Andrea Lankford’s Ranger Confidential: Living, Working, and Dying in the National Parks throws a little wrench in your plans for that dream job. But…wait! Being a National Park Ranger isn’t all hiking and telling people about natural and national history all day long? Surely, you’re joking. I mean, dream jobs are just that for a reason, right?
I had always wanted to work at a big TV network. I built up this idea that working there must be the most amazing feeling ever experienced by man, and that the people who already have jobs there are the luckiest people on the planet. After all, the final product, what we as consumers or viewers or visitors see is so truly amazing, being one of the few who bring that to the public must surely be one of the most fascinating and rewarding jobs ever. In fact, it is. And it isn’t. I worked at ESPN, a dream job for sports fans and TV nerds around the world. I got to see sports celebrities every day. I passed people like Dan Patrick and Rich Eisen in the hallway. If it weren’t for my work schedule, I would have been in one of the famous “This Is Sportscenter” commercials and had my picture taken with the Stanley Cup. I still have some great memories of the place.
But I also have bad memories of working overnight and hardly seeing daylight; never being able to hang out with my friends; and messing up so badly that entire blocks of programming on several ESPN networks had to be changed. This job wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. After 15 months, I left ESPN.
While reading Ranger Confidential: Living, Working, and Dying in the National Parks, I kept these memories in mind. After reading the first few chapters, I realized that being a National Park Ranger has a similar effect on people. It’s the difference between visiting Disney World and actually working there, day in and day out. Somehow, the magic disappears. Lankford’s book pulls the curtain to reveal the man behind it. It’s a fairly gritty, depressing, and at times heartwrenching look at what life is really like for these Rangers.
Take, for instance, the story Lankford tells gradually throughout the book of a young ranger who comes on board. This guy is gung-ho and ready to be a Ranger. It’s what he always wanted to do. He works his way up, he travels the U.S. working at various parks, he falls in love (with a girl and with his work)…he’s basically living the dream. That is, until tragedy strikes, and any semblance of a dream turns into a nightmare. Such is life for a National Park Ranger. What Lankford tries to establish in Ranger Confidential is that for every Ranger, there is a point where they realize that the dream they fought so hard to achieve may not have been worth the fight. The job is just that—a job. Like any service related job—retail, public servants, food service, etc.—it’s perceived to be so easy, so much fun, so perfect. In reality, you’re dealing with a bunch of crazies, drunks, idiots, and psychos, every day and at every level for the duration of your career.
Granted, there are upsides to the Ranger life. There have to be, or people just wouldn’t do the job. There’s the solitude of living in the middle of nowhere in Denali National Park. There’s the satisfaction of educating a foreign visitor on the history of Ellis Island. There’s the adrenaline rush of short-haul helicopter extractions from Yosemite Valley and knowing you saved a life.
Ranger Confidential is a book that brings your lofty ideals of the ideal job crashing down to earth. At times funny, but mostly heartbreaking, the book takes a sometimes melodramatic look at the other side of the Ranger hat. While there are hundreds of pros to negate the cons of being a National Park Ranger, when it comes down to it, Ranger Confidential nails one point home for you without hesitation or a shadow of doubt: being a National Park Ranger is a job, like any other.