light up, as I’d expected it to. So I flicked the switch back, no light. A few more flicks later, and I’m popping out the back to check the battery compartment.
With a sigh, I reach down to my belt and grab my walkie talkie. I flip to channel B, Andrew’s channel.
“Hey, Andrew, the flashlight you guys left me with in my tower doesn’t have any batteries. Should I grab some all the way at the main office or is there somewhere closer by I can grab some. Over.” I let go of the button. Nothing.
“Huh?” I clicked the button again, and realize it’s not making the “blip” at the beginning. I popped open the battery compartment, and what do you know, no batteries.
I shook my head, wondering if this is my fault for not testing it when it was handed to me, or my employers fault for giving me useless equipment in the first place.
After rubbing my brow, I knew what I had to do if I was to get any of this patrol done today. I tied my boots back up, and as I walked toward the ladder down, I thanked god that I had Doctor Scholls.