Why I ditched the "American dream" and became a Park Ranger

Updated Oct 12 2015
Guest post by David Linthakhan

stet1-copyI must say the past six months have been quite the roller coaster. Leaving my life in the midwest to start "school," traveling half way across the U.S. to do so, being so far removed from my family, studying, and also trying to still find time for myself and my family. As difficult as it was and as often as I considered just throwing in the proverbial towel, I came out the victor.

I accomplished something that I had always told myself I couldn't do. I had always made up excuses as to why I never completed any college. "I can't sit in a chair all day and learn anything." or "School just isn't for me."

Oh, and then there was the one where I convinced myself that there was no option but school, "I have to make the money to keep this family afloat." I took my responsibility as a father and husband seriously and I was so focused on making sure that the life I gave my family was better than the one I had growing up that I lost sight of something extremely important… Myself.

Even with all the reasons not to do it, I somehow found at least one better reason to do it. The reason was a selfish reason I'll admit, but dreams don't have to be only for the dreamers. Why shouldn't the grounded and steadfast be allowed feel the wind lift him to the clouds once in a while?

So, what was the one reason that pushed me to take the leap?

Simple, I want to smile again. I wanted happiness, and so I closed my eyes and stepped over the ledge. Now, I can say that I am happy, truly happy. I live in one of the most beautiful places in the States. I protect the plants, the animals, the people, and the park.

I am living MY dream. Not the "American" one, not the one that we are brainwashed into wanting. I am talking about the one where when you were a kid you would say you wanted to grow up to be a policeman or firefighter. I am a Park Ranger.

It wasn't an easy road to get here, but I did it. And you can, too. You just have to have the motivation and will. Life is too short to be stuck in jobs you hate and living a life you wish you could escape from.

For me, since I had no experience in the parks and recreation field, I didn't want to start at the bottom and work up. So I enrolled in a Seasonal Law Enforcement Academy — there are only about a dozen of these academies in the US. After three-and-a-half months of going to school full-time, I was awarded with a law enforcement commission. I was turned loose to hunt for a job at the state and national parks level, and have been loving it ever since!

Whether you want to be a firefigher, a policeman, a baker, a cattle-wrangler, a painter, or a park ranger, I would take the leap and pursue that dream. Chances are your dreams are more attainable than you believe.

Have you or are you totally thinking about ditching your day job for your dream job?

  1. My husband is a police office and my father-in-law is a conservation officer (our state's equivalent to a park ranger, I believe. State level DNR law enforcement). I had no clue we weren't all living the American dream. I thought the American Dream WAS a job you love.

    • good point. I grew up thinking the american dream was a high paying job, a big home with a picket fence, and taking family vacations to yellowstone. I ditched that ideal. But your correct, the american dream is whatever you wish it to be.

      • I don't necessarily disagree, but I have noticed a shift in the dream from a white picket fence to waking up every morning and doing what you love, regardless of what that is. I'm glad you guys get to experience that. My husband is doing what he was born to do and it brings me so much joy to see him so happy, so I can totally relate to your wife's insistence that you go for it.

    • I work for a small police department as an animal control officer, and my husband is a game warden (our state's conservation officer….Park rangers usually work for the park service, while conservation officers usually work for the state). We both love our jobs, though we are also going for the American dream. It's tough…his job requires him to live in his coverage area, which unfortunately is one of the more expensive areas of the state. The state has also had a pay freeze for state employees for a few years now…so he's making starting pay even though he's been on the job for four years (meanwhile, my not-glamorous municipal position has gotten small but steady raises, and I now make only slightly less than him). We FINALLY bought a house last week after two years of looking (and seeing over a hundred houses). So…hopefully we're on our way now to the house-and-kids dream.

    • I can only assume you don't own a TV, Colleen, or read magazines, if you think the American Dream is doing a job you love. The American Dream is about money and status, before everything. If it wasn't, Americans wouldn't be struggling with the longest working week, and the worst social problems, in the Western world. If you have noticed a shift away from this ideology then I can only surmise it's because you chiefly frequent sites such as this one, where mainstream life is not the norm, because there is no way the national economy of America wants people to ACTUALLY follow their dreams. After all, who would they then sell all that 'happiness' (stuff) to?

  2. I've fantasized about the same move — going to a seasonal academy and becoming a park ranger. How was the job search process? How easy is it to land in a general region of the country (e.g. somewhere in Washington State, or somewhere in northern California)? Congratulations on your awesome accomplishment!

