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TODAY, TOMORROW, and FOREVER

As a former federal employee, the government shutdown and the effects it is having on too many people who care for this country hits close to home. My heart goes out to you all.

I was privileged to work for the National Park Service in Rocky Mountain NP, one of the loftiest and most beautiful parks in the system. For twelve years Rocky was home. I was one of its caretakers and loved the opportunity. Seeing how the parks have been trashed during the shutdown hurts. Knowing that concerned NPS staff and volunteers are attempting to restore order in the parks helps, but making a difference is everyone’s job.  TODAY, TOMORROW, AND FOREVER is a story about how one ranger (me) approached his duty.

Enjoy. Thanks for stopping by.

TODAY, TOMORROW, and FOREVER

I was an asshole one day…at least from a few folks’ point of view. But in retrospect, I felt no remorse. In fact, I was proud of it. I’d often preached to co-workers that 95% of the people they met were decent, caring folks. The other 5%, however, were bonafide assholes––it was in their genes and that was never going to change. Normally, I considered myself more of a mainstream player, a pretty easy-going kinda fella who got along with most everybody. But on one particular occasion, I must have enlisted for a brief stint with the minority. Here’s why.

Following a restful sleep, my morning began by witnessing a cool, clear mountain sunrise, followed by a warm breakfast, and a notion that danced inside my head to pursue my annual motorcycle ride in Rocky Mountain National Park. My ultimate destination was Trail Ridge Road up to the Alpine Visitor Center. For the unfortunates who’ve never attempted this trek, Trail Ridge remains the highest continuously paved highway in the USA’s lower 48, a breathtaking journey—sometimes literally—into the 12,000-foot open tundra. Spectacular in a car, the drive was––and is––even more exhilarating on two wheels, where nothing inhibited the view or distracted from the landscape—kind of a flip-flopped Grand Canyon excursion.

Astride my motorized steed, bound for adventure in the Rockies, my first stop was the Fall River Entrance, where familiar faces greeted me. After a brief exchange with co-workers, I motored on and anticipated the 4000-foot climb to the “top of the world.” But as I rounded the last bend leading into Horseshoe Park, my relaxing morning took a nosedive. Two dogs were romping beside the road with no humans in sight.

“Crap, what idiots let their mutts run loose—especially in Horseshoe Park? Don’t they know the rules? Don’t they understand the hazards?”

As I approached the joyful, river-soaked canines, their owner appeared, and I pulled over (‘cause even off duty: once a ranger, always a ranger). After flipping my helmet visor open, I reminded the carefree dog lover of Rocky’s leash requirements, and that he was bordering on trespassing into a restricted area. To emphasize the potential danger, I mentioned that two years prior we’d had a happy-go-lucky Labrador retriever frolic in the meadow with a coyote. Pleased to find a playmate, the unsuspecting Black Lab was lured into a waiting pack of coyotes that devoured their domestic counterpart. Following a short pause, I topped off my dissertation by mentioning, “I’m not just a blooming, over-conscientious citizen, I also work for the National Parks.”

Fortunately my message was well received. Leashes were snapped onto harnesses. The pet owner thanked me for the information, and we bid ado—me killing my bike’s engine because I’d left the transmission in second gear not neutral. Searching for neutral and re-starting the two-wheeled beast seemed to diminish the authority figure I’d presented moments earlier, but the other gent smiled and we amiably parted ways.

I closed my visor and sighed. “Okay, I’ve done my good deed for the day, time to relish the craggy environment ahead and enjoy the remainder of my journey.”

Tension faded as Trail Ridge Road wound upward through Ponderosa forests that transformed into a Lodgepole Pine and Engelmann Spruce canopy past Many Parks Curve to Upper Hidden Valley. At Rainbow Curve lush forests gave way to wind-beaten scrubs. The world expanded into open tundra with infinite vistas in all directions. WOW!

Prior to Forest Canyon Overlook, I nodded at the sign that reminded visitors to respect the fragile environment they were entering. A half-mile later, I spotted a happy couple traipsing across the precious landscape like it was their backyard. Obviously they’d missed the sign.

“Geez Louise, what is wrong with these people?” With my A-hole demeanor ignited once more, I rolled to a stop on the shoulder and flipped open my visor. “Folks, please, stay on the trails and keep off the open tundra.”

Bewildered by the butt-head on the motorcycle hollering through his helmet, the pair halted. They first stared at me, then at each other, and then finally backtracked toward their SUV.

With compliance established, I closed my visor and stalled the motorcycle again. After searching for neutral, I re-started the engine and rode on—only to find a cluster of giddy visitors abusing camera shutters at an impressively racked band of bull elk lounging beside the highway near Lava Cliffs. The tourists’ vehicles sat perilously close to steamrolling the ever-so-fragile vegetation but only partially blocked the road.

“Good God, don’t these clowns think of anyone but themselves?” I muttered. “There’s plenty of space just ahead, where they can safely park and then walk back to snap pictures to their heart’s content. AUGH!” But with traffic on my tail and no real damage done, I continued motoring to the Alpine Visitor Center, my visor lightly fogged from exasperation.

