For the first time since May of 1995, I didn’t put on a uniform when I went to work this week. When I began work as a seasonal interpreter at Millwood State Park more than 15 years ago, I didn’t know exactly what course my career would take. I just knew that I wanted to be a park ranger and I didn’t want to sink the park’s tour boat. I became a park ranger, and the boat only needed minor repairs and lots of cleaning. I now have a new job that doesn’t require me to wear the brown and tan uniforms that have become such a part of me. Though now that I think about it, that may have something to do with static, polyester, and legs that rub together when I walk.
I have moved into a fully administrative position as a regional supervisor. Needless to say I have taken a serious beating from my interpretive friends, who have made comments revolving around “the dark side,” “moving away from the east side,” and “gray and balding” (which I have now learned had nothing to do with the promotion). I have also heard from my non-interpreter friends who said things like “I just wanted to give you credit for sticking with that park rangin’ job.” And then there are those of you out there who are not surprised by this move, given that I love Walmart, Darth Vader, PCs, and the New York Yankees, which are all prerequisites for a job in administration.
I spent my last two days working at Parkin Archeological State Park leading 10 archeological site tours for a local school that visits each year. During each and every tour, I was reminded of how important leading those tours was for the students’ experience at the park and for me. After seven years and an unknown number of tours and other programs, I couldn’t help but think about how my view was about to change and how important even the smallest historic sites are to community. Leading those tours and preparing programs for that same group of teachers year after year is a tradition that supplements their curriculum.
The most important aspect of those programs is not me getting all sentimental and weepy, but the connection that is built between the site, the park’s mission, the program’s theme, and the visitor. If one of those elements is missing, the visitor’s connection is weak at best. It was a great way to leave a lasting impression of the park in me.
Now that I have had time to reflect and get over the symptoms associated with polyester withdrawal, I realize that my view is not going to have to change even though my window will. Whether I’m working at one park or working for a region, the responsibility is the same. It all comes back to the basics of those final tours: resource, mission, themes, and the visitor. Interpretation is the link between these items.
Arkansas State Parks knows the value of interpretation, which is evident though support for training, staff, planning, design, projects, and involvement in the National Association for Interpretation. The diversity of interpretive sites within Arkansas State Parks is truly amazing. The themes interpreted are mission driven and support stewardship and protection. It is an honor to work for the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism. It is also great to live in a state where citizens have provided support through a conservation amendment that offers a consistent source of funding. When you have visitors who care, connections are easier to build.
I’m excited about my new position, while at the same time still being gloomy about leaving a great interpretive site and some awesome co-workers, and hanging up the uniform. But I’m not going to change even though my clothes have. It is not about a uniform, but rather being an interpreter. Though, I was able to find solace in my new uniform, the sweater vest. Deep down inside, I’m still a park ranger and I still don’t want to sink the boat.