    • Eric, it's a great way to get into the parks. Getting in with the National level is a bit more difficult if you are a newbie with no experience. State level is also a long process with background checks, psych eval, polygraph etc…well worth it though! I took the academy in washington state and am now employed in washington state. i would recommend going to an academy in the state you want to be as they teach state specific jobs. although i graduated with cadets who are employed in main, cali, etc…hope that helps!

      • That does help! Thanks for taking the time to respond. I'm from northern California and would like to move back there, so if I did go this route I'd go to the academy at Santa Rosa Junior College.

    • Very unreasonable eye-sight requirements in California- 20/20 corrected vision AND 20/40 uncorrected vision. I'm hoping to get in myself, but the vision requirement worries me a great deal

  3. Love the article!

    Im tempted to take the leap to my dream job (something with art, teaching art mayhaps) but still incredibly nervous about leaving my decent paying but annoying as hell job behind.

    • Thats one thing we had to give up. And downsizing and living more within our needs has been nothing but a good thing. We don't miss many frills of the life we lived before.

  4. I would love to be able to do this. Unfortunately, the path of the professional blacksmith is a bit more unrealistic, and tends to edge over into "pipe dream" territory.

    • You could look into living history, if you don't mind interacting with the public as a part of your blacksmithing job! Many (most?) living history museums / villages of any decent size have a smithy, and they generally have someone who knows their way around the forge working as an interpreter in that building — and also making things for the village and the gift shop.

    • Depending on what you make you might be able to make it workable! A friend of mine loves to cook and covets high-quality handmade knives. There's one artisan in particular who makes only a handful of his best a year and sells them for thousands of dollars! This man is so good he has a waiting list. Other knives, not quite as good, are sold for hundreds.

      Sadly I am at a TOTAL loss for the artisan's name. 🙁 But he makes chef's knives and cutlery.

    • My awesome neighbor is a blacksmith/metal worker. She makes everything from fire pits to jewelry. I'm pretty sure that her main, non-fluctuating source of income is from teaching classes in blacksmithing and jewelry making. So that could be an option. None of us in the warehouse I live in make very much money, but we're still able to scrape by rent money in the expensive Bay Area, so you can definitely do it if you don't mind living with less.

  5. It's nice to hear the male perspective of "self-care". It's not just women who get wrapped up in family and other things and lose sight of what they truly want; it happens to men too, but we seldom hear anything about it. Thanks for sharing!
    Good for you for believing in yourself, taking a risk, and following your heart!

    • thanks. my wife had to pretty much force me into believing i was supposed to do something that made me happy. so glad she did. i look back now and think how grateful i am for taking such a risk. well worth it

      • I would love to hear more about this – was there something in particular that convinced you to take the leap? I wish my husband believed that he could do something he enjoys as work, but he's less optimistic and seems convinced that the best he can do is earn money and work for vacation days.

        • I'm not sure I can pin it to one particular event. I did write another post on our website that may give you a little more insight. But I was fed up with chasing the dollar and being unhappy. It was almost a rock bottom place. My wife convinced me we could do it and I could leave for a few months and everything would be fine. It was a bumpy road while I was gone but worth it. I felt the same way your husband did. My wife love talking and encouraging others if you want to more feel free to contact her alinthakhanlmt@gmail.com

  6. Nice to hear you're happy on the other side of the process I'm just beginning. I went into teaching because I didn't know what else to do, and while I love every minute with the children I hate the buracracy and paperwork. I dream of caring for the environment, or being outside every day and of seeing the children really thrive and enjoy every minute, whilst having the time to really have conversation with them. I have just started on the first tiny step to my dream – I have enrolled in a course to become a Forest School leader, and hope one day to have my own pre-school, with at the very least a day in the forest, if not every day.

    • My wife has been researching forest schools and wanting to get our children in them. there just aren't a lot of them in the US. good for you. what an awesome step. where are you located?

  7. i couldn't copy/paste this link to my husband fast enough. we have dreams of walking out of our jobs at the cable company and buying a farm, and we're teetering on the edge. Thank you for sharing. :]

  8. Very well written. 7 years ago I started the same journey you have taken. I left a high paying corporate job in the music business for a low paying state government job as a Park Ranger. One of the best decisions and hardest paths of my life. I worked two years, seven days a week, just to get a foot in the door. I have been a Ranger now, playing and protecting the forest, for 5 years. Best job in the entire world! I hope more folks take your advice.
    -RJ

    • The courses are all indivually ran so i can't speak for all. but the course in Mt. Vernon Washington (skagit valley) prereqs are:
      You must be 21 years of age or older, and be physically and mentally fit for service
      You must successfully pass a criminal history and background check, drug analysis screening, and application review by the academy's Advisory Committee.

