Contemplating how happy I am these days brought me to the thought recently that attitude really does make the difference. This is probably not a huge revelation for most, and it wasn’t a totally unique idea to me either. What struck me though, is how easy it is for that thought to fall out of consciousness.
The other day I worked the closing shift at Spruce Tree House, one of our self-guided cliff dwellings. Two people close the site – one stays at the bottom of the trail and walks all the visitors out, making sure no one gets locked in; the other walks to the top and closes a gate with a sign on it that announces, very clearly, that the trail beyond this point is closed. This gate is small, however, and easy to walk around. The ranger who closes that gate is tasked then to walk down to a second, larger gate and await the ranger at the bottom to reach the top with the last visitors in order to lock the trail up for the evening.
I always dread being that top ranger, because inevitably as you’re waiting at the second gate for the last visitors to exit, someone ignores the sign on the first gate only to find a ranger standing there. Caught in clear violation of a closure, people react in many different ways.
This day was no exception. The first group I encountered consisted of several teenage boys, who, once spotting me through the trees, turned around and ran away immediately. I was relieved. No awkward conversations this time.
Just a few minutes later a second group came down. It was a mother and what I assumed to be her two teenaged sons. Upon seeing me, the woman immediately tensed – she stood straighter, clenched her fists, and moved her mouth into the shape of a thin, flat line. Her two boys immediately slowed and quieted, but tentatively continued to follow their mother.
Once close enough for conversation, the woman informed me curtly that she was informed that Spruce Tree House closed at 7. That was a lie. Closing times are marked very clearly in the park literature, and no member of our staff would make a foul like that this late in the season. We answer these questions far too often.
I felt myself tense too. Sternly, I informed her that no, Spruce Tree House closes at 6:30, that she and her family were in violation of a closure, and that she needed to turn around and head back up the trail now, please.
Her face turned red, her clenched fists moved to her hips. “You’re signage SUCKS,” she said loudly, “What the hell are we supposed to do if everything is closed?”
Everything was not closed. All the overlooks in the park would be open for several more hours. But in my defensive state, I didn’t think to tell her that.
“We are always open to suggestions on how we can improve,” I said stoically, “I encourage you to fill out a comment form at the visitor center. However, we did have over 2,000 visitors to Spruce Tree House today – all of whom were able to figure out our opening and closing times.”
It wasn’t a pleasant thing to say. But I made a promise to myself this season that I would not let people take advantage of my generally happy demeanor. This had become a battle. I would not be passive and walked all over. I had played that role too many times already. And I’m the one wearing the badge, after all.
The lady was not pleased. She huffed and ran back up the trail, her two boys following closely behind.
Just minutes later, a third group met me at the gate. They were two 20-something girls, and they smiled as they approached me. They had made the exact same infraction as the previous party, but I felt instantly calm upon seeing them.
“Oh, we’re sorry,” they said to me, “We just thought we heard people down the trail and thought maybe we could catch the last few minutes in the site.”
“I’m sorry ladies,” I said, truly apologetic this time, “Spruce Tree House is closed for the day, BUT-” I went on to tell them about all the other sites they could see before the sun went down, and told them what time Spruce Tree House would open in the morning.
“That sounds great!” They told me, all smiles, “Thank you so much!”
Two groups, same situation, completely different attitudes, and much different outcomes. Now, I’m not entirely proud with my reaction to that very angry woman. I wish I would have had the wherewithal to smile at her and turn the contact around. Since then, I’ve tried this with several other angry visitors, and 9 out of 10 times it works. A smile can be the most disarming of tools.
I have some exciting adventures lined up for this winter. So exciting, actually, that I’ve been having a hard time living in the present. I’ve spent far too much time daydreaming about white sand beaches and not nearly enough enjoying the amazing ride I’m on at this moment. One of the many disadvantages to this state of mind is missing out on all the moments that could be. I am incredibly lucky. Wonderful situations present themselves to me every day to enjoy. And boy do I enjoy them. But it’s moments you work for – the negatives turned positives, the mundane turned exciting – that are the most rewarding. And in order to earn those rewards, you have to be present. You have to be patient. And you have to have the right attitude.