People have been coming to Austin for over 10,000 years because the vast natural resources, fresh water, and distinct geology provide a unique spot for people to gather. While we can (and sometimes do) go on for days about the wonders of Austin’s treasured landscape, there is another treasure in the central Texas park scene, the Park Rangers who protect and preserve this cherished green space.
On a typical hot and sunny day in early August, the trails at McKinney Falls and Pedernales Falls State Parks are full with a varied demographic of visitors—families with young toddlers, experienced day hikers, runners, and young adults relishing their last few days of summer break.
Simultaneously, Kristen Williams and Stephen Garmon are hard at work.
Both are Park Interpreters of their respective parks; Williams works at McKinney Falls, while Garmon leads similar efforts at Pedernales Falls.
A Park Interpreter translates the cultural and natural resources in the park into a way that people can understand. This is done mostly through public programming—activities like group nature hikes, historical tours, birding events, scavenger hikes, geocaching, astronomy programs, and more.
“I love doing programs with kids because I was that girl,” Williams says. “When I was young, my parents drove us from Michigan to Yellowstone National Park and that’s where I met my first park ranger. I had so many questions and he answered all of them. That truly inspired me.”
Williams carried this love with her all the way to Central Michigan University, where she earned a degree in Recreation Parks and Leisure Service Administration, with a focus on Museum Studies and Outdoor Environmental Education. She also has an extensive technical theater background, the perfect combination for her chosen career. Theater is all about telling stories, she says, and getting along with people. Knowing how to tell a good story is essential to connecting with the 300,000+ visitors that come through the gates of McKinney Falls each year.
Garmon has also been an avid outdoorsman his entire life, working his way up to an Eagle Scout badge in the Boy Scouts.
Originally from Corpus Christi, Garmon first attended Texas A&M for Aerospace Engineering.
“I loved science fiction and engineering, but I was terrible at math and physics,” Garmon jokes.
He returned to Corpus Christi and started work on a degree in Geology, going back to his scouting roots. Garmon also consulted with people about different careers in the park system and landed his first job at Cedar Hill State Park in Dallas as a Customer Service Ranger.
“Dealing with customers and visitors is so rewarding,” he says. “Families who may never have experienced camping, fishing, or hiking show up and it’s my mission to help them have a positive experience. Those are the memories that can last for years.”
They entertain and educate children and adults with skulls and animal skins, they stroll along the trails giving historical tours of the last shadows of Austin’s past, they host birding events and star-gazing walks on clear weekend nights.
Both note that the job isn’t always about hanging out in the woods. There is also a detailed administrative side to their work.
When not leading programs, they’re on the computer coordinating all of the park’s volunteer efforts, since both also serve as volunteer coordinators in addition to their roles as Park Interpreters. They develop programs and field trips for schools, churches, scouts, and other groups. And, like most jobs, they do get buried in the minutia of paperwork, scheduling, and emails. Even in a job that prioritizes disconnecting from distractions, they’re often the most connected by leading the social media charge for their respective park’s social media pages.
Being a park ranger requires the ability to wear many hats at a moment’s notice, and this includes helping out fellow rangers in customer service, maintenance, and other areas. It also means that they are often the first responders on the scene of an emergency where strength and a sense of calm are crucial.
Because of the various pressures, maintaining their own fitness and sanity is important.
You won’t find them inside relaxing and unwinding. Both love to go for hikes and walks.
“The world would be a better place if people would get outside and go for a walk,” says Williams, who has a rich experience in leading backcountry tours and kayaking groups.
“There are many paths to staying fit and healthy, so don’t stress and feel like you have to do what the world is telling you to do for health and fitness. Your options are so vast, especially at a state park.”
There are days that both Williams and Garmon do take time for themselves to explore their own surroundings, but when not at work, Williams powerlifts to maintain stability and remain injury-free. Garmon prioritizes his personal well-being by maintaining a healthy diet and being in nature as much as possible, especially with his pets.
In order to be the best they can be for visitors, they know they must place value on their own fitness and health. When they are operating at their best, so do the parks and public programs.
“This is your park and we’re public servants.”
Neither of these rangers take their role lightly.
“I love to walk around and engage people in conversation—ask why they’re here and where they live,” Garmon says. “Often, I’ll just point things out to people that they may never have noticed on their own. Those guests will carry that knowledge with them forever and hopefully end up sharing it with others,” Garmon says.
In essence, Garmon and Williams teach visitors stewardship and respect.
They also both enjoy watching people unwind from the rigors of daily life. Their favorite part of the job is immersing park visitors in a guided hike or cultural program and watching their stress level go down and the sense of childlike adventure emerging.
“Nature is out there,” says Garmon. “You just have to find it. And when you find it, you’ll know it.”
And, thanks to the park rangers, not only will we find it, but also appreciate and respect it for generations to come.