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Geologic Column

The Not-So-Retired Life
Robert Spoelhof

Today I gave a talk on the geology of the Grand Canyon. My attentive audience was 130 visitors to the national park. Briefly and without using jargon, I covered topics in tectonism, headward erosion, river gradients, volcanism, sedimentation, accommodation space, stratigraphy, regional geography, rock properties and erosional processes in arid environments. I love it! Never in my geology career have I had such opportunity to understand and, in turn, relate so many different processes to such an eager and diverse group of listeners. And what a diversity of listeners I had today, ranging four-year-olds to seniors and all visiting the Grand Canyon on a snowy April day.

I’m a Park Ranger/Naturalist. I tell people that I have finally discovered what to be when I grow up — a ranger.

My first career was in oil exploration after I earned a graduate degree from the Colorado School of Mines. I had chosen geology because I was attracted to becoming a scientist who works outdoors in mountains. For much of my oil-patch career, I was able to be involved at least in some fieldwork, although walking on rock became more of a novelty as time passed. Instead I was adding new specialties such as computer fixes, preparation and revision of Gantt charts, budgeting, and economic evaluations. All great sport, but my attraction was to the outdoors.

Then came my big chance: a company buyout and an offer of early retirement. It looked like my wife Lori and I could live on my retirement payment and savings as long as we did not adopt a lavish lifestyle. We both elected to “retire,” to sell our house in Houston and to find whatever useful and enjoyable work we could outside of an office — she in teaching, and I in geology. The answer for us was the National Park Service.

We’re thoroughly enjoying the comfort, freedom, minimal expense and lifestyle of full-time RV living and thereby making financial success in doing independent geology. I suppose that part of our “work” is minimizing our expenses — just as I was once doing for the company that employed me. All the while I can be the geologic general practitioner and teacher I had hoped to be. My wife is finding the teaching aspects of her ranger duties to be equally satisfying.

I began our new life by submitting applications through the Web site where every opening in the federal government is listed. I submitted applications to several parks, but found that I was scoring poorly in the government evaluation of my résumé. I knew I was good … wasn’t I? Why the low scores?

To my rescue came Judy Geniac of the Geologic Resources Division of the National Park Service. When she looked over my résumé, her response was that it was well organized and full of good academic credentials, professional achievement and company technical publications — and very boring! She asked me: Had I ever done anything fun, like leading field trips, as rangers do? Had I been a docent at a local park, spoken to school groups, dealt with people?

Her point was well taken because the task of interpreting park geology in words everyone can understand is perhaps a rarity.

When I affirmed in my résumé that I could connect with people who do not have science training, Park Service ears perked up. I pointed out that while I was still working at the oil company, I had volunteered at Brazos Bend State Park near Houston, which is where this ranger idea of mine started.

I spent my first summer at Grand Canyon, initially as a volunteer and later, when a position became available, as a paid ranger with, yes, the flat hat, badge and all. The succeeding three summers were at Yellowstone. I have deliberately looked for seasonal jobs, leaving the rest of the year for a bit of college teaching, writing and volunteering.

My other title is Interpreter, and to achieve true interpretation I use common, non-technical words. Words such as tectonism never appear in my talks unless I carefully define and describe the process. Usually my talks are so short that I have no time to introduce new words. Instead, I use analogies from common experiences — hose water soaking into a driveway to illustrate the concepts of porosity and permeability. These analogies help my listeners connect the concept we are discussing to their own experience. The objective of a ranger talk is not to inject a body of facts into visitors’ heads, but to open their eyes to a new way of seeing and thinking about their park, about geology and about science.

The Park Service seems to be hungry for geologic interpreters — people who can explain and translate the world of geology so that visitors make deeper, more insightful connections to the parks they visit. So eager is the Park Service that one function of the Geologic Resources Division is to facilitate placement of geologists throughout the country.

What an opportunity we have to showcase our science. Folks from around the world come to our national parks for the wonder that we geologists can help them see.

Park visitors want to learn everything. Because of their questions, I have refreshed and expanded my geologic background and at the same time gained a bonus that I can now talk about ecology, botany, human history, archeology, the politics of river management, and astronomy — all subjects about which visitors express curiosity.

The best part is researching every aspect of the geology that might touch the park where I am stationed. Using a vocabulary that is understandable for the non-professional and gauging and adjusting to interest levels and time availability of the visitors all demand ongoing evaluation. What a broadening and challenging experience! What a delight to share with attentive listeners! What a pleasure it is to encourage others to be enthusiastic about geology!


Spoelhof’s first career included service with Shell and Pennzoil Companies. He left his job as Geologic Advisor in Venezuela four years ago to pursue his passion to share geology. Since then he has been a Park Ranger at Yellowstone and Grand Canyon and an interim professor at Calvin College in Michigan.

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