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Furtive, furry creatures loiter on campsite perimeters, waiting to snatch scraps of food. Their greedy eyes glow iridescently.
For an exhausted youth we'll call Park Boy--indeed, for each of the 130 young Yosemite employees bunking here in Camp Six--it's been a long week of scooping ice cream, shoveling manure, and "polishing the porcelain," all to give Yosemite National Park's 20,000 daily visitors a breathtaking and sanitized-for-their-protection experience. But today was payday, and now it's time to knock back some frosty brews and swap gripping yarns with coworkers.
When Park Boy first signed on here, he knew that, as tough as the job might get, the camaraderie with his peers would pull him through. And, he thought, who knows? Maybe there'd be a Park Girl. Maybe two! Well, that hasn't happened yet, but now, as the clock ticks toward midnight, Camp Six is Partyville, USA. People are dancing, drinking, and laughing, and someone is blasting R.E.M. just a tad too loud for that cheap stereo. Park Boy always hated R.E.M.--bunch of posers--but here in the wilderness, all senses intoxicated, their distorted riffs sound prophetic indeed. "Yeah," he thinks, "maybe I am 'losing my religion.'"
Suddenly, his reverie is smashed as two sets of headlights sweep across the camp. Tires skid to a halt; clods of dirt rain against canvas tents. Like hypnotized chickens, Park Boy and his fellow grunts stare dumbly as the invaders swoop in.
"R-r-r-rangers!" someone shouts. But it's too late. Friday is payday for the men in gray, too, and they're in a mood to party--ranger style. Moving with cruel, practiced efficiency, they zero in on sweet, baby-faced Tina, who's sitting on a tent cabin's wooden steps, clutching a bottle of Sierra Nevada.
"Let's see some ID!" roars a goon as he slaps the ale from her trembling mitt. Tina sobs. The ranger scoops her up like a puppy. She shrieks and pumps her arms furiously, futilely, as he pops open the lid of a bear box with his foot. Campers are supposed to store their food in these, but tonight the only "item" inside will be Tina.
"Hey!" Park Boy protests. Uh-oh. Four Maglite beams converge on his face. It's his turn now...
With a sweaty shudder, Park Boy wakes up, realizing that he's had the nightmare--again. He's been in Yosemite less than a week and hasn't witnessed any such goings-on, but the folklore-generating resentment of the drones has invaded his brain. He rolls over on his musty cot and punches the pillow. Think of waterfalls, trees, cuddly creatures, he commands himself. Think of that girl from Chico State. But it's no use. As soon as he drops off, his subconscious mind will start unspooling the terrifying second half of a movie called It Came from Park HQ.
In the morning, crusty with dried perspiration, Park Boy makes a vow: Ignore outlandish horror stories told by bitter malcontents. And as long as you're making vows, how about never again mixing s'mores with the Schlitz Malt Liquor Bull after 10 P.M.? Whoa.
Call me Park Boy. And know that, like literally jillions of Americans, I've always been fascinated by the inherent romance of working in the grand, green, throbbing expanse of a national park--the ultimate escape from our miserable urban lives. And I've wondered: What sort of people are drawn there? What exactly do they do? Can they get cable?
Hence my plan: to spend a manic week performing a wide variety of scruffy tasks at one of the system's true showstoppers, Yosemite. In the process I'd get behind the scenes to ladle out runny Stroganoff, fluff pillows, gingerly pick cigarette butts out of urinal screens, and rub shoulders with the locals, students, and drifters who stoke Yosemite's mighty engines.
I was also on a mission. As the week progressed, I'd scramble up the power ladder, ideally climbing into the ranks of rangerdom itself. By doing so I would surely gain insight into several important themes of national park sociology, including one that became apparent within hours of my arrival. Namely, that many of Yosemite's cowering proles regard the rangers as bully boys--a cross between Big Brother and Eddie Haskell. Could it be? Could the rangers' obvious need to maintain order in a park that is buffeted by two kinds of people pressure--from both its hordes of urban visitors and its often rambunctious, sometimes criminal workforce--have created a cadre of control freaks? Or was it all a gross exaggeration? As a quest it had everything, including a grail. Before I left, to make sure I really understood where the rangers were coming from, I was determined to rise high enough to behold myself in a mirror, standing tall and wearing the ultimate symbol of in-park clout: a snazzy, stiff-brimmed ranger hat.
