Nature calls: How C.J. Adams went from a daydreaming tourist to a Teton Park ranger

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C.J. Adams at Teton National Park trailhead. Photo credit: Ileana Hunter

The natural spires of the Grand Teton mountain range rose into the sky like sentinels, pointing heavenward with their snow-covered caps. Sunlight bent over the jagged, rock-faced mountainside, casting shadows on each crevice left untouched by morning sun. The healing mountain air swept through the valley and waned thin with increased elevation.

Tall, evergreen pines jutted from the earth at the base of the mountain range but looked minuscule in comparison. Fourteen-year-old Christopher Adams and his sister sat in the back seat of the family Honda Civic, surrounded by mounds of stuffed animals, treasured winnings from the casino arcades in Las Vegas, when they saw this sight for the first time.

Photo credit: Ashley Chilcutt

It was this memory that captured Adams’ boyish imagination and set the course for what he would become — A Grand Teton National Park ranger.

The Adams family had a tradition of traveling from Southern California to Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Idaho and Wyoming to visit various national parks throughout the West.

When Adams and his family visited the Teton National Park again six years later, it solidified his resolve to pursue his dream.

“I had gone to college trying to be a history teacher actually but every summer I would go backpacking with my dad at national parks like the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, and Joshua Tree.” Adams explained. “It was during an interaction with a ranger at Grand Canyon specifically when I thought, ‘Hey, I can do that. I can teach where learning happens, where people naturally have questions.'”

After graduating from California State University, Fullerton, with a degree in history and American studies, Adams began the ranger application process. He described a long cycle of application followed by rejection or silence, which characterized the beginning of his journey to becoming a ranger.

“I wasn’t getting too much feedback, so I volunteered and spent my first summer at the Rockefeller Parkway, which is that little section between Yellowstone and Grand Teton, and I loved it,” Adams said. “So, I worked that for a season and was hired on the next season to work at Colter Bay as an interpretive ranger.”

Adams recognizes that his struggle to become a ranger was partly fueled by lack of information. For those interested in working as a National Park Service ranger, Adams recommends volunteering or working for the Student Conservation Association.

“Nothing is going to replace that firsthand experience,” Adams said.

One of the privileges of being a ranger is having constant access to recreational terrain and idyllic natural sights. Although initially struck by the beauty of the Tetons, Adams sometimes finds himself taking them for granted.

As a photographer, Adams often seeks out wildlife. One of the most telling ways to spot wildlife at the parks is by noticing tourists pulling over to take pictures. On one such occasion, Adams approached a family to discover what animal they had stopped to see. Their response greatly impacted him.

“‘What are you guys looking at?’

“‘It’s the mountains,’ they said.

“Oh, duh. The mountains are pretty cool, right?”

Momentarily, forgetting the thrill of being a first-time tourist, Adams was reminded of how special the mountains are to onlookers. Firsthand accounts like this bring him back to the feeling he had as a 14-year-old, many years before.

The tourists Adams encounters as a ranger come from all over the world and from all walks of life. Through his varied encounters with tourists, Adams openly recognized how quarantine has impacted the need for connecting with nature. Studies show that time in nature improves mental health.

Adams emphasized how the first director of the National Park Service, Stephen Mather, struggled with mental health issues. One of the ways Mather coped with his mental health struggle was by being in the parks.

Photo credit: Kaitlyn Davis
Photo credit: Kaitlyn Davis

“I think (national parks) have a huge impact for the good of people,” Adams said.

Visiting national parks is also a great way to spend quality time with family, escape the stresses of work and get physical exercise, but it most notably serves as a means to get mental clarity.

According to the Mental Health Foundation article “Why Nature is the theme for Mental Health Awareness Week 2021,” connecting with nature is one of the best ways to improve mental health.

“Nature is so central to our psychological and emotional health, that it’s almost impossible to (realize) good mental health for all without a greater connection to the natural world. … It is only in the last five generations that so many of us have lived and worked in a context that is largely separated from nature. And it is only since a 1960s study in the US found that patients who were treated in hospitals with a view of nature recovered faster, that science has started to unpack the extraordinary health benefits.”

We can strive to reap the benefits of outdoor activity and connections with family and friends. If you struggle with mental health or know someone who does, go on a walk, invite them with you and experience the healing of God’s creation.

“I think (mental health) is huge, and it’s one of the things we were actually promoting during National Park Week,” Adams said. “I can’t speak for everyone, but it’s one of the ways I get that kind of mental clarity. When I was preparing for my ranger programs, one of the best things I could do was just go on a hike and be with my thoughts and be out in nature.”