NO PLACE LIKE HOME

By Audrey Frazier
The directions for getting to Yosemite National Park depend on whom you ask. But no matter which path a person takes, there’s one reason that trumps all others for staying.

“Yosemite is an awesome place,” said Nancy Bissmeyer, National Park Service (NPS) – Yosemite Emergency Communications Center manager. “I can’t think of a place I’d rather work.”

Bissmeyer had her career mapped out way before most young adults are thinking much beyond the steps taken across a stage to pick up their diplomas. She was barely 18, planning to go on to college but enjoying every second of a summer job leading tourists through Jewel Cave National Monument in South Dakota.

“It was just fun,” she said. “And I knew if the job worked out, I’d have a chance at a career like my dad’s in the forest service.”

Bissmeyer continued working summers and college breaks while earning her degree in criminal justice and, later, a commission in law enforcement. Her first full-time park service job at Mount Rushmore National Memorial, also in South Dakota, was a dream come true.

“How many people can say they start their day on George Washington’s head?,” she asked.

Eager for career advancement, Bissmeyer entered her application into the National Park Service job hopper. Yosemite was the first to call. Her experience in law enforcement qualified her for an entry-level opening in dispatch.

Ten years later she is the center’s director and lives in government housing that overlooks scenery most are lucky enough to see maybe once in a lifetime.

Bissmeyer admits working and living at Yosemite presents certain challenges, despite the proximity of a school, a recreation center, and a mini-mart store all within walking distance of her home. She takes a cooler when buying her two weeks worth of groceries at a store a 45-minute drive away, and she can’t take a quick trip to a shopping mall even if she wanted to. But where else is there a school scheduling art classes with a view to a waterfall during the fall or ski lessons once a week in winter?

“Living in a wilderness gives us a different way of life,” she said.

Dispatcher John Dahlberg’s path to Yosemite was a bit more roundabout. He trained as an EMT in 1989, and rode ambulance for more than a decade in Fresno, Calif., before transferring to dispatch in 2003. He left a county Emergency Medical Services (EMS) communications center four years ago for the job in Yosemite. It takes him less than 30 minutes to walk to work from where he lives.

Dahlberg said working and living at Yosemite means adjusting to concerns somewhat alien to the rush of the big city. Sure, the pace is slower and conveniences scarce, but incredibly scenic hiking trails outside his door beat anything he might miss from his former home in the 10th most populous county in California. Not even a recent fire forcing an evacuation of the park’s residential area swayed his opinion.

“In Fresno, I might worry about a traffic accident on the way to work or a shooting,” he said. “Here, I might worry about a rock falling.”

Park Ranger Matt Stark makes it his business to worry about rock falls, rushing water, slippery trails leading to Vernal and Nevada falls, and any potential accident that might affect the 4 million tourists visiting the park each year.

Stark is one of 91 rangers working in the park year-round, and living in the district compatible to his assignment. The job is diversified, he said, but that’s a given considering the park’s size, its five districts, and the range of outdoor activities there.

“The rangers handle all emergency services, and we’re always moving pieces around,” he said. “From day to day, we never know what we’ll have and that takes the ability to move rangers into critical situations when needed.”

Rangers are certified park medics, and the job requires a six-month training program in law enforcement. Stark is an accomplished climber and, along with Ranger Chris Bellino, directs Yosemite Search and Rescue (YOSAR) volunteer operations. Climbers staying in Camp Four and a campground in Tuolumne Meadows are paid to assist park rangers in rescues requiring technical skills, when needed.

“Rangers absolutely love their jobs at Yosemite,” Stark said. “We’re dedicated and ready to switch our hats at any given moment.”

The same goes for Public Information Officers Scott Gediman and Kari Cobb.

Gediman has coordinated press coverage and media events at the park for 15 years. Cobb has been at the park almost four years. Together, from their administrative offices outside Yosemite Village proper, they coordinate any event bringing media attention to Yosemite and any event inviting press coverage.

Gediman and Cobb gave a combined 120 interviews following the July 2011 drowning of three young adults in a plunge from Vernal Fall; a tragedy, Gediman said focusing international attention on America’s iconic park.

“Within an hour we had issued a news release, once we had contacted next of kin,” Gediman said.

The same decision-making goes into planning special events. A celebration held to mark the release of the Yosemite National Park quarter drew 1,200 park fans and coin collectors lining up hours in advance to receive a free quarter while listening to speeches and music and watching officials cut the huge chocolate cake donated for the occasion.

“That’s the fun stuff, the stuff we love to do to acknowledge all that Yosemite means,” Gediman said. “That’s one of the reasons making life here great.”

But not everyone reaches Yosemite on purpose.

Yosemite NPS Firefighter Andrew Gilmore hitched a ride out of town after his high school graduation 22 years ago. A stop at Yosemite National Park shortly into his intended cross-county-by-thumb adventure convinced him he had found home.

“I’ve been here ever since,” Gilmore said. “It would be real hard to leave.”

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