There are two avenues to employment in a national park: the National Park Service and the local concessions company. Park Service jobs include administration, maintenance, and rangering. The 1,800 summertime concessions jobs at Yosemite run the gamut from piloting a shuttle bus to bellhopping. I want to do it all, so by telephone I contact Yosemite Concession Services and Park Service officials. Keith Walklet, the information services manager for the concessions company, takes to the project with gusto, speaking excitedly of the various uniforms I'll get to wear. The Park Service folks are eager to help, too. Lisa Dapprich, a public affairs officer, tells me that I'll need a pair of green pants and appropriate shoes for my Park Service duties. The park will provide a shirt and--I'm jumping the gun here, but I have to ask--a totally happenin' ranger hat?
"No, I'm sorry," she says. "That would be a federal offense."
I grumble "we'll see" and ask if I can staff an entrance station, work the desk at the visitor center, fight a fire, and, best of all, ride along with rangers on action-packed night patrol.
Yes, yes, no, NO. "The rangers are kind of funny about that sort of thing," Dapprich says in a measured tone. "Would you like to shovel manure at the stables instead?"
"That would be...great," I say. And I mean it. I am at the trailhead of my adventure.
I arrive at Yosemite early on a Monday morning in midsummer. There's plenty of glorious scenery--trees, dirt, rocks, other stuff--but my senses are more attuned to the fact that, even at this hour, the blazing heat has already sucked the crispness out of the air. At the administration office in faux-rustic Yosemite Village, I'm loaned the rest of the motley uniform that I'll wear while on Park Service detail: a belt, a cap sporting the Park Service shield, and a woman's gray shirt.
As a team player, I make no comment about receiving a woman's shirt, though I do ask one last time about my ranger hat. (Same reply.) Then I don the uniform and set out jauntily for the concessions operations center; en route, I'm accosted by jabbering foreign tourists who mistake me for an authority figure. Where ees la toilette? Vhere ist der El to das Kapitan? Hustling inside to safety, I meet the concessions company spokesman, Keith, a friendly guy in his thirties. He plunks me down in a spartan classroom with three other new hires for an orientation session. Along with general blab about lodging and dues for the employee union, we're told:
No drinking or liquor-buying is permitted in uniform.
Men are allowed only one earring. Men with long hair must tie it in a ponytail--no unsightly Doug Henning shags.
Although we've already passed a drug screening just to get this far, we have at our disposal a "wellness center" that offers substance-abuse counseling and four Alcoholics Anonymous meetings per week, along with monthly AIDS testing, free condoms, and weekly smoking-cessation workshops. There are also talent shows, dances, barbecues, and intramural sports.
Overall, it's like summer camp for older kids, with maybe a bit more drudgery and 12-step than we'd like.
Next, Ranger Ron Hamann, a sinewy community-relations specialist, pops in for a more pointed presentation. At first, it's as if we're on the same side: In a martial voice, he says we can be his "eyes and ears." He recounts horror stories about impatient campers at Wawona intimidating the weak into prematurely vacating their sites, about sedans tearing across innocent meadows...
But then, when Ranger Ron shifts to the topic of drugs, it becomes clear that his visit is also a warning: Just say no, or else. "We had drug dealers living in Boys Town," he says, referring to one of the workers' camps. "Boys Town!"
During the Q & A, to keep the discussion spirited, I ask him if the rangers follow a live-and-let-live policy toward "backpackers waaaaay out in the woods lighting up a joint." Mistake. He looks at me hard. Later, at lunch, the ambient pollen that can make being outdoors so disagreeable is causing my nose to run, and I'm sniffing. "Allergies?" Keith asks with cocked eyebrows and a smirk.
I arise early the next morning and don the powder-on-navy blues of the shuttle-bus driver. Actually, my first job is as a shuttle-bus driver's "assistant," which is, in fact, no job at all. Luckily, the driver, Jack Peters, an upbeat 47-year-old with an unlined face and graying hair, is one of the more interesting guys at Yosemite. As the free transport merrily rolls past dewy meadows and sylvan groves and rigidly enforced no-parking zones, Jack describes park life.