      I had no college education. But i had a clean record, in good shape, and had some professional working years under my belt.
      I love of cadets i went to school with were younger then me or had already been working inside parks and just wanted advancement.

  9. As far back as I can remember, I have always wanted to be a writer. Working on that one. Published a few short stories, won a prize, working on a novel or three. During the day I am a translator, which I love as well (playing with languages, yay!), so you could say life is pretty damn great.

    So… follow your dream. And have a reasonable backup plan.

    • Plans are important. We had an outline and just set our intentions to succeed. It worked out. Back up plans for us? I figured I could always sell cars again and just live in a beautiful place. I know now that wouldn't of been enough to make me truly happy.

  10. It's so funny to me that you posted this at the time you did. Last night in the shower I was literally thinking, "what would it take for me to pursue my dream job?" (By this I mean, what would push me to actually do it.) maybe I should start looking deeper into it and thinking about it more. Thanks for sharing and so glad that you're happy in your work!

    • I would absoluty say start really looking into it. That's a great step to take. And it will fuel the fire for starting to make steps. Come up with a plan. Set deadlines. And surround yourself with people to encourage you

  11. Thanks for the great article, it really could not have come at a better time. I had been toying with the idea of leaving my fulltime job and pursuing a career in illustration for the last year. Now that I'm moving across the country so that my husband can go to grad school, I have to leave my secure, high paying job behind. It is just the kick in the butt I needed to take pursuing my dreams seriously. It's kind of terrifying, but I'm trying to see this as an opportunity to build the life I want rather than be stuck in the life I thought I wanted. Thanks for the inspiration!

    • Good luck! If you're interested in illustration the advice my professors gave me was to specialize in a technique and perhaps a field (technical, medical, book covers, etc.). My other advice would be learn the basics of contracts, taxes, and IP law.

    • That's great. It's the best kind o fear. I went through lot of 'being terrified' and even in living my dream I still have some 'freak out' moments. We just had a big scare and didn't know if Washington would approve the budget and if we would all be unemployed. But everything always works out how it should be.

  12. Thank you so much for writing this, and thank you to everyone in the comments. I'm kind of in the middle of an "American Dream Existential Crisis." I've grown up knowing my dreams for myself are not the typical "American Dream," which I am totally okay with, but long story short, I've hit a bit of a rough patch regarding a lot of different things, and knowing there are Homies out there who have been where I am and come out the other side is really, really encouraging.

    • Yes It is a seasonal law enforcement acedemy. But it does get you the required education to get your foot in the door. The jobs you most likely will get straight out of the academy would be temporary or seasonal job however once you have a good season under your ranger belt you could start applying for permenent and full time positions. I myself am working a full time-permenent-seasonal. So I have a 'secured' job at a park where I work full time in the busy season. In the off season I am technically unemployed but am back here at the same park the next season

  13. I am a barn manager at a dressage stable (I look after people's horses). While most people wouldn't want to get up before dawn, work outside in every kind of weather, or shovel mountains of poop every day, I absolutely ADORE my job. I love horses, and I love the girls I work with. I get compliments on my amazing tan all summer, and I get a ton of exercise. It doesn't pay lots of money, but my boss is one of the kindest and most generous women I have ever met. Yes, I come home every night with clothes filled with bits of hay, smelling like a barnyard, but I do something I enjoy, and that matters so much more than anything.

  14. Very cool to see an article about Park Rangers on one of my favorite websites! My husband and I met while working as law enforcement rangers in Yellowstone National Park. We both had numerous other ranger jobs throughout the country prior to Yellowstone. It is a wonderful career if you like to be outside and would enjoy living incredibly beautiful, sometimes isolated, places. Thanks for your story, David!

    • thanks jess. I've been readying a book written by a ranger who spent a lot of time in yellowstone. sounds like an amazing place! i teeter on the thought of going NPS, but i'm sure you know the reservations on that.

      • For the rest of us, what are the reservations about going to the NPS? How do they compare to working with a state or local agency?

