"Parkie" my friend taunts from Moab. "You're hooked, you're gonna be a parkie for life." My friend, who works trail crew and masonry for the National Park Service out of Moab Utah, we've known each other through many life seasons.
Meeting in the early days of college working at a small summer camp, we got it. Something about the outdoors that feels like home, that our heart connects to... a feeling large enough to overpower all our young adult decisions.
To leave home, friends and family to pursue more untamed wildernesses. We fell in love with the Rockies individually, both in our young twenties. His stint in Utah has been more consistent than my attempts to work and stay in western Montana... but he's a great coach and confidant.
After a wintry, week-long drive, Montana ushered me home with driving winds and sideways sleeting snow. Followed by a few days of orientation, temperature maxing out at a balmy 15 degrees? Maybe.
But I call my friend after the first day at my placement site, and tell him about the hour long regional parks staff meeting. The charming personalities, the industry jargon, the projects I'll be working on alongside them... I feel so grateful and excited, all he can do is taunt me.
He taunts me knowing I finally feel fulfilled in this new position.
"Do you know what AmeriCorps means?" My fellow Montana State Parks AmeriCorps Member always asks during a field trip introduction. Usually... they don't.
"AmeriCorps is about service, people who serve through AmeriCorps go into places that need help, and help them out," she says. To gaping mouths and sparkling eyes. They're listening. "Lone Pine State Park needed help with their education and school programs, so I'm here to help out, and Rebekah here, she can tell you how she helps out."
I tell them about my research, graphic design, publications, about my projects. They're listening, but starting to get bored.
So I tell them how excited I am to hang out with them for the morning. To explore the water cycle or the forest with them. We spend hours together. Sometimes they're just excited to not be in school... but usually... they return to school with new ideas. New words. New skills. New confidence.
And I return to my research, publications, volunteer recruitment, community outreach. I keep chipping away at lofty goals and time-consuming partnerships. I juggle building capacity at my park while helping with daily tasks of interpretation, connecting with visitors, and maintaining park land.
"Did you bring cookies?" the volunteers ask. "Uhhhh, no," I say thinking... I just really wish I had coffee. "Courtney, brought us cookies," they respond.
Hmmm. So it's 7am, we're about to drive an hour to ride a boat 15 minutes to celebrate National Trails Day by installing water bars in Wild Horse Island State Park. These five volunteers all worked with a Montana State Parks AmeriCorps Member last year improving park land... apparently with home-baked cookies. So I try to shake it off and enjoy the weather, scenery, and camaraderie.
After a morning of trail work, lunch under a ponderosa pine, and an interpretive hike peppered with blooming bitteroot, heralded by meadowlarks, they concede... "well, to tell you the truth the cookies were really just crumbs". Uh huh. "And we had such a great day with you!" Uh huh. But I know the cookies were fantastic. AND they had a great day with me. I know these volunteers are hooked in their own way.
Serving an AmeriCorps term with Montana State Parks is a surprising adventure. I push myself and continue to be stretched professionally and personally. It is a life and job that keeps me on my toes. I teach parkies how to edit, design, and use publication skills. They teach me about weird tools like the McLeod, Pulaksi, and Picmatic. We challenge each other. We support each other.
Nearly half-way through my term of service I pull away from my host site for 3 days training and team building with the rest of these service-minded, not-quite-parkies. Montana State Parks AmeriCorps. My winter start companions, we're tired and getting seasoned like a fine cast iron skillet. But there's new folks too... bright, shiny, excited.
I wonder what they tell their friends and family back home as they sort through their day. All our personalities, backgrounds, and projects vary so much... its hard to tell.
The daylight drains from an almost-summer day in Montana. Water turns pink, the landscape glows, the air cools, and I see it in each of us. That feeling large enough to connect our hearts to a service and landscape much bigger than we could imagine. We get it. This Montana, parkie, service thing... changes lives.