What's In The Hat?

Message From The Director

I recently bought a hat and began to wonder, “what does this hat say about me?” There are few articles of clothing that make as much of an outward statement as a hat does. I saw this particular hat many times before, but never quite felt comfortable actually getting one to wear. Hats, in my opinion, tend to speak volumes or share information about the person wearing it.  Maybe it tells you about the person’s favorite sports team, their favorite hobby or even their favorite vacation location.  To sum it up, a hat usually sends a message and serves as a statement piece.

Aside from the traditional sports team and tourist baseball caps, there are also hats so distinct, that when you see them, you immediately know what that person does. For instance, the hat of a chef or soldier are so distinct that it sends a message to everyone that this individual possesses a particular skill set. When people see the hat, they have the expectation that the person wearing it is knowledgeable in their chosen field.  

Whether you actually can or not, the right hat would make me believe you are able to conduct a train, go for a long-distance bike ride or even perform a show-stopping magic trick. Similar to these, the flat hat, or the ranger Stetson, sends a message about the wearer.  A message that has been cultivated for over 100 years and crafted by those that came before it. It's a hat that that has been adopted as part of the official uniform by national and state park systems around the country, and a hat which has been a part of my life journey.

I remember the summer of 1995, when my park ranger uniforms were first delivered to the park I was working at.  I had only been a ranger for about three months and had just visited our downtown office to get measured for the uniforms. During the visit, I tried on various pieces, but didn’t get to take any of them with me. When the boxes with my uniforms arrived at the park, the park manager and I dropped them at my house and went back to work.  Although I was eager to check them out, I didn’t want to seem that way, so I just went back to work and acted calm.  (For the record, I was not calm.)  As soon as I got off of work that night, I rushed home excited to open those uniform boxes.  As I placed my name tag and badge on the shirt and tried on those uniforms, I was excited, nervous and overwhelmed.  I was not sure I belonged in, or had earned the right to wear that uniform. I was proud, for sure, yet felt unworthy.  The last piece I assembled was the hat.  The flat campaign hat comes in its own Stetson box, and is tightly packed.  Inside the hat was a plastic bag with the necessary leather straps that needed to be put on the hat.  I distinctly remember fumbling to attach them, not sure if I was doing it right.  When I was finally finished, with the rest of the uniform already on, I placed the hat on my head and went to see what I looked like in the mirror.  

As I walked into the hall bath, the reflection in the mirror didn’t seem like me. I looked at the hat on my head and thought, “wow, you look really stupid!”  I mean, come on, I’ve worn lots of weird hats in my life, after all I went to The Citadel, but this one seemed different.  I was slightly embarrassed and nervous about it.  I remember seeing other rangers and they looked normal in it, but I felt like I just looked weird.  Regardless of how I felt, I knew I was going to be working the coming weekend, and I would be wearing the dress uniform for the first time. That Saturday, I was a little nervous about people seeing me with a flat circle around my head and hard straw top.  But I'm a rule follower, so I set out hat in hand, and eventually on my head, to greet the family that had rented the community building.

That weekend started a journey under the hat that lasted 23 years.  A journey that let me share parks with people from all walks of life.  Whether I was working in a park, speaking to a group or being flagged down while traveling the state, the hat became a part of how people saw me and a part of how I viewed myself.  When visiting a park, people are drawn to the hat.  They come to it for information, to share a story or simply ask for help.  The ranger hat has become an iconic symbol for park systems around the country.  The hat is there to share the parks' story, give directions, put on a program, solve problems and lend a helping hand to those in need.  The people wearing the hat are part of a proud tradition of people who don’t just love the outdoors but love sharing it with others.  The opportunity to wear that hat for so many years is something I will always treasure.

As I travel to parks wearing a different uniform now, I love meeting and watching the people who serve under the hat.  I enjoy watching visitors interact with them, the children stare in awe and the pride they take as they wear the hat.  As the years go by, those rangers will become representative of the hat to the world, and they will affirm and create the image of a ranger as they walk underneath it. 

The National Park Service has a tradition with their ranger hats.  They pass them down from ranger to ranger.  What a great tradition!  I believe the ranger flat hat belongs to all of us. It represents the best of our country’s resources and the people who take care of them and share them with others.  As you journey through parks give a wave to the hat and enjoy all it represents.