Fort McHenry a step up from Yellowstone; Parks: Laura Joss leaves behind buffalo and elk to oversee the harborside fort and the Hampton estate.


The landscape of Laura Joss' former life was a vast wilderness of volcanic plateaus, steaming geysers, dramatic gorges and forests.

On any day she might come across herds of bison, bighorn sheep, even bears. For someone who loves open space like Joss does, it was close to paradise. But these days, Joss is as likely to see a unicorn as a bear, and backcountry vistas have been traded in for crowds of tourists and the sight of ships dotting an industrial harbor.

It's a drastic change, but one Joss made happily, even if it meant moving across the country with her husband and young daughter. Previously the chief of cultural services at Yellowstone National Park, Joss is the new superintendent at Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine and the Hampton National Historic Site in Towson. The job is a step up the career ladder for Joss, who says overseeing both sites puts her in a better position to help preserve them.

"Working at a higher level, I can protect more resources and learn how to do that better," says Joss, 39. "It's a wonderful opportunity."

Joss' new position, which started in early April, involves overseeing maintenance, restoration work and visitor services, as well as initiatives to educate the public on the history of the two sites. In many respects, it's a world away from her old job: Yellowstone National Park covers 2.2 million acres, straddles parts of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho and is known for its geology, fossils, petrified wood and botanical specimens.

By contrast, Fort McHenry and Hampton total just 95 acres and contain no dinosaur remains, just glimpses into the country's cultural and political history. The fort, which inspired the writing of the national anthem, was attacked by the British during the War of 1812. Hampton, a luxurious Georgian estate, was owned by a prominent Maryland family whose wealth was built on the backs of slaves used to make ammunition for the Revolutionary War and to load goods onto merchant ships.

Joss, who has a degree in anthropology and archaeology and a master's degree in history museum studies, sees the position as an ideal pairing of her education and work experience, but the path she took to get there was a circuitous one.

Joss had envisioned spending winters working in a museum and summers doing archaeological fieldwork in some exotic locale. But that was before she spent a semester on a college internship at Mesa Verde National Park, in southwest Colorado. Living alone in a cabin with no television and the nearest phone a quarter-mile away, Joss spent her time learning about the park. She hiked. She cross-country skied to work. She made Indian fry bread.

And she quickly fell in love with the intersection of Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico known as the Four Corners region. From that point on, Joss' goal was to work in the parks service. She was hired at Glen Canyon National Recreation Area in Arizona and Utah, where she met her husband, a museum exhibit designer. She later became a regional curator for 41 parks in the Rocky Mountain region before going to work at Yellowstone.

Though Joss' current position seems a radical departure from her previous ones, she says there's some crossover. At Yellowstone she consulted with tribal groups on bison management and on gathering oral histories of the area, and hopes to continue the same collaborative approach with community groups involved in Fort McHenry and Hampton.

The work is different, to be sure. Joss won't be awakened by bugling elk anymore, only traffic noise. And there won't be any bears roaming through the yard of the Towson home Joss and her husband are buying, as there were the day they arrived at Yellowstone.

But there are no more 1 1/2-hour drives to the nearest museum, either. The conveniences of city life, particularly the cultural attractions around Baltimore and Washington, are still new to Joss and her husband. The couple's 4-year-old daughter, Lindsay, who liked to hike and look for bears at Yellowstone, has delightedly discovered museum dinosaurs and the Barbie section at FAO Schwarz.

Joss says she misses the wilderness and spectacular views, but not the isolation. She grew up in western New York, has family in the eastern United States and wants her daughter to know her relatives.

And there's something else that's still a novelty -- the combined bookstore/cafe.

"That's a relatively new phenomenon for us," Joss says. "We spend a lot of time in bookstores drinking coffee."

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