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If You Live In A National Park, You Understand The Theory Of Relativity


If you live near scenery like this, you'd better expect some house guests! Photo of sunset on Lake McDonald at Glacier National Park by David Restivo, NPS

A comic strip in my morning newspaper offered an amusing explanation about the Theory of Relativity, and it has a definite application to life in a park: "If you put in a swimming'll discover relatives you never knew you had." It's a concept that is easily understood by anyone who has ever lived in or near a national park!

In the winter of 1978 I was in the first decade of my NPS career when I received one of those dream offers for a ranger—a chance to work and live at Glacier National Park. A move to the northern Montana mountains in February included a few adventures of its own, but we were soon settled into our new home in the small village of East Glacier Park, right on the southeastern corner of this spectacular park.

Shortly after our move we decided to share our good fortune—and our new address—with some friends and family members, a decision which allowed us to unwittingly test this application of the Theory of Relativity. In 1978 there was no Internet, e-mail or social media, but even in the days when the grapevine relied upon rotary dial phones and the U. S. Mail, news of a relative living on the edge of a mountain paradise was a powerful lure indeed.

We soon discovered that our new location would put us back in touch with both friends and kin we hadn’t heard from in years—along with a few we couldn’t really place when they arrived at our door. One of these days I'm going to sort out that thing about "cousins twice removed"... but we enjoyed them all.

Our household of three—myself, wife and a four-year-old daughter—expanded on June 1st with the birth of our son, and it's a good thing both my bride and newborn were of hardy stock. By mid-June the guests began arriving, and at summer's end, the count was pretty impressive: ten sets of company in twelve weeks!

I was at work at least five days a week during the busy summer season, so most of the opportunities to share our new surroundings fell to my ever-patient spouse. It didn't take us long to develop the one-hour, one-day, and one-week guided tour options for our guests, and our newborn spent so much time in the car during his first three months on earth that he's still a great traveler to this day.

Glacier isn't exactly "right on the way" to many places, so almost all of our guests had the grace to write or phone ahead of time, although we did have one or two of those phone calls that anyone living in a prime locale such as a national park will recognize. It begins something like this: "Hey, we're going to be passing through your area tomorrow, and we were just wondering...."

Those spontaneous visits did give us the chance for some family bonding and team building. On at least one occasion my wife gently eased one set of company out the back door and then changed the guest room bed in record time, while I cheerfully stalled the incoming company on the front porch.

As to that bonding thing...our rented quarters managed to squeeze three bedrooms, a single bath, a small living room and a tiny kitchen/dining nook into about 850 square feet. It was what a real estate ad would describe as "cozy," and with one of those bedrooms dedicated to guests and everyone sharing that single bathroom, our family of four plus "company" was a close-knit group indeed by summer's end!

If you've ever considered a future in the bed-and-breakfast business, I’d suggest you first try renting a place adjoining a popular national park for a summer, and then spread the word among your extended family that the welcome mat is out. We found it to be a lot of fun, but you may discover that the term "relatives" can be a bit...relative.

This story is adapted from the book Hey Ranger! True Tales of Humor and Misadventure from America's National Parks. © Jim Burnett and Taylor Trade Publishing, used by permission.

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You don't have to live in a national park to get this effect. I live about an hour and a half from Paradise on Mt. Rainier, and I've had more than my share of houseguests because of it [g].

Megaera - You're absolutely correct. When we can offer free lodging near a prime destination for friends and family, "proximity" can also be relative. :-)

What a great article. I would have loved to have been one of your relatives in those days.


One of my classmates at Albright was sent to Grand Teton where he and his wife lived in a one-bedroom seasonal unit of some kind. He told me a few years later that they had finally been forced to send a notice to anyone who wanted to visit that said something like :

"Due to the number of people who want to visit, limited available space in our quarters, and the impact of so many guests on our budget, we regret that we must set the following visitor policies.

1> There will be a charge of $3 per person per day to help buy groceries (remember, this was a long time ago . . . )

2> Because we have only one bedroom, we can make reservations for you at the motel of your choice nearby.

3> Both of us are working and our free time is limited, but we will be happy to help you plan your visit to Grand Teton. We can steer you toward some of its very best features."

He said that knocks on their door dropped way off.

I thoroughly enjoyed working seasonally in the parks as a park ranger-naturalist. I was amazed at all the chance encounters I experienced, running into grade school friends and classmates, college profs on vacation, neighbors, and acquaintences. Usually, I'd be in uniform, and I would recognize them, before they'd recognize me.

Relatives who told me they were on their way to visit were always welcomed. On my days off, I'd take my visitors on hikes or car tours through the park, or we'd visit surrounding destinations. I enjoyed showing off the special familiarity I had about the park and its surroundings.

Sometimes, I'd be giving a talk at Yosemite Lodge, or elsewhere, and in the audience, I'd recognize an aunt or uncle who would be visiting the park from San Francisco, as part of a tour group. I still remember those occasions, even though some 42 years have gone by.

I recall being at the Yosemite Visitor Center, staffing the information desk on a not-so-busy day in November 1969, when Maestro Josef Kripps of the San Francisco Symphony entered. We had a memorable chat. He autographed my timpani methods book.

When I had visits from my immediate family, I always arranged for their accomodations, even though I only had a single room in the Mather Ranger Club in Yosemite Valley. I had similar positive experiences at Zion and Crater Lake.

Actually, for my family, frequent fliers from back home were not a problem because home was far away. We really enjoyed visits from family when they did come west, though.

And as I thought about this, I realized that some of our most delightful experiences with visitors came from very unexpected circumstances. In Yosemite there was the young couple from Japan who had dinner with us after I had picked them up in Merced as they hitch-hiked to the park. A fire in San Francisco had delayed their cab on the way to the bus station and they missed the bus to Yosemite. After dinner, I took them to their lodging at the lodge and guided them on a really great trip around the park the next day.

Then there was the older (elderly) couple from New York who knocked on our door all a'tither late at night in El Morro. They were terrified because they had just driven a whole 40 miles from Grants and ours were the only lights they had seen along the way. On top of that, they knew there was an Indian Reservation ahead and they were afraid they might lose their scalps or something. We put them up in our spare bedroom and the next morning they headed back toward Albuquerque where they planned to catch a flight home to civilization after we failed to convince them that the Indians were no longer on the warpath.

Or the team of archaeologists who stayed over a few nights camping in the maintenance shop at ELMO and partaking of my wife's delicious cooking. They were doing a site survey along the proposed route of AT&T's new transcontinental fiber optic line. The head of the team told of the time they'd been doing a survey near Chaco Canyon when an old Navajo medicine man ordered them to stop lest they stir up the Chindee. (Spirits) When the leader told him they could not stop, the medicine man cast a curse upon him. He said he and the rest of his team got a big chuckle out of that. But the next morning, even though it was October and quite chilly, he was struck on his boots by rattlesnakes three or four times before ten o'clock. He testified that no one can tell him the old medicine man didn't have something going to back up his curses.

Yup. Sometimes there are real adventures in meeting unexpected people along the way.

We don't have quite the "please put us up" problem here at the Klondike Gold Rush NHP in Skagway, but it is common for old friends or relatives to announce that they'll be in town on X date on a cruise ship. We'll meet them for lunch or such, maybe drive them around and show some behind the scenes stuff, but for the most part they are back on their ship and sailing by early evening. Drive throughs on the Klondike Highway are less common. It is, after all, a mere 1700 miles from here to Seattle for a "we were in the neighborhood" call.

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