He's been here since 1981, working four days a week and pounding backcountry trails the rest of the time. Jack spends his winters surfing throughout Asia. "People I know who started when I did are cynical and jaded now," he says. "It's because we're bombarded by tourists. To a solitary guy like me, having all these people in your face is a nightmare."
I brace for a bulging human phalanx, but the early-morning shift is dozy: hikers on their way to Half Dome, campers coming into town for supplies, staff heading to work. The bus fills steadily, though, and eventually people are crammed in the aisle. At one point, as Jack is making an announcement, a German woman thrusts her meaty face into his and interrupts with a question. He looks over his shoulder, flashes me a see-what-I-mean smile, and then politely answers.
Later, bus emptied, I commend Jack for his cool under large-lady fire. He shrugs. "To me, a real unsung hero is a guy like Tony, who's been washing dishes for like 37 years." Jack illustrates by making zombie dishwashing motions. "Never complains, perfectly happy washing dishes." His shuddery body language says it all: not me.
After my shift, I return to the Park Service office to hook up with Rita McMurty, Yosemite's volunteer coordinator. While I'm waiting, Marla Shenk, a public affairs official, introduces herself with a frown. "You must respect the uniform," she says, glaring at some hairs that peep manfully over the top button of my blouse. Before I'm abused further, Rita shows up, and we drive to a distant campsite in the Yellow Pines picnic area, there to have a look at the lowliest of Yosemite's low: kids, ranging in age from 18 to 23, who are working in the Park Service as "volunteers" in exchange for a tent site and perhaps a tiny stipend. Surveying the towheads and their mean accommodations, I ask Rita if she'd take 'em younger.
"Younger becomes a problem," she says. "There's a lot of drinking going on in the camps. And have you met many kids who are mature enough to say no to a drink? I haven't."
And it's here, among the wet-nosed thistle-pullers and trail-menders, that I'm forcefully reminded of my debased status. For two days I've been a bit puffed-up that everybody keeps calling me a VIP. Now, as I imagine that I'm interfacing with Rita on a colleague-to-colleague level about the problems of wayward youngsters, she informs me with a helpful smile that this means Volunteer in the Park.
Properly stung, I decide it's time to pull up on the bootstraps by doing some actual work. Hence, at six the next morning, I head out for a long, hard day of weeding, recycling, and hash-vending. First stop: the Park Service barn--a simple structure a stone's throw from Yosemite Falls--where I shake the callused hand of Bob Slater, a civil-service cowboy wearing a naughty novelty cap that reads BEN DOVER. As we rustle about in the shadows of towering granite walls, most of the valley is still aslumber. The only sounds are the snorting of the horses and their firehose-like urinations.
Bob explains that the horses and mules are used for rescues and trail-crew supply. Today, we're packing a mule train with sacks of concrete needed by bridge builders on Merced Lake. Bob, who speaks in a gruff, Wilford Brimley manner, lets me load 90-pound sacks onto a sweet old mule. Being a puny City Boy in real life, I almost pass out, so I swallow my pride and ask for help. Bob is cool about it; he heaves to and doesn't hose me down with ridicule.
Groping for a job that I can "hack," Bob has me scoop up manure left by the mule train. Good, earthy labor, this. Heading for a shower afterward, I'm stopped repeatedly by tourists. Once they catch a whiff, though, they decide to look for a more fragrant ear to chew. Say... I silently debate whether to stop bathing for the duration.
But bathe I do, bright and early the following day. I also step into a cloud of talc and a stylish work suit whose earth-tone hues would be labeled "Taos" in a mail-order catalog. It's service sector time for your humble Park Boy, and I'm bespiffed for a morning stint as a bellhop at the Ahwahnee, a stately, art deco ultralodge whose serene grounds are redolent of mint, fir, and that other cultivated green stuff--money.
I hook up with senior bellman Domingo Serrano, a 24-year veteran who shows me the ropes. This morning is downright hairy; two tours are departing within a half-hour of each other, and the only scheduled bellhops are Domingo and the Boy. As we hustle from room to room, a profusely sweating Domingo teaches me how to save my back by using my leg as a lever to heft luggage onto the cart. Another bellman, Steve Harding--who has the placid, open demeanor of the hippie teacher on Beavis & Butt-head--comes to the rescue just when it looks like we'll never finish in time. When we're done, I ask him to name some stars who have stayed here.