        • my main concern is the houseing as i have family to look after as well. state housing, at least in these parts, rangers usually get a private home. (not always the case). NPS it's not always the case. i believe pay is a little less. jobs may be more remote and secluded. but still…best damn job in the world.

        • Sorry to respond a month later…the NPS has been fantastic to work for. Decent pay and great benefits. As far as housing, I have no complaints. As a seasonal you can expect to live in an apartment or shared housing. As a permanent, it could be an apartment, duplex or single-family home. Some parks do not have required occupancy.

  15. Love this. Anyone who is considering the same might enjoy reading The Great Work of Your Life by Stephen Cope. It's an amazing read about living a fulfilled life by following your dharma (your calling). He incorporates stories from famous people who lived their dharma to the max (Thoreau, Harriet Tubman, etc.) as well as "normal" people who also follow their dharma (such as yourself David). It's a bridge between Western thought and yoga philosophy from the Gita–so inspirational. I highly recommend.

  16. Thank you so much for this article, and congrats on your new career! I recently made the decision to follow my dreams and pursue a career in marine biology. Since I have a liberal arts degree that entails academically starting from scratch. I'll be in school for a long time as I have my heart set on a doctorate. Similar to your journey, it was difficult convincing myself that I "deserved" it, but my husband has been incredibly supportive. We have had to make many adjustments to our lifestyle, like living in separate cities most of the year and severely altering our budget, but it has been worth it! My mantra for getting through the scary bits has been "fortune favors the brave."

  17. This story is similar to my boyfriend's. He never finished college and is tired of making excuses to everyone. We're actually going to a seminar at a regional park tomorrow morning about how to become a park ranger and how to find entry-level positions to get started 🙂 I'm gonna have to bookmark this page for him!

  18. This is my absolute dream as well! I actually have a degree in Recreation Administration. After working in the field as a Recreational Therapist for several years I jumped ship for more more into the corporate world. That was great for several years, but now I'm ready to get back to my dream. The business world has sucked my soul dry. I'm tired of selling out and want to get back to my dream. Now I want to work in the Park systems. Kudos to you!

  19. I am applying to a sletp program in Colorado. Do you know what the housing is like in the national parks for seasonal Rangers with a wife? Is she able to live with me? Thanks

    • Seth, Every NPS park is a little different. I do know that some parks support housing for families and others are more like a hotel room. Your best bet is to contact the individual park you are applying for and see what their housing arrangment is. I've also known many that live in an RV so they are able to move around easily. We never went NPS because we couldn't justify moving our family around while we waiting for a full time permanent job. Some families have done it though. NPS jobs are seasonal and the seasons can be 4-6 months long, and then you must find your next seasonal job. Totally doable, but slightly stressful at times. I had a good friend Ranger in colorado before moving onto NPS. Foot in the door somewhere is better then nothing at all 🙂 Good luck friend!

      • Thanks for the reply. I really appreciate it! Does the sletp program count towards anything with the Blm or fish and game? I'm a special education teacher right now but I have a bachelors degree in broad field science. My dream is to work as a le ranger in Yellowstone, Glacier, or GTNP. Any help or advice I appreciate greatly.

        • If your looking for a federal park job you have to start out as a seasonal.
          Which the sletp is perfect. The training is only good for three years, if you don't score a fed job within that time you have to redo it. The sletp will probably cover for blm but to be fish and wildlife probably won't be the best bet. Each state is a little bit different but I know people in NPS that graduated the sletp. So it's absolutly doable to score a job, you just may be working at getting your dream park for a few seasons. Don't give up!

  20. Thank you for sharing your experiences!

    Just quit my full time job this past spring (teacher, college-level instructor). Like other teachers who have posted here, I adored my students and colleagues, grew weary of unqualified administration, bureaucracy, and always feeling like I was in crisis mode due to budget cuts, low enrollment, whatever. Fortunately, we are in a situation where finances are not too much of a consideration. I need to work part-time, probably seasonal at ?? Not sure yet.

    I have no "dream job". I have a "dream life" which includes part-time seasonal work in a small mountain town where we live now (near Rocky Mountain National Park actually). Just wondering if anyone else out there feels this same way? After 25 years of working to build a "career" (including earning a PhD), I'm finally letting go of the whole "my career defines me" idea. People think I'm crazy.

    • That is amazing! You aren't crazy at all. What are your interest aside from parks. maybe there is something you can do from home that allows you that freedom.

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