Ranger Joel! Ranger Joel! Rangel Joel!
My husband and I were walking our dog under the towering pines of Lake Livingston State Park, past its little general store, pier and observation tower—with the glistening lake beyond—when we came across a group of kids and a few moms cheering as a park ranger demonstrated how to start a fire. We stopped and gaped for a few minutes, almost as entranced as the kids.
Here, on a sunny Saturday afternoon, a couple dozen small humans had been sucked in, not by some hand-held device but by something that doesn’t get more real, or more elemental: two sticks making fire. As the first flames sprung up, they broke into cheers. It was such a great scene, I not only joined in the applause but, after returning to Houston, called the ranger up.
As it turns out, Joel Janssen’s job—his official title is Park Interpreter—often involves adoring children shouting his name. “Out of all the programs that I do,” he told us, “that probably gets the crowd more worked up than anything else. They do tend to chant my name and cheer me on.”
And that’s far from the only reason Janssen loves working at the park. “I get paid to kayak and play in the dirt, to do aquatic programs, take people on trails, start fires and star-gaze,” he said. “I would probably pay to do this job.” He sees three or four bald eagles a week, he told us, not to mention hawks and minks and other critters.
There were other memorable scenes over our visit. At the camping areas, we saw kids whittling pieces of wood for sword fights, zipping past on bikes declaring “I am the champion!” and jumping around in piles of leaves—again, not a screen in sight. They were having a blast.
Just as arresting was the wide array of visitors. Women in burkas camped next to a crew of bike-toting hipsters, next to hunter types in camo, next to Boy Scouts with matching tents. The place looked like an ad agency’s diversity-filled fever dream. When we asked Janssen about this, he said there’s been a big push on the part of Texas’s state parks to attract guests beyond the typical Caucasian family of four, something that’s been easily accomplished at Livingston. “Our park being so close to Houston,” he explained, “it’s a giant melting pot.”
The final scene that’s stayed with me came courtesy of the lake itself. We’d finished a hike through the park, stopping at a picnic table with a view. As our dog panted beside us, we stared at the twinkling water and watched kayaks and canoes cruising past. From our vantage point, we could see a few homes overlooking the lake on neighboring properties. “This is prime real estate, isn’t it?” I remarked to my husband. Developers, he replied, would be thrilled to get their hands on the parkland.
It suddenly seemed so amazing that, back in 1977, somebody had the foresight to set aside these more than 635 acres of land, including more than two miles along the waterfront, for all to enjoy, a little over an hour outside of Houston. Janssen told us it amazes him, too, every day. “It’s something I’ve dedicated my life to,” he said, “being a steward for this park and making sure people understand its value.”
Count me a convert.