At AVC I opted for a respite, parked the bike, and with helmet in hand, went for a stroll. The crisp morning air filled my lungs. Unrestricted sunlight bathed my face. As I admired the Fall River Pass, the high-altitude surroundings wrung the remaining hints of asshole from my temperament. Apparitions of the human obstacles I’d encountered faded from my memory as I recalled the purpose of this pleasure cruise––to more closely experience the glory of a Trail Ridge excursion. “Ah-h-h-h-h-h.”

With a less-dutiful, more-at-ease mindset restored, I ambled toward my two-wheeled companion. Along the way, a park map fluttered on the ground beside the passenger door of an empty auto. Though it snagged my attention, I strode by. But visions of the map flailing in the wind and landing where park brochures should never reside halted my forward progress. Upon returning to the vehicle, I picked up the guide and noticed the park newspaper—void of its counterpart—resting on the car’s center console. Confident of the visitor’s loss, I snapped the map under the windshield wiper, spun on my heels, and proceeded to mount my motorized steed—homeward bound.

Enthusiastic shutter slammers still crowded the roadside below Lava Cliffs, but their status remained non- intrusive, so I rolled by.

Further down the highway, however, another cluster of wayward visitors breached the open tundra. “Dammit!” Steering to the shoulder, I ensured the neutral light glowed bright green, and rolled to a stop. Flipping my visor open for a third time I pleaded, “Folks, please stay off the tundra. This is a very fragile environment that can take many, many years to restore.”

No response, so I repeated my declaration with hands cupped to megaphone my announcement, followed by waving my hand toward the roadway.

My second request generated a positive, albeit less-than-enthusiastic reaction. The violators slowly returned to their vehicles, glaring at the asshole who dared to restrict their outdoor activities. A woman with a child clasped in each hand, however, forged ahead, declaring that she knew “exactly where to step”—probably the same shopper that shoved her overflowing grocery cart into the 10-items-or-less lane at Safeway. Too bad she’d dragged her kids along to witness her bad habits.

Once onboard their 4X4, crew-cab F-350, several now-compliant intruders prepared to depart—no-doubt to park in the middle of Trail Ridge once they spotted the lounging elk ahead. Before leaving, the driver paused beside me, rolled down his window, and offered some parting advice, “Sir, you need to get a life.”

I stared. After all, I had a life. Part of that life involved my responsibilities as an employee of the National Park Service, an organization dedicated to protecting and preserving wilderness areas across the country for all generations to enjoy, not destroy.

Diesel fumes churned from the F-350’s tailpipe as it accelerated down the road. I envisioned the occupants’ conversation reverberating inside the well-appointed truck cab, What’s with that self-righteous asshole? We pay our taxes. This place is as much ours as it is his.

Yeah, the tree-huggin’ jerk. What about the elk and sheep that wander across his precious tundra? He gonna shoosh them off too?

As I proceeded downhill, I voiced a reply, “Yes, the National Parks belong to every American citizen to use but not abuse, which includes the ‘Responsibility to Know and Obey all Park Regulations.’ The statement is clearly noted in the park newspaper and on signs posted at each of Rocky’s four entrance stations.”

In regard to the elk and sheep trampling the lofty plains, my imagined critique at least gave the disgruntled visitors credit for thinking, but they still couldn’t, or refused to take the time to read. The park’s quarterly newspaper featured a front-page article that focused on the tundra and clearly stated, “Keep in mind that a single step into a seemingly sturdy group of flowers might destroy decades of growth.”

I grinned. It wasn’t just me. My policing had backup. Besides, even a child could displace a footprint as large as or larger than an adult elk or sheep. Multiplied by several million pairs of misguided, various-sized feet waltzing across the tundra each summer, the damage to plant life would prove devastating—very likely permanent.

How had I come to that conclusion? Simple: The section of Trail Ridge Road that snaked atop the mountains tracked the Ute Trail. The same path that the Ute tribes used annually to traverse the peaks as the seasons changed. Like all maintained hiking trails in the park, its glaring bareness was easily traced. The same sort of bareness that would occur if millions of human feet roamed unrestricted, year after year, anywhere in the park.

From an urban perspective, consider spending many years and quite a few bucks grooming a home’s front lawn to emerald perfection only to have the neighborhood athletes use it for a softball field throughout the summer and tear up the sod. Would the homeowner be happy? No. So, why would it be fine and dandy for visitors to parade across Rocky’s alpine treasure when they’ve been instructed by the enlightening newspaper article and signage to protect the fragile environment they were entering not convene a tundra-trampling convention?

Well, there you have it, the reason I took the initiative to enlist as a Lieutenant in the Asshole Brigade. Had I been wearing my Park Service uniform that day, my concerned pleas might have drawn more respect and a more rapid compliance—without the snarky sidebars. But whether or not a person wears the gray and green, it’s every American’s responsibility to protect and preserve our National Parks––our national treasures. It’s our privilege to benefit from the natural beauty of these marvelous recreation sites. It should also be our duty to speak up whenever we spot someone abusing that privilege.

To be clear, I never intended to be an asshole. But if protecting our parks made me one, then I’m okay with the label—today, tomorrow, and forever. I hope others will join me.

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