April 24, 2009

Park Ranger Gaelyn Olmsted: A True Adventurous Woman

Every so often I hear about a woman who is living a life that sounds just perfect. Gaelyn "Geogypsy" Olmstead is one of those women. Working as a seasonal park ranger, Gaelyn spends half the year living in a national park, half the year living wherever she chooses and the whole year living in her camper -- the Fifth Wheel.

Last fall, Gaelyn started blogging about her life as a Geogypsy (click here to visit the blog). Her posts about the wildlife just outside her door, her work, and the beauty of her environment always send me off on a mental vacation. I've never defined adventure by kayaks and climbing equipment. To me, adventure is pursuing a dream and testing new waters. That's what Gaelyn does every day.

I thought that all of you would want to meet Gaelyn Olmsted and learn a little more about her life because, as Susie of Arabia recently noted, if Gaelyn isn't an adventurous woman, no one is!

AWB: Hi Gaelyn, thanks for doing this interview!

I’d like to thank Susie of Arabia for suggesting me for this honor. Funny, I never thought about myself as an adventurous woman.... I guess I’ve lived outside the normal box for so long, it’s now my norm.

AWB: What made you want to become a Park Ranger?

I can’t tell a dream-like tale about being a kid who always wanted to be a Park Ranger. My family didn’t go to parks. Even as a young adult when I began taking road trips and stopped at every park I could take a crooked path to, following the ranger like an excited child, I never thought about being a Park Ranger.

Then, after a life of wife, mom and craft business owner, I returned to college. I took science and history classes and got excited about subjects I’d never liked before. I earned my BS in Environmental Education & Mass Communication at Western Washington University Huxley College of Environmental Studies. (I think that’s what’s printed on my diploma.) For my internship I spent three summer months as a “Forest Interpreter” at Mount Saint Helens National Volcanic Monument working for the Forest Service. They paid me to learn and share with visitors the incredible story of this volcano. They paid me to talk, something I’ve gotten in trouble for all of my life. I was hooked.

AWB: Why did you opt for working seasonally and changing parks instead of finding a fixed location?

It’s really difficult to get a seasonal job with the National Park Service, there’s a lot of competition. But to get a permanent position is nearly impossible. And then you have to work all year. Besides, with almost 400 national park sites to choose from, why pick just one?

I tend to return to the same park for several summer seasons. My Park Ranger career began with four summers at Mount St. Helens in Washington State. Then, after nine months along the Columbia River Gorge and five years on the road selling at flea markets, I rangered at Oregon Caves National Monument for five summers guiding cave tours. I worked one summer at Mesa Verde National Park leading tours into cliff dwellings. And last summer I had the amazing opportunity to work at Grand Canyon National Park, the North Rim.

Every park has something new and different to offer. There is so much to learn about the natural and cultural history of each park and its surrounding areas. It could take a lifetime. For me, it usually takes many seasons to barely get a sense of a place. And then a new place may call my name.

AWB: What are your favorite parks/places/attractions so far?

My favorite is wherever I am.

AWB: What do you like most about your free-wheeling lifestyle?

No matter where I park it, I’m always home. It may be an old 5th-wheel, but I own it. And it seems to be the only way I can afford to own a home. The rent is usually very reasonable. I can camp for free on public land. Pay minimal rent when living in a national park, or comparable where I’ve been wintering on a friend’s private property. But it can get expensive staying in RV parks on a per night scale.

If I don’t like the view or neighbors, I can easily move. And I travel with my own bed, toilet, shower, stove, refrigerator and stuff.

AWB: What are your biggest challenges?

Life is not always perfect. As a seasonal employee—by choice mind you—there isn’t a lot of job security. If I do well at a park I’ll most likely be welcome back as a rehire, but no guarantees. To work at other parks there’s an application process, competing with many other applicants. So every winter I apply to several parks, and then wait. For me, waiting is a challenge almost anytime. Plus, of course, seasonal [employees] don’t get benefits like health insurance or retirement.

My RV home, like any house, needs maintenance and repairs. I say I’m not a very “handy” person, yet sometimes I can fix certain things. Usually it’s my lack of knowledge or strength that brings me to a halt. I seem to have a very long honey-do list with no honey to do.

My biggest challenge with the fifth-wheel I live in is backing it up. I can do it with plenty of time, and patience. But if there’s some man around starting to tell me what to do, I just say, “if you can do it better, go for it” and I let them do it.

AWB: What advice do you have for women who are interested in becoming park rangers?

Apply, volunteer, and study what you’re passionate about. Get involved at your local nature center, museum or zoo. Experience in any public services shows you know how to interact with people. Practice your communication skills. If you’re in school look into the Student Conservation Association for intern opportunities. Don’t give up. All government agency jobs are posted on www.usajobs.gov.

There are different kinds of Park Rangers: Administrators, Law enforcement, Fee collectors, Maintenance, Science (resource management), and Interpreters like me.

AWB: What’s your biggest adventure to date?

The first time I took off on an extended road trip when I was 21 years old. I lived in a Chevy Vega for three months with a large puppy. My journey started in the Chicago suburbs and I drove non-stop to Colorado. Then I “blue lined” zig zagging all over the southwest visiting parks, monuments and historic markers. Finally ended up in Los Angeles and followed Highway 1 up the West Coast before heading back east through the northern states.

I still consider this the best adventure. I was young and a little foolish. But I challenged myself to being alone and enjoying my own company along the way.

AWB: What’s your next big adventure?

Well, I’m telling it here for the first time. This summer I’ll be a returning Park Ranger at Grand Canyon National Park. Look for me on the North Rim, which officially opens May 15th. I’m so looking forward to discovering more about this amazing place and the surrounding area. So please come for a visit, hopefully in person. But you can also travel with me virtually at my blog.... [visit Gaelyn's blog, Geogypsy, by clicking here.]

There’s an adventurous spirit inside of us all. Life is about pursuing your dreams. If you don’t, no one will for you. Adventure can be found in the next room, town, forest, or country. Just open your mind, body and soul to the endless possibilities. And don’t let fear hold you back.


Susie of Arabia said...

Gaelyn - You ROCK!!! Awesome interview - and I hope we get to meet this summer when I hopefully will be in Arizona.

Michaelle - Your blog always has so many interesting topics! Loved Gaelyn's interview!!!

Gaelyn said...

Thanks Michaelle. Your site is awesome.

Karen said...

Gaelyn is right about it being hard to get the job--I applied for 4 years in a row before I was hired. Last summer was my first season as a park ranger. I was also at the North Rim, working in fees. That is where I had the pleasure of meeting Gaelyn.

My husband and I are going back this summer, too. We love it up there.

Good job, Gaelyn!

Suzanne Arruda said...

I'm always glad to know that there are still women of adventure. To meet more, just go to a Women in the Outdoors (WITO) event.
Suzanne Arruda

Ruth said...

Great interview, Michaelle.

Diane C. said...

Gaelyn - How exciting that you will be working at the Grand Canyon this summer! You lead such a fascinating life. Great interview...I like the part where you answered that your favorite place "is wherever I am."

Michaelle - I enjoyed reading the interview and also checking out some of the other interesting articles you have here.

Michaelle said...

@Susie, Gaelyn, Ruth & Diane, Thanks but all the credit goes to the interviewee : )

Janie said...

Great interview! Gaelyn really does have an adventurous life.

RuthieJ said...

Gaelyn rocks! I hope I get the chance to meet her in person someday.
Thanks for sharing this interview. I enjoyed learning more about Gaelyn and her adventurous life.