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Mesa Verde Memories by Carol Sperling

We all know that Mesa Verde National Park is a special place, and most of us who've worked there have listened to park visitors when they share their special Mesa Verde stories with us.  Often those stories are based on memories of a childhood visit, which generally seem to remain vivid and warm.  I also have a special childhood memory of my first visit to Mesa Verde (more than 40 years ago now.)  It's continued to shape my life in ways that I never expected and always treasure.
My brother and I are blessed with parents who love to travel, and we all enjoyed family vacations in the western US.   When we were young teenager, Mom and Dad brought us to Mesa Verde.  We did many of the same things today's visitors do: we joined ranger-guided tours of Cliff Palace and Balcony House, drove out to Wetherill Mesa, and watched thunderstorms roll across the mesas from the balcony of our room at the Far View Lodge.  I was captured by the beauty and mystery of the cliff dwellings, but one of my strongest impressions came from a park ranger who led one of our tours.  As it happened, that ranger was a woman. Although we had visited many national parks on our family vacations, she was the first woman ranger I'd seen.  She was young, knowledgeable, and articulate, and like me, she was just a bit on the chubby side.  With a little encouragement from my parents, I waited until after the tour to ask how she had become a park ranger.  She explained that she had studied archeology in college and had applied for seasonal park ranger jobs as soon as she graduated.  Although I don't remember her name, I never forgot her advice.  A few years later I earned my bachelor's degree in Anthropology with a concentration in Southwestern Archeology, and started to apply for jobs as a seasonal park ranger.  I landed a summer job as an interpretive park ranger at Grand Canyon in 1980. I always had my eye on jobs at Mesa Verde, but it wasn't until I had worked more than 25 years with the National Park Service that I came back to Mesa Verde as a park ranger rather than a visitor.
Some of you have heard me tell this story before.  I've told it to remind my co-workers of the influence we all have when we work in these amazing places:  the woman ranger who took time to talk to me years ago changed my life, and I'm grateful to her.  Sometimes I've told it to groups of girls to remind them that their body shape and gender do not define their career choices. Every time I bring it to mind, I'm aware of the power of places like Mesa Verde, not only as one walks the trails or takes in the views, but in vivid memory.  When I came to work here a few years ago, I realized it wasn't just me:  lots and lots of us have strong memories and fond stories of our "first" visit to Mesa Verde or another park.  These places shape us as individuals, and they also shape us as a people, citizens of a nation which loves and celebrates its public lands even as we struggle to understand the costs of protecting them.
As some of you know, I retired from Mesa Verde National Park last year.  That milestone encourages me  to reflect on the experiences a career in the national parks brought me.  Did I get to live and work in, and become intimate with, some of the most gorgeous and meaningful places on the planet?  Yes, hallelujah! Could I observe, talk with, and help thousands of people who were deeply interested or moved by those places? Yes, that became one of the most fulfilling parts of my work.  Did I grow into an awareness of the system of public lands that includes national parks, and how government works?  Oh yes. Was it fun?  Very often (and by the way, I met my husband when we were both park rangers in Montana.) Was it ever frustrating?  This is the federal government we're talking about here…'nuff said, OK?  If I had it to do it over again, would I?  Absolutely, in a heartbeat.
I've joined the ranks of national park volunteers now, while my husband (also retired NPS) and I discover this new chapter of our lives.  We're both small-time volunteers… the amount of time, brainpower, and physical energy we give is minute compared to some of the dedicated folks you'll meet when you visit Mesa Verde and other public lands.  For now, the Mesa looms over our backyard and our National Parks Pass is in frequent use. And so, that first visit to Mesa Verde, and that young ranger's short conversation with me years ago remains memorable.  The parks continue to influence and shape our hearts and our minds, and I hope that will never change. 

Carol Sperling