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“When rangers were RANGERS” …BATES WILSON —by Jim Stiles

I came to Moab and became a seasonal ranger at Arches just a couple of years after Bates retired, so I never had the chance to work for him. But stories about Bates lingered for years after he hung up his uniform and took up ranching in Professor Valley.

As a rookie ranger who had no idea what he was doing, the idea of the superintendent coming to pay me a personal visit would have struck terror in my soul. But that is exactly what happened more than once to young seasonals who came to work for Bates. And even better, his visits were as far removed from a terrorist experience as any hapless seasonal could imagine.

Typically, one morning at the Needles section of Canyonlands, the district ranger stopped by the quarters of two recently-hired trail maintenance workers to inform them that Superintendent Wilson was on his way down from Moab to see them.

“What did we do wrong?” one of them asked feebly.

The district ranger just shrugged and said, “I guess you’ll find out when he gets here.”

The two underlings searched vainly for clean uniforms and were determined to convince the superintendent they were good employees, no matter what else he might have heard. They were busy working up a sweat when they saw the pickup truck pull up at the trail head.
It was Bates.

“What are you fellas all dressed up for,” he chuckled. “You’re just gonna get dirty again.”

Bates pulled a shovel out of the bed of the truck, pulled his dirty straw Stetson over his eyes, and went to work on the trail, shoulder to shoulder with his two young seasonals. He stayed all day on that trail project, and went quitting time came, Bates put away the shovel and pulled out his Dutch ovens. The boys never ate better.

He camped the night with them under the stars and went back to Moab the next morning. “I just like to know the people I’m working with,” he explained to these new Friends of Bates.

You had to look real hard to find the hierarchy of the Bates Wilson administration at Canyonlands. One of Bates’ dearest friends was Dutch Gerhardt, an NPS heavy equipment operator and a man who said what was on his mind. It was a quality Bates admired and respected; it’s why they were such good friends.

Not all Park Service managers appreciate candor and an NPS administrator named Bill Briggle was just that type of a guy. But Bates could get along with just about anybody…or at least tolerate them…and so, on one of his famous pack trips into the Great Red Unknown, he invited Briggle to join Secretary of the Interior Stuart Udall and himself on a multi-day excursion. Riding with them, as he often did, was Dutch.

They had been riding all day, and as the sun dropped below the canyon rim, they decided to make camp. As Bates unsaddled his horse, he turned to his old friend and said, “Gather up some firewood, Dutch. I’m going to be needing it pretty soon.”

Dutch squinted at Bates coldly and said, “Go to hell. I’m off the clock now. You can get the damned wood yourself.”

Briggle sprang to his feet, bristling with officious indignation, stepped between the horses and came right at Dutch.
Dutch didn’t move. It was almost hard to tell that he noticed this sudden intrusion into his personal space. The truth is, Dutch looked bored.

“Mr. Gerhardt!” Briggle sputtered, “Mr. Wilson is the superintendent of this park and he is your supervisor! When Mr. Wilson tells you to do something, you do it! You don’t question his instructions, you don’t ignore them, and you certainly don’t behave like this! YOU JUST DO IT! Do I make myself clear?”

Briggle’s face was the color of the rock. The veins bulged and throbbed at his temple and alongside his neck. Dutch looked into his eyes. Deeply.

“Screw you Briggle,” said Dutch. He turned to his supervisor. “Screw you Bates.” And then he turned to the Secretary of the Interior of the United States of America. “And screw you Udall…and the mules you rode in on.”

Dutch spit softly on the ground, gave Bates a wink and lumbered off to take a nap. Briggle stood there in the sand, shaking violently in the late afternoon light.  Bates and Udall were shaking violently as well—they were both laughing so hard they were gasping for breath.
Bates didn’t think much of hierarchy.

Jim Stiles

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2 Responses

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  1. I heard this story directly from the mouth of Dutch Gerhardt, with lots of grins thrown in. When I asked Bates about it, he said, “It’s true.” And he laughed. Both of these men were old-school westerners. I doubt one could find there likes in the National Park Service anymore. Maybe not even in the West.

  2. Alan Cornette said

    Yeah, I tried that once in the form of a letter to IBM HQ, 590 Madison Ave., NY. I was immediately labeled a trouble maker and quietly “drummed out of the corps.” Suddenly, friends weren’t friends anymore, they were afraid to talk to me. You see, thay were afraid their jobs would be threatened just like those two trail workers. Never have regretted it, never have stopped offering my opinion – in a nice sorta’ way. Al C.

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