"Stars? Let's see, there was O.J., Carlos Santana, Robert Redford, Chuck Woolery..." Woolery!
This, however, was just a warm-up for my big question. One especially famous piece of Ahwahnee lore has it that when Queen Elizabeth visited in the early seventies, she brought her own royal toilet seat.
"Not true," he says, attempting a cover-up.
My next chore is scooping ice cream at Degnan's, a fast-food emporium in the Valley's urban center. Here I'm under the tutelage of senior scooper Morgan Kreamer, a stocky undergraduate from the University of Southwestern Louisiana. As we coax half-melted lumps out of the so-called freezer, Morgan regales me with harrowing tales of life in the camps.
"I've been here over three months," he says. "I'm staying at Camp Six. Two people tried to hang themselves in their tents there this year. One, who just broke up with a girl, died. The other didn't even close his door, and someone saw him and saved him. Also, two people hung themselves in Boys Town this year."
Morgan takes a much-needed breath. "At Camp Six, half the people drink every night till they pass out, the other half don't drink at all."
"Which half are you in?"
"Well, at school I'd be in the drinking half, but here liquor is so expensive, and we get so little money..." Letting that thought drift, Morgan shifts ground and hits me with a good Scary Ranger anecdote. "One morning these rangers came into a guy's tent and handcuffed him. We asked why, and they said, 'He was late for work.'"
This sounds dubious, but Chelsea, a perky teen scooper standing nearby, says she was present to witness it: "I remember thinking, 'It's really not a good idea to be late for work here.'"
"They knew he smoked dope," Morgan chimes in, "so they used being late as an excuse to enter his tent."
Of all the themes recurring in the Park Boy saga--You Don't Want Rangers in Your Face, Generation X-ers Moan Frequently--the one that recurs most often is Irksome Encounters of the German Kind. Later that day, passing the check-in desk at Curry Village on my way home, I hear a German man asking a female clerk if the trail to Vernal Falls would be tough for someone with an injured leg.
"Oh, yes," she replies confidently. "It's a steep, strenuous trail to the falls. It's difficult even for me."
Instead of saying, "OK, I'll skip it," the man sizes her up as a typically lazy, unmotivated American. "Yes," he continues, "but would it be difficult for a German man with a bad leg?"
"Oh, yes, I would advise strongly against it."
"How many miles is it?"
It dawns on the clerk that she's being ignored. "Around, uh, two miles."
The guy wrinkles his face, practically clicks his heels, and departs without thanking her.
Like one who has mastered a video game, Park Boy has earned admission to the next level. It's quasi-ranger time! I make my debut on the firing line: the visitor center information desk. Susan Gonsher, the manager of the field interpretive staff, sets me up for a four-hour shift behind the island-style structure, which is ground zero for ranger-public interface.
"Four's the maximum," she says. "More would be too stressful."
After 20 minutes, I can field 90 percent of the questions, since just about everybody asks, "What's good to do here?" I ask them to define their parameters, which are almost always (1) I have two hours to spend, max, and (2) I don't want to move my butt at all.
Tourist slothfulness is a running joke. Smart-alecky young volunteers pass the desk and mimic their questions. "I have five minutes in the park," they prattle. "What should I do?"
"Buy a Coke," comes the reply.
"Shoot some video of the parking lot," says Park Boy.
At the info desk, I also meet the overtly disgruntled Keith Bischoff, a grungy young man who sells books and souvenirs in the center. Here's a selection of Bischoffian gripes.
On rude park guests: "When I worked in housekeeping, this angry guy asked me to tell the frogs to stop mating and be quiet."
On employee dating: "The ratio of guys to girls here is five to one. If you're a fat, ugly girl, you'll do great."
On his "friends," the rangers: "On Friday night, payday, the rangers come over to the camps and hassle the employees. One ranger tore up a hand-rolled cigarette and sniffed it. They made the guy lie in the dirt."
Keith continues. "Another ranger shot himself and said some criminal did it. They had a massive manhunt, closed down the park. Everybody knows he shot himself, but nobody did anything. I don't think he's here anymore."
