There are many ways to get involved at Petrified Forest National Park (PEFO). Let me tell you my story.
My name is Matt Walters, a new board member for the Friends of Petrified Forest National Park. This story begins many years ago. My wife, Dorenda, and I were dedicated to our careers. When we took needed vacations from work, we always gravitated to National Parks. We always enjoyed exploring the natural beauty, learning the history, and hiking in the backcountry.
Once we decided it was time to retire, we were looking for some way to give back. We had a discussion with my aging parents about travels we did as a family and they did by themselves. We had a great conversation leading to our final question to them, “What was the one thing you regret not doing in your life?” Their answer was that they always wanted to volunteer in a National Park. They thought being a campground host would be great because they could meet and talk to many people.
At that moment a light bulb went off in our heads! This was something we had always talked about doing but had put on the back burner. The time was now; it was something we wanted to do. And, my parents could live their dream vicariously through our actions. Let’s get to work!
The next part of our journey was just like looking for a job. We had to create a resume. This was a very different process because we were looking for an opportunity as a couple, whereas before it had always been as individuals.
We completed this task and then started looking for volunteer opportunities. We live in Iowa and we made the decision to try to volunteer somewhere warmer in the winter months to get away from cold and snow.
We went online to www.volunteer.gov to look for possibilities. We needed to go somewhere that provided housing. We found five opportunities we were interested in. We filled out the online application, sent our resumes, and waited.
We then received emails from several of the parks and next went on to phone interviews. This was again a challenge as we had interviewed individually, but never as a couple. We must have done okay as we had several offers to choose from. We decided to volunteer at Petrified Forest National Park.
When we arrived at the park, the staff and volunteers were very friendly and willing to train us. We will never forget our first scheduled day of work! In order to become familiar with the park, we were assigned to take a backcountry hike with volunteers, Connie and Gary Grube.
We were going on the Red Basin Clam Beds hike. This was a 9-mile backcountry hike with no trails. We were amazed at what we saw and what we learned. It was way out of our comfort zone, but we loved it. During the hike, we said, “Pinch us… can you believe we are doing this!”
The rest of that year we made sure to go on as many of these hikes as we could. The other thing we remember is how much fun it was to learn again. We would come back to the apartment and talk about what we learned each day. It was the first time we had the same learning experience together. The three months flew by and we decided to go back the next winter.
The next year we went back and led the backcountry hikes with the help of Connie and Gary Grube. This was an amazing opportunity that we loved. We had backcountry hikes where you could find 220 million-year-old fossils. On other hikes, you could find ancient Puebloan petroglyphs and artifacts. Then the next hike you would discover the Civilian Conservation Corp’s work.
All hikes highlighted the natural beauty and geology of Petrified Forest National Park. We loved it so much that we stayed at Petrified Forest for a total of five winters. We did learn that it is cold at Petrified Forest National Park in the winter and can snow, but it is beautiful.
One of the things we fell in love with was sharing the park with others. Whether it was visitors to the park or friends from home, they learned that it is a very special place. Over our five volunteer seasons, we had over 50 friends from the Midwest come to visit.
We always asked those friends to become Junior Rangers. This is an amazing tool to learn about any National Park. The activity book is available at the visitor center or online. Once this started with our friends, we decided we would have annual Junior Ranger parties back home. Each year, I create a slideshow of their park adventures, lead them in taking the oath, and welcome stories to relive the friendship and remember the beauty of Petrified Forest National Park.
We absolutely loved our time at Petrified Forest. Volunteering at the park created a family of new friends. The park staff is amazing. The scientific work at the park is mind-blowing. The Paleontology group continues to discover new species of dinosaurs and reptiles. Backcountry hikes continue. The interpretation staff is very knowledgeable and ready to help. The volunteers are outstanding people that do their jobs for the love of the park. We have made lifetime friends volunteering at Petrified Forest.
We have moved on to volunteer in other National Parks. We have now worked at Death Valley National Park and Katmai National Park, but Petrified Forest National Park will always hold a special place in our hearts.
So to wrap this up, how might my story affect you? I challenge you to get involved in Petrified Forest National Park as I did. There are several ways to get involved.
- Look for volunteer opportunities.
- Take a guided backcountry hike in the park. www.nps.gov/pefo/planyourvisit/calendar.htm
- Explore the park on your own and share your discoveries with others.
- Complete the Junior Ranger activities. www.nps.gov/pefo/learn/kidsyouth/beajuniorranger.htm
- Get friends involved.
- Help our paleontology and interpretation departments by donating. www.friendsofpetrifiedforest.org/donate/ We are currently raising funds to purchase a full-duplex audio intercom system and a stereomicroscope. This will enhance the visitor’s experience with personal interaction at the demonstration lab.
I hope this inspires you and yours to get involved with Petrified Forest National Park.