Walking Two Worlds

SCA Alum Leah Duran is currently a NPS employee at San Fransicso Maritime National Historic Park

Leah Duran, NPS Park Guide & SCA Alum, on Serving in the Wilderness & the City

Leah Duran is a three-time SCA alum who just finished a three-year stint on SCA’s Alumni Council. Soon after serving with SCA she began working for the National Park Service, first at Lassen Volcanic National Park, then at John Muir National Historic Site, and now at San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park. Here she reflects on what it was like to go from living and working in the Lassen wilderness to living and working in the heart of the San Francisco Bay Area. 

When I first moved from Lassen Volcanic National Park to Oakland, I missed stars the most. I had been living in remote areas with stunning scenery during my service with the Student Conservation Association and then as National Park Service ranger. Within my first few weeks of transition, I climbed Claremont Canyon to watch a meteor shower and instead saw fog creep over city lights. I was so focused on the loss of my sky companions that I didn’t appreciate this majestic view or the fact I could easily walk to a hiking area from my neighborhood.

As I grew accustomed to walking between skyscrapers instead of pine trees, new companions filled my life. I learned to BE HERE NOW, instead of longing for Lassen’s gurgling mudpots and blue lakes. While I still don’t see many stars, nature is ever-present. The fog shows its moods daily, sometimes disappearing the tops of buildings into the mist, other times hovering like a layer of frosting on the Bay. My bike commute to San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park takes me on one of the city’s busiest streets, yet I contend with puddles, rocks, and wind. Once, a chorus of cawing coaxed me to stop at a large intersection, where I witnessed a flock of red-masked parakeets (the famous “parrots of Telegraph Hill”) feeding on crimson berries in a roadside tree. Other cyclists and pedestrians stopped to watch, and car passengers snapped photos.

 A steam vent at Lassen Volcanic National Park.

Nature is here if I’m paying attention. The weather each morning reminds me humanity is not in charge, no matter how large we build our cities. Nature’s power, as well as life’s fragility, manifests in occasional earthquakes unsettling our structures and climate change altering our coastlines. My office in an historic fort lacks windows, so I walk along the beach at Aquatic Park to smell salt air and watch egrets decorate the sand with their toes. These snippets remind me why I’m here – to inspire others to protect nature and our collective history. The park is a backyard for locals who picnic on the beach and swim in the water, as well as a recent group of high school students who kayaked on the Bay for the first time. I was delighted to see the spirit of these city kids exploring nature close to home in a new way.

My walks home from the BART train are like garden strolls, with redwoods next to palm trees next to rosemary bushes. Friendly felines, or “commuter cats”, run to greet me in exchange for a pat. By taking public transit, I’m much more “green” than I was driving miles to get gas and groceries at Lassen and Grand Canyon national parks. Living in cities is arguably more sustainable, as I walk or bike almost everywhere and reserve my car for weekend trips, with no less than five national parks within a half day’s drive. Bay Area culture is hyped on sustainability, including eating local, and I’ve been able to grow a garden year-round. Weeding the beds is a quiet retreat from the sometimes grueling and overwhelming pace of city life.

A real-life, Bay Area “commuter cat.”

After working at Lassen, I transferred to John Muir National Historic Site before switching to my current position at SF Maritime. Far from being a wilderness recluse, Muir lived in town, raised a family, and ran a thriving orchard business. He used his political connections to fight for protecting nature, proof we can walk both worlds. Since living in an urban area, I’ve realized we need future champions of conservation to arise from cities, where nature is less evident and where the majority of the country’s population lives. By trading work pants and boots for slacks and flats, I’m redefining for myself what a conservationist is, as there are countless ways to contribute.

In March, my orbit shifted further indoors with a more office-oriented role. Just as I had misgivings leaving the woods, I had misgivings leaving the front lines of park programming. I don my uniform on certain occasions, including a recent event where a Grateful Dead cover band played on the roof of our park’s Maritime Museum Building. The lyrics floating in the warm night air echoed my thoughts: “What a long, strange trip it’s been.” I experienced a sense of surreality, of living pieces of a dream beautiful throughout all its transformations. I can’t thank the SCA enough for placing me on the rewarding path of serving the planet.

San Francisco Maritime National Historic Park

Throughout my two moves in the last three years, one constant source of inspiration has been SCA’s Alumni Council. I was welcomed onto the Council during my service at Lassen, and continue to be invigorated each time I reconnect with this amazing group of 14 alumni from across the U.S. Our shared experiences create strong bonds, and it feels like I’ve know these people forever when I’ve only seen them a handful of times.

SCA’s Alumni Council with Leah and SCA’s founder, Liz Titus Putnam, standing at center.

Last month, I flew to my final Council meeting at SCA’s former headquarters, nestled in the woods of New Hampshire. The huge community kitchen reminded me of my time at SCA Massachusetts, where I shared a kitchen and bunkhouse with 23 other corps members. This time, I shared a luxurious, heated yurt. As I walked to and from, leaves sparkled with frost as if covered by diamond dust, and I saw a green shooting star blaze across the sky. SCA Massachusetts instilled in me a deep sense of community and the drive to create it, and part of the reason I left the wilderness was to find a more vibrant community. Surrounded by a high diversity and volume of people, I’ve cultivated connections in ways I could not in remote parks. I’m also lucky to have a few Council members living nearby and SCA’s Oakland office as resources.

Whether I am in the mountains of Lassen or the streets of San Francisco, I return to my SCA experiences as fountains of replenishment. A sip now and again reminds me of my passion and the positive ways I can make change. Even with muted skies, I rest easy, knowing a network of SCA alumni is out there

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