This is Alexandra Brendel’s second summer working at Wind Cave National Park in the Black Hills of South Dakota. She’s from Illinois, but attends school in Wisconsin during the school year. We met at the Wind Cave Campground after another ranger discussed the history of women in the park. Brendel has thick red hair, is a little less than average height, and has a down-to-earth and enthusiastic attitude. She knows what she wants and isn’t afraid to say it.
I would give tours into the caves here but right now we are compromising dramatically. We’re doing more hikes. We’re talking to people trying to keep them engaged. All this afternoon I was busy building a cardboard cave for children so I am very excited to see how that turns out.
The elevators are still down. (Wind Cave’s claim to fame is its 150 miles of cave, located 500 feet underground, meaning you need an elevator to see the caves.) We are having parts shipped in but it’s looking like it’s going to be about a month, which is devastating because I am now realizing that I have given my last tour. I am very upset about it. Off-season I work on my schooling, I’m going to Stevens Point Wisconsin to work on my Environmental Education and Interpretation degree. This is definitely what I want to do for the rest of my life. It’s an amazing job.
When I was a toddler all I ever wanted to do was be a vet. Right out of high school I started working for my degree on vet tech and I began working as a receptionist at a vet clinic and I really hated that job. I would come home very sad every day because it was basically surrounded by death.
I changed my degree to just an Associates in Science. And I started bouncing around with other ideas. I wanted to be a neurosurgeon. Have you ever seen the show “Criminal Minds”? I wanted to be that. And then I was like, you know what, that’s not going to work. That’s a lot of schooling and I don’t like school.
[My grandmother] got me into exploring national parks and hiking and made it one of my goals—like her own goal—to see all the national parks. She’s seen like 48, I’ve seen six.
After she figured out that I had no idea what I wanted to do, she figured out the best solution was to travel. That is my favorite solution ever. She took me here to Wind Cave National Park and we were actually hiking Coal Brook Natural Trail and I must have been grinning ear to ear because she turns to me and says Alexandra, I’ve never seen you more happy, why don’t you do this for the rest of your life? So that winter I filled out over 80 applications to different parks in different positions, and I heard back from only one place; that was Wind Cave. It was the winter of 2017, and I was filling out applications for summer 2018.
They hired me back this year too. This is truly my calling and I’m very glad that I found it, and I never would have found it without her. My favorite part is the tours. I love the tours. Because you get a chance, just a small chance, to have a little kid walk up to you and say I want to be just like you. I have the small chance of someone being like, you changed my mind, I understand where [you’re coming from]. I’ve made people cry, I’ve made people laugh, I’ve changed peoples’ minds, and that small thing, I can be the change, that is what I love.
This is a paid job. I’m an actual national park ranger. That’s just the different grade scales that you do, there’s 1, 2, 3, 4, it goes up to I don’t even know how many.
[When summer ends] it’s back to those mediocre jobs because it’s a college town, and there’s not really anything I can do to help practice my tour-giving skills. I can work for the school and give campus tours but I’m already there enough time, I’d rather not stay at the school. Right now I am working at Applebee’s as a cook.
I definitely like this park, I don’t know if it’s the park of my dreams, but [it] does feel like a little bit of home. We’re definitely like a family here. Say about 25, 30 people, and that’s counting interpretation like my job and maintenance and other divisions too.
If you truly love this job, you’ll get over [anything you dislike about it]. I guess the one thing that I don’t like is when people on my tours tell me they don’t care, or they have that I don’t care attitude, because it does make you feel like, well what I’m doing doesn’t matter. That is probably the worst, and it does discourage you. I have had tours where I’m like, Well, you guys are not listening I guess we’re just going to head out. I have cut my tours short a few times because people have been disrespectful and not listening.
That’s probably the reason I’m not a teacher, because #1, I would cuss too many times, and I would give Johnny too many pushups because he would not be listening. I did almost open my own do-jo. I am a black belt in Tai Quan Do. I grew up on a farm. It’s not an actual company farm; they don’t raise large numbers. It’s more like a homestead. My mom’s a doctor; my dad’s a firefighter.
I did the candlelight [tour], but I didn’t do the Wild Cave one. I would have loved to do the wild cave, but I felt like if I wasn’t going to stay at this park 24/7, the better skill would be evening program because I can bring that skill with me to any park, not just cave parks. My evening program is about the historic species that used to be in the Black Hills that got pushed out by human activities. Evening programs can be about anything that relates to the park or to Wind Cave or to the Black Hills. It’s basically being able to talk to large amounts of people. Cave tours are very close and personal and you can’t see anyone—you can only see about the first ten people in front of you so it doesn’t feel that big. In the evening program it’s much more open, it’s new material. It’s more like giving a speech in front of a classroom instead of talking about something that you know in front of your friends and family.
I’m an open book. If you ask a question I’m a-gonna answer it for you.
I’m not a ghost fan. I love “Supernatural” [the show] but I do not deal with ghosts in real life, even though I do believe Alvin McDonald, our first cave explorer, is still in the cave. [On the] last page of his diary he wrote, “I miss my home.” And he loved this cave so much that I really believe that he just wanted to keep exploring. I haven’t seen him, [but] a lot of other rangers have.
I love the nature part too [about this job], because I feel like nature is very important to our way of life. We need to learn how to respect it because I would feel awful if you know, like the Lorax book, someone just cut down the last tree and we’re screwed without nature around. So we do need to learn how to protect what we have left.
I have my associate’s in Science, I think that helps. But if you’re going to volunteer I don’t even think you need a high school diploma. Once you get your foot in the door I think it’s going to be much easier to move up.
If I can get a higher paygrade, a GS5 instead of a GS4, then I’ll definitely come back, but other than that, I am looking for new experience. I don’t sit well in one spot. I would like to go out to Oregon to visit my boyfriend out there. I met him here last year. He got a job up in Oregon at Willamette National Forest in the southern Cascades. I would like to [apply somewhere nearby]; Crater Lake is not too far. I’ve never been there either, so I’m hoping that I’m going to see it when I go up there.
I share an apartment [at Wind Cave]. I have my own bedroom. We met last year. We became roomies. She says I’m her best friend; I want to say she’s probably the closest friend I have right now. We became really good friends over the winter, just texting. She’s from Texas. It’s really great because last summer I was stuck in a house with five other girls and it was a shit show.
I stay in basically little apartments at the park itself. They were put in in the 1970s. We had to sign a whole don’t-eat-lead-paint policy, which is a shame because I love seasoning my food with lead paint.
And then there are houses near the visitor’s Center, we call those the upper housing, and I live in the lower housing. They were built by the CCC in the 1930s. The story of the CCC is still here; they built the Visitor’s Center, they built the elevator—which is probably why it broke—they put in all the stairs in the caves, over 1,000. They even carved out the roads for the park. We would not be a national park without their help.