Ten months ago I took a job with a production company to get a crash course in the film business. The job is going pretty well, except for the thing that impedes me at every job I’ve ever had, which is that I don’t really like having a job very much.
I love earning a paycheck so that I can spend it traveling around the world, which – to my constant surprise – is not something employers desire. So whenever a gig offers the chance to go somewhere, especially if it contributes to my foolhardy national park adventure, I jump at the opportunity. Suddenly I become a model employee.
My boss needed a coffee table picked up from her cousin’s storage unit in the middle of Arizona. Google Maps had the storage unit two hours from Petrified Forest National Park, so I packed a backpack and took off to hang out in the Sonoran Desert just in time for a mid-June heat wave.
The first thing I noticed after my LAX to PHX flight was that every Arizona bathroom I entered – from the Phoenix Airport SkyTrain to the national park pit-stops – contained an insulin needle disposal bucket. It was kind of nice to know that if I picked up a light case of diabetes on my adventure that dropping off my copious accumulation of sharps would not be a problem. I picked up the coffee table in a pleasant mountain town called Payson. It was sort of like Phoenix’s answer to Big Bear, except there were a lot more places to buy assault rifles. So far my impression of the local experience is an insulin needle in one hand, AR-15 in the other while I ask the park ranger to kindly stamp my national park passport booklet.
Getting out of an air conditioned car so you can look at old tree fossils in the Arizona desert is one of those moments that makes you question your life choices. There’s no actual forest in the Petrified Forest, which I had to explain to a disappointed biker. He kept looking at the sparse shrubs and tumbleweeds asking if they were part of the forest. I was braced for my disappointment in advance.
Three hundred million years ago when Arizona was in a rainforest on Pangea, some trees fell into a river. The few trunks that didn’t disintegrate got wedged in the riverbed, where, over the course of few hundred million years, they filled with silt, copper, carbon, micah, quartz, crystals, iron and manganese. The river, rainforest and Pangea are long gone (never forget Pangea), but these tree fossils are now mutated into rocks that reflect beautiful colors in the relentless Arizona sunshine.
And that’s pretty much the main attraction. There’s a cool painted desert lookout, some old adobe houses and petroglyphs (Native American graffiti), but the park ranger assuaged my guilt when I arrived at the visitor center. I was deeply apologetic that I only had three hours for the park, but she couldn’t have been friendlier when she told me the average time that visitors spent was a two hour drive-through. She just seemed happy that I was there. It was like an old relative who I see once a year. “A short visit from you is better than nothing.”
And if I’m going to tie this whole thing together, it would be that not every national park has a spectacular vista or jaw-dropping attraction. They’re not all Yosemite. But they tend to offer one specific thing better than anywhere else. And if I’m going to go for one hell of a stretch, it would be that I might not be the most inspired employee at every company I’ve worked for, but maybe if I can do one thing really well I’ll actually find some success. I’m the tree-rock mutant fossil of employees, and that is sitting proudly on my resume as I begin my next job hunt.
And sometimes the best part of going to the smaller national parks is knowing I don’t have to go back. That was the best part of West Texas, was that I never have to return to West Texas. And now there is another excellent national park with a niche and unique attraction notched on the belt. With many more national parks to look forward to visiting that, someday, I’ll never have to see again.