The award-winning ranger explains what she does every day and shares wisdom gleaned from years working at Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Big Bend, Arches, Yellowstone, and Rocky Mountain National Parks.
Before going to work at Yosemite, Lisa Hendy spent seven years as a top ranger at Grand Canyon National Park, where in 2011 she received the Harry Yount Award, the highest honor the Parks Service bestows. Also a veteran of Big Bend, Arches, Yellowstone, and Rocky Mountain National Parks, she embodies the ethic the National Park Service hopes to instill in future generations of custodians. Here, she speaks about what she does every day and what makes it all worth it.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
What makes Yosemite so special?
The place is amazingly beautiful. It just drops your jaw the minute you walk out into it. The Grand Canyon was the same way. The thing about the Grand Canyon is that you can’t see it unless you walk all the way out to the rim. The greatest thing in the world, if I was having a bad day, was to watch people’s faces as they walked up to that rim. Just the shock of it. The Yosemite Valley has the same effect. There’s a stretch between the visitor’s center and the post office where if you turn one direction, you see Half Dome, and if you turn the other direction, you see the falls. When people get off the bus there and look up, they all have that same look on their face. That’s my reminder of why we do this.
Has working in the parks changed your perspective on them?
The question I get a lot is, do you ever get tired of seeing it? And I’m like….no! Who would ever get sick of it? What happens is you cease to see it anew. It’s like passing the same street corner every day. You have to be more intentional about enjoying the outdoors, which is hugely ironic because I’ve spent my entire adult life outside. I just did a river trip on my own time this past weekend, and I did that with the intention of enjoying it and quietly just checking out the park.
And you start to understand why it’s all being managed the way it is. When you’re young, you don’t understand why the park charges to enter, and why you can’t have your dog off the leash, and why all these rules have been imposed. But when you see the impact of millions of visitors, and what that’s doing to the landscape… they love it to death. If we didn’t put that stuff in place, we wouldn’t be able to fund the repairs, and we would have quite a bit more damage. We’re doing our best to protect and preserve these places for future generations.
What does your job actually consist of on a day-to-day basis?
A big piece of emergency management is trying to plan for the worst—there’s an awful lot of things that can go wrong in a park of that size, with that volume of visitors. I have days where I start out in meetings at the clinic to discuss whether we should switch to a different kind ofIV catheter and end flying in a helicopter over the Sierras for a cardiac patient. It shifts gears really quickly.
Is there a particular park that’s had the greatest impact on you—personally or professionally?
I really miss the Grand Canyon. It’sa place where you can get all the quiet you want. You just had to get off the beaten path. Most people never leave the main corridor. The river is magic, and anyone who’s ever been down it will tell you that. The park has so many hidden treasures that most people will never see. It takes sincere intent and often a lot of physical effort to get to them, and therefore they’re not very often found. So it’s full of secrets, and that makes it special. For seven years my whole job was to run around in that backcountry. I got to find places that people hadn’t set foot in in probably 1,500 years. You’d come across archaeological sites that weren’t on our books. Nobody knew they were there. You would just stop and the hair on the back of your neck would stand up.
What does the parks system mean to you?
The mission statement of the national parks is to protect and preserve some of the most amazing places on earth and some of the most important parts of American history for the next generation. Think whatever you want about the federal government—that’s a pretty spectacular mission. The public loves the parks, because they still represent the best in America—the best of what we can be, the best of what we have been. They are a place of idealism in a very cynical world.