Here it is, the moment you’ve all been waiting for. The big reveal of where Julie and I are volunteering as Park Hosts for the next two and a half months. Can’t you feel the anticipation?
Okay, okay, I’ll knock it off. It’s Enchanted Rock State Natural Area in Texas hill country, a little over an hour west of Austin. We arrived on Friday, did the paperwork and got a tour from the volunteer coordinator that day before he left for a week-long vacation, and were basically told “do what you can” for our first day on Saturday without him.
I’m going to do a proper post about Enchanted Rock in a week or two when I’ve got a better feel of the place, but I just had to share our first day of work. It was nuts.
A bit of background. E-Rock covers 1,600 acres or so, but most of it is undeveloped. It’s a small operation. There is only one entrance and the pay kiosk, ranger headquarters, gift shop, and interpretive center are all rolled into one building near the entrance, and there are only 15-20 paid employees. There are 40-some developed camping spaces, tent only – no RVs are even allowed across the bridge into the park proper because it can’t take the weight, but there are ten bus/RV parking spots up near the headquarters where people can park and walk across the bridge. There are two rest rooms aside from the headquarters, one that has showers and one that does not. Three-ish serpentine parking lots total about 450 parking spaces, and there are 9.5 miles of hiking trails.
There are three full-hookup sites near the maintenance building before the bridge, and we’re the last pair of volunteers to arrive. The side road leading to the maintenance building is not accessible to the public, so while we’re park hosts, we’re not acting like traditional camp hosts. There is no being on call for questions or check-ins after hours. On Friday I couldn’t help but think, what the heck are the rangers going to find for six volunteers to do in a park this small?
And then Saturday came.
Officially, the park opens at 8 am for day visitors, which is also our start time this morning. The headquarters stays open until 4:30 pm, and day visitors must be out by 10 pm. As the first task of the day, all non-office employees (of which there are only two this morning) and all volunteers (all six of us work-campers are on today) start by cleaning the bathrooms, it’s pretty standard stuff. As we clean, the number of people coming in rises steadily.
It’s partly cloudy, calm winds, and the high is suppose to be 70. It’s shaping up to be a beautiful day. Unbeknownst to me, today is the first non-crappy weekend this part of Texas has seen in three weeks.
On the weekly schedule for volunteers, under Saturday, one of the tasks that’s listed from 10 am onward is “survival”. I ask the fellow in charge of us work campers what that means about the time we’re done with the bathrooms and heading back up front to the entrance, and that’s when I see the line of cars waiting to get in the park, winding back from the headquarters down the driveway.
“Mostly, it means traffic direction.” He says.
There is only one pay window, so only one car can get into the park at a time, unless the staff gets creative. There’s a lot of talk over the radio to get things set up, most of which I don’t understand, and before I can fully grasp the situation, ‘The Push’ is underway.
Cars flood in. We get the ones that haven’t paid to pull over behind headquarters as “temporary parking” and then they walk in the back door and pay. There are two people at the counter inside that issue day passes along with the one person at the window. Then we get them out as soon as possible to make room for the next wave that get sent through.
Someone stands before the pay window and keeps people from abandoning their cars outside and walking into the park (yes, it happens. Frequently.) Someone stands in the upper parking lot and lets X number of people (and no more) through to drive around back to park and pay. Two people shepherd the cars into the impromptu parking lot as close together as they can get them without blocking traffic and then direct them where to go once they’ve paid inside.
This works fine, until we start running out of parking spots. Then we need a person to count spaces in each lot, and a couple more to direct traffic to which lot they are to go to. When it becomes 11 am, all 450 parking spots are nearly full, and the line of people waiting to get inside is now running down the highway more than a mile in each direction. Now things really get interesting.
Luckily, the man in charge today has been doing this for several years, and has practice.
We have people drive up over the curbs and park in the circles of the cull-de-sacs. We cram them in next to the dumpsters. We line them up going down the No Public Access road to the maintenance building, and then as a last resort, pile them into the Boneyard, the clearing next to the maintenance building where old equipment goes to die. Some people get upset at how far they are from the trails, “Ma’am, at least you made it inside.”
It’s a kind of race that requires good timing, good communication, and good people skills. Once the Boneyard is full, enough people have left that we can re-count the lots and send some new arrivals back to the regular parking spots. But we’re running out of room, what happens when we simply cannot find one more flat space for a car to park? Enchanted Rock itself now resembles a large granite ant hill in the distance, swarming with people as small as specks as they climb up and down.
Chatter comes over my hand-held radio.
“Gary, are you going to call it?”
“…the lights are on…”
“Okay folks, this is it…”
The Man With The Plan drives by in a state park pickup to get me with a grin on his face. “Hop in, now you’ll get to see them really mad.”
We drive up to the entrance to the park, and close the gate. There’s not quite an angry mob, but tensions are high. Some of these people have been waiting in line for quite a while to get in, and they don’t want to give up. It’s takes three of us to get the highway cleared. I walk down the line of cars pulled up on the shoulder and give the same line over and over: “The park is at full capacity and will be closed for two hours. You cannot sit here and wait for it to re-open, please keep driving and come back later…”
Some people are incredulous. “Full capacity? What do you mean full-capacity?”
“There’s no more room sir, parking is completely full.”
“But I see a few empty spaces in there, and we drove a long ways to be here. Why can’t you let me in?”
“We have some campers with reservations for tonight that haven’t showed up yet, and we need to keep room open for them.”
One man’s daughter walked in because she really needed to go to the bathroom, the only reason the person watching the gate will let walkers in. We tell him he can stay parked by the curb until she comes out, but they still can’t get into the park. He’s upset, but he holds his peace.
Most people though are understanding and pleasant to deal with, it’s estimated that we turn away over 100 vehicles. At 1 pm, the law enforcement ranger starts his shift, and then the cars loitering around clear out quickly, a squad car with flashing lights will do that.
We all get to take our lunch finally, and after no time at all, the park re-opens and the whole process starts again. The staff have the timing down pretty well and know that 100 is the magic number. In the afternoon, once 100 parking spots have opened up, by the time we get 100 people in, the turnover for people leaving will be high enough that the park shouldn’t have to close again. As the afternoon wears on we fill up the regular lots, move into the cull-de-sacs and roadside parking, and just as the Boneyard is getting full once again, the line vanishes.
Phew. Various volunteers and regular staff come up to Julie and I at the end and ask how our first day went. My general response is, “What just happened?”
Now, I get just under 10 weeks to figure out what makes Enchanted Rock so special that this little park gets over a quarter million visitors in a year. Would any of you like to share your most memorable first day at a new job or gig?
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