Separation Anxiety: Finding a Sense of Place Away From Place

September 05, 2018 Posted by: NL - Park Ranger (Yosemite Valley)
Tunnel View, May 2018

Like many relationships, Yosemite and I began ours as acquaintances. Growing up, I visited Yosemite most winters, exploring the snow blanketed meadows and thin waterfall streams. While working in other national parks and public lands, I dreamed about working in Yosemite Valley. In May, I committed to a “summer romance”–a seasonal gig as a park ranger. I moved away from friends and family, devoted to this budding relationship. By mid-summer, I was in the honeymoon phase–excited by every new element of the park. That honeymoon phase quickly ended once the flames took off.

On July 13, 2018, the Ferguson Fire began outside of Yosemite National Park. By July 24, the flames engulfed almost 40,000 acres bordering the park and my supervisor instructed me to leave. I continued to hold the title of Yosemite Valley interpretive park ranger, but I couldn’t even step foot in my place of work. Each day, while working at another national park’s office, the valley felt further and further away. As an interpretive ranger, my role is to facilitate visitor connections to Yosemite through guided ranger programs. Over the course of the summer, I bonded with Yosemite, learning its secrets and studying its behaviors. Without my physical presence in Yosemite, how could I maintain that bond? How could I help visitors find the bond themselves?  I felt like a person taking a “break” in a relationship–struggling with the sudden loss of connection and lack of communication.

Each day after I left the valley, I felt more and more confused in this state of limbo. Nothing seemed to be certain: would I have a job in a few weeks? When could I return home? When would things get back to normal? Friends and family began to question, “Why don’t you just quit early? As a seasonal hire, your job will be over by October anyway. Is all of this ambiguity worth it?” Though most of my life was uncertain, I was certain about one thing: I wanted to continue my position. I didn’t want to break up with Yosemite.

It’s not as if the thought hadn’t crossed my mind, like on the day we called in for the daily phone update and heard “the fire is moving towards the Valley,” or when constantly sending my family erratic texts about the ever changing status of the fire. Yet something held me back. I remembered the love in a wife’s eyes as she brought her elderly husband to Tunnel View for what might be the last time and the smile on a young visitor’s face when I swore her in as a junior ranger. In instants like those, a spark emits from a visitor, a moment when one transcends the physical elements of a place and makes an emotional, sometimes spiritual, connection to place. As an interpreter, I am constantly chasing that moment and, regardless of the fire, I couldn’t give up the opportunity to facilitate the formation of those sparks. I wasn’t willing to let my relationship with Yosemite fade away.

After three weeks of separation, our break finally ended. As I drove toward Yosemite Valley, I felt the recognizable sensation one feels when seeing a loved one after a long hiatus–a feeling of coming home. Upon entering the valley, I emerged from the forest cover, and El Capitan towered over my car. Only slightly concealed by smoke, the granite monolith looked the same–unchanged by the temporary closure. However, some elements did change. Yosemite Falls dried up, plants grew over trails, and recently born fawns patrolled the valley with their mothers. With time off, Yosemite and I both recharged–the connection felt both stronger and more fragile. It gave me the perspective to focus, to examine the nuances of this place and to reassess my existence in and with it. No matter where I end up in life, I hope to never lose the sensation of coming home to Yosemite Valley.

Last updated: September 5, 2018

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