As of this week I have served as artist in residence at eight different National and State Parks and several National Monuments and other pubilic lands. One of my favorite parts of any residency is actually living in the park. I never know what the accomodations will be like and it is always a surprise. I have stayed in an historic hogan, casita and cottage and several ranch style houses on both the tall grass and short grass prairies.
When I first ran across this residency at Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area the accomodations were listed as a bunkhouse on a historic ranch within the confines of the park. Unfortunately, the deadline had already passed and I waited patiently for the next one to roll around. Then in December last year the bunkhouse burned to the ground within a matter of hours, a great loss to the park. The official cause of the fire was listed as electrical, but I have since learned that conspiracy theories abound. A quick call to the park and I was assured that they would find someplace for artists to stay.
Once I was advised that I was selected to serve as AIR this summer, I decided that I was just too close to The Little Bighorn Battlefield, AKA The Battle of Greasy Grass, AKA Custer’s Last Stand to not see it, so I decided to go a day early and visit before heading south to the park. Air BnB has served me well in the past so I booked a room for a night in Billings to accommodate this day trip. The old adage, “you get what you pay for,” soon came into play. Let me say this, my past experience as a social worker making home visits to the mentally ill in Appalachia prepared me well for the stay at this humble abode. While the woman renting me her basement room was quite nice, and the room itself was the cleanest, most well organized room in the entire house and including the front yard, front porch and back yard, it is hard to put into words the filth and general crap present in this house. If unidentifiable, week old food fermenting in the sink and on the stove is any indicator, then perhaps you can use your imagination to fill in the rest. Needless to say I did not take a shower there ( I would have had to remove about a 100 bath toys out of the tub to do so) and was off as soon as it was light enough to make an exit without breaking my neck on all the rubbish.
Relieved and excited to be in the park, I quickly found my new home at The Crooked Creek Contact Station. I am assuming it is called a Contact Station as this is where park personnel first come in contact with the public, and at times, dare I say chase them down to do so. This is the daytime home to the Law Enforcement Rangers as well as the Invasive Species Rangers. These are the park staff who check each boat entering the park for invasive species like Zebra Mussels before they launch their vessels on the reservoir and share the joy so to speak. Infected boats are power washed with hot, pressurized water before launch. In this fast paced world some entitled captains resent this short delay and attempt to bypass the system causing law enforcement to “encourage” their compliance.
I found my quarters to be quite generous with my own bathroom, shower, double bed and plenty of room leftover for a makeshift studio. Best of all, it had air conditioning, a real necessity when the temperatures dance around 100 degrees most days at this time of year. I “shared a kitchen” with the rangers which gave me a chuckle as the only food present in the refrigerator when I arrived was a bottle of water and a half gallon of Lime Rickey ice cream, which I later learned had been there for months because it tasted like “Pinesol”and no one would eat it.
Each place I have stayed has quirks and the ones here involved water, appropriate considering the drought conditions existing in the West. First of all, despite the fact that my home was less than a mile from a huge reservoir, none of the water in the park was potable. Dire warnings were posted above every faucet. I made several inquiries as to the cause and was informed that this was due to “the high mineral content,” and indeed the water in the shower smelled like pure sulphor. I also asked if the water was filtered, worrying about Giardiasis and the the response was “Well, there is that.” I never really got a clear answer. Luckily there was plenty of nice, cold drinkable water in a 20 gallon water cooler in the office so I could keep my water bottles filled at all times. But do you have any idea how hard it is to remember to use your water bottle to brush your teeth in the morning when you haven’t had your coffee?
Then there was the quirky plumbing. When I arrived the toilet tank top was lying on the floor which I immediately placed back where it belonged only to learn that it really wouldn’t flush properly with the lid on. It resided on the floor under the sink during the rest of my stay. The sink had it’s own set of issues. After about three days it started dripping, but with a flick of the wrist one could get it to shut off. This became increasingly difficult as the days passed, and one evening about 6 days into my stay it revolted and refused to turn off at all. No matter how I twisted and turned it the water flow vacillated somewhere between a full on waterfall and an extremely aggressive drip. Now having a handyman for a brother, I knew how to turn off the water at it’s source under the sink, but turning the valve in both directions with all my might did absolutely nothing. I was able to get the flow down to an aggressive drip and put a washrag under it to keep from completely losing my mind that night due to the torturous nature of dripping faucets.
So, what is the difference between just having a place to stay and a home? Why friends and family of course. More than any other park where I have served as artist in residence the staff made me feel at home, starting with a welcome sign on my door. Ranger Tim turned off my water and called maintainance for me (and no he couldn’t turn the water valve off either…vindication!). He also spent several of his leave days taking me hiking on two of the trails no one in their right mind should do alone and also took me kayaking on the reservoir. Rangers Christy and Virginia took me with them to the Northern part of the park and I got to experience the inner workings of the NPS and meet the Superintendent. Rangers Ben and Kyle checked me in and helped me to set up and take down my presentation. The Law Enforcement Rangers regaled me with their bear and rattlesnake stories and shared all of the gossip about who got ticketed for speeding or attempting to evade the long arm of the law each day. Did you know that bear traps are baited with cat food or doughnuts?
So despite the quirks, which every home has, I was totally charmed by this place and the people that brought me into their family, watched my back and made sure that I had a marvelous time. I cry every time I leave a park, but this time it was particularly difficult; I had to leave behind new friends and my NPS family. The park staff are applying for a grant to rebuild the old bunkhouse which was located in one of the most scenic and bucolic parts of the park so perhaps one day I will have the opportunity to revisit friends and family.