Whew! And you wonder what inspires Park Boy's nightmares. Verifying Keith's tales would rob me of valuable toilet-swabbing time, but I can tell you that the last rumor is based on events of July 1993, when ranger Kim Aufhauser received a flesh wound in one of his legs during a still-unsolved episode that launched an ultimately fruitless manhunt. The search for his assailant involved 180 rangers and local cops and required clearing more than 1,000 visitors from a 53-square-mile area.
As Keith tells it, Aufhauser was an über-ranger, able to levitate up sheer cliffs, wingshoot mosquitoes with a pistol, and eat rocks. He was forever campaigning for rangers to be equipped with automatic weapons and FBI-style protective gear. Fearing that his pleas were falling on deaf ears, he allegedly decided to dramatize the rangers' plight by staging a criminal attack and wounding himself. After the incident, he left the Park Service, but among Yosemite worker bees, he'll live forever--fairly or not--as an eerie symbol of ranger "enthusiasm."
The rangers at my next big post, the Arch Rock entrance station, a humble hut at Yosemite's southwestern access point, are a friendly bunch known to other park workers as "fee-cees"--affectionate slang for "fee collectors." The entry-fee booth is air-conditioned, but whoever has to lean out and take the cash is pretty much roasting in the sun. The hut boasts a carbon monoxide monitor, a traffic counter, and a peculiar air-circulation system that looks like a homemade job taken from Popular Mechanics.
I'm here with three lively women: Julie Crossland, Amy Ronay, and Lynette Mangus. I ask them about people blasting through the gate without paying, and they smile confidently. There's a ranger station three miles to the west, so we can ambush anybody coming or going. A surprising number of people do try to zip through, they acknowledge, mostly "confused" foreigners.
At the moment, there's a lull: no cars for several minutes. This indicates that the next vehicle will be an RV or a bus followed by many grumpy car drivers. I take this opportunity to ask about the perception among Park Service employees that concessions people are ruffians. Ranger Amy, who has worked in both capacities, says that while it isn't easy to get hired by the Park Service, it's "a piece of cake" to get hired by concessions. "Except that nowadays they're drug-testing," she says, reconsidering, "so most people fail."
"Yes," Ranger Julie says, mulling the point, "the younger kids working concessions do seem more well scrubbed since they started the testing."
A car pulls up to the hut's exit side, where I'm stationed. The driver is agitated. "Stop that guy in the RV behind me!" he shouts. "He's been weaving all over, running people off the road."
I alert the rangers and halt the RV. The couple in the car behind it furiously beckon. "That guy should be arrested," says an angry woman, pointing at the RV. "He smashed into an oncoming car and kept on going. Took the side mirror off!"
Ranger Julie tries to question the offending driver, but he is--yes!--an uncomprehending German. Luckily, I'm totally fluent in the language, so I translate. Ranger Julie asks me to tell him to pull over and wait for an enforcement ranger. "Pullen Sie over, mein Liebchen," I sprechen to him. "Remainen Sie hier, jawohl!" He is quite put-out, pretending not to understand and yakking away angrily to his pals. When the ranger cop arrives, packing heat, one guy in the RV suddenly learns to speak English sehr gut. The veil lifts--oh, you mean that accident. As the dust swirls, I derive much pleasure from the swagger of authority and linger at the entry hut beyond my shift, sniffing and preening like Deputy Barney Fife. Is there perhaps a connection between my sudden surge in job satisfaction and the power that I am able to wield? Yes. I want more power, more, more! And The Hat.
Of course, I don't get either. As expected, the Park Service PR flacks never line me up for a live-ammo ranger strut-along. They do, however, offer me a chance to join walkie-talkie-toting Ranger Brent Taylor on his bike patrol of the campgrounds. On a beautiful summer afternoon, me in my almost-a-ranger garb, we pedal briskly among the various drive-up campsites. Although I'm psyched to break up knife fights and the like, Ranger Brent cools my jets by reciting the hit parade of typical infractions: improper food storage, loud music, and too many people at a campsite.
Sensing my disappointment, Ranger Brent shares a stemwinder from the bike-patrol files. "One time there were these foreigners," he says, "and they had 12 people. We told them there was a limit of six per site. They said OK, drove away, then came back with just six. We looked on the roof of the vehicle, and under all the stuff piled up there we saw all these legs and arms sticking out."
A riveting tale, but overall, if Bike Ranger were a TV show, it would be pretty humdrum. The campgrounds, though fully booked, are dead. We coast past golden-agers loafing under canopies in lawn chairs. They grin nervously as we wave, eyes darting about their campsites for some petty violation that might raise ranger dander. As I prepare to ride into the sunset, a beautiful young woman wiggles up in a microbikini, brandishing a Coors.
"Help, Mr. Ranger, help," she exclaims with singsong irony. "I was rafting on the river, and I don't know how far I floated. I can't find my campground." Ranger Brent's eyes widen, and he shoots me a look that says: "It's all right, Park Boy. I can handle this one. Good-bye. Good luck. Get lost."
I leave him to it. He's got The Hat, and I haven't got a chance.
Thwarted in my efforts to walk like a lawman, I decide to wind up my stay with a final night on the other side of the thin gray line. So on Friday, armed with a six-pack of truth serum, I head for Camp Six, where the scariest campfire stories you'll hear are about the camp itself.
Morgan, the ice-cream man, lives here with a roommate in a tent cabin. There are hardly any trees in the camp, and even with the sun a distant, orangish blob, the tents are stifling. A few years ago, Morgan explains, a tree blew over during a storm at Camp Six and killed an employee. "So they cut down a bunch of trees, and now it's all hot and sunny with no shade."
Morgan takes me on a tour, proudly extolling the Ping-Pong table, laundry, and easy access to the Merced River. Under questioning, however, his pride crumbles. He admits that this is considered the worst of all employee housing, and that almost everyone here is on the list to move elsewhere.
He introduces Tammy and Jason, a young married couple. They live in Tent 69 ("Easy to remember, ha ha!"), aka the Tent of Death. This is where a Camp Sixer hanged himself earlier this year. Things could be worse, though. A friend of Tammy's who's waiting to get hired is illegally camping down by the river. This morning, Tammy says, she woke up surrounded by coyotes. Needless to say, she's getting a little anxious about that job.
"When you first start working here," says Morgan, "they usually start you out with just 15 hours a week. Food is so expensive, you can barely hang on."
And with that, Park Boy's sympathies begin to shift back to the have-nots. Sure, judging by the not-so-heinous ranger behavior I witnessed, it's probably true that the kids working here whine too much, but at some point you have to ask, What about the little guy? The plight of the Yosemite peons calls to mind the hapless Okies in The Grapes of Wrath, laborers forced to spend their meager salaries on overpriced goods at the company store. And just as the Joads waited nervously for the union busters, Park Boys and Girls await the avenging rangers. Why, it's an outrage.
After sundown, as the alcohol emerges, no one person is assigned as a lookout, but all seem attuned to a special ranger-alert frequency. Someone offers me a chaw of tobacco, and I tear off a hunk and jab it inside my cheek. Bad idea. Shortly, as the nausea kicks in and I'm reeling about the camp, I stagger past youngsters engaged in pathetic flirtations, mostly involving smutty double entendres. The stage is set for a ranger raid: booze, loud music, wannabe fornicators groping wildly, a green-faced Park Boy reeling and moaning. So where's John Law?
Just then...hold on! A jeep is swerving noisily into camp. Is it time to face the cold brutality about which I have only quakingly dreamt? Nah. It's just some acned bacchanalians on a beer run. With an agonized groan, I stagger miserably into the night...
Later, his stomach still in turmoil from tobacco juice, Park Boy has the dream again, but with a twist. After manfully wrestling baby-faced Tina from the ranger's grip, he hot-wires a truck and makes a break for the Yosemite boundary. Pursued by a host of cackling demons--foaming rangers, demanding tourists, and a purposeful German man with a bad leg--Park Boy almost makes it, but he's thwarted at the gate by a circling blockade of eerie, driverless RVs. Murmuring ominously, a tightening ring of rangers unsheath their batons, and one grinning fiend closes in to administer the coup de grâce. As wood splinters on his skull, Park Boy catches a final glimpse of his attacker's face. And the face is...his own!
Park Boy groans happily and smiles contentedly in his sleep. Tonight, Morpheus's embrace will be sweet indeed. For he is finally wearing The Hat.
Jack Barth, author of American Quest and Roadside Elvis, is currently at work on Eastern Europe Au-Go-Go.