(photos by the author except where noted)
Author’s Note: For more than three years , I have spent most of my keyboard time writing “informational/investigative” long form articles (some might suggest ‘long-winded’) about excruciatingly serious topics…Moab politics, San Juan County politics, sustainability in the New West, historic elections, the rise of reckless and inexcusable mainstream media manipulation, and of course, the bedeviling Bears Ears National Monument.
While I’m sure I’ll have more to say down the line (like it or not), I desperately need to stop for a moment, and do what I prefer…wax nostalgic about the West I discovered and loved when I first “came to the country,” almost half a century ago. After all, The Zephyr motto once proclaimed that we are “hopelessly clinging to the past.” So this is the first of a multi-part series about my decade as a seasonal ranger at Arches National Park. It was a different time and a different world. As is so often the case with all of us, I didn’t know how good I had it, until ‘it’ was gone.
My first recorded “wildlife observation” as a seasonal park ranger at Arches National Park occurred on April 13, 1976. It was not what I expected. Trying to determine genus and species was nearly impossible. Employing my skills as a pseudo-naturalist I was only able to identify the wildlife collectively as— the Salt Lake City Fire Department (plus family, friends, pets and other ne’er-do-wells.). I consulted more knowledgeable park naturalists, but they were as bewildered by my question as I was by the observation.
I had “entered on duty (EOD’d)” just a couple days before the start of Easter Week. Until that moment, Easter only had a religious connotation to me. I had never before connected the holiday to sheer madness and roasted pigs.
But now, I stood in front of the Devils Garden trailer and watched a long caravan of trailers, fifth wheel monsters, and over-sized motorhomes make their way into the campground. One of them stopped, a woman climbed out and slowly approached me. Her name, I would learn, was Rubi Curtis. She was married to SLC Battalion Chief Ken Curtis and she wanted to introduce herself.
Rubi, was in her late 50s maybe, and a little wobbly on her feet (I learned later she was recovering from a life-threatening stroke), but a striking and formidable woman to be sure. She extended her hand…
“Hello. I’m Rubi. I always like to introduce myself to the rangers,” she explained. “It makes things easier later on. We’re here to have fun this week and we want you to have fun too. So don’t worry about us. We mean well!”
I was already worried.
Rubi said, “In fact, we want you to come up to our campsite this evening and have dinner with us. All the other firemen will be there too and their wives. I think we’re going to roast a pig tonight!”
Trying to get into the spirit of the moment, I kidded my new friend. I said, “Well, okay. I’d be delighted. But as far as roasting a pig, is it alive or dead? I don’t think you can butcher a live pig in a national park.”
Rubi frowned. “Oh dear,” she said, “I don’t know.” She turned to her husband, “Kenneth! Is that pig we’re roasting tonight..is it still alive or is it already dead?”
Ken shook his head. “Rubi…of course it’s dead. We’re not doing live animal sacrifices. Not yet at least.”
I looked at Rubi and at the stream of vehicles flowing into the campground and the hordes of other tourists arriving by the second. And I thought about the roasted pig. So this is what it means to be a ranger at Arches National Park, twenty years after Edward Abbey.
I remembered Aeschylus: “He who learns must suffer…”
* * *
It was Abbey that sucked me into this mess in the first place. Years earlier, I’d been handed a well-worn copy of Desert Solitaire from a friend and co-worker of my father’s, a fellow lifer for Sears Roebuck. Dad’s buddy, Bill Parker, secretly longed to escape the grips of retail sales, move to New Mexico, grow pecans and become a rebel (years later, he did).
Like other young, un-formed, idealistic boy/men of that time with an interest in the American West, I instantly became a Cactus Ed devotee. I bought my own copy of Solitaire, carried Abbey’s books around like a Bible, I started swearing more (imitating Hayduke), making idle threats against the “The Man,” and generally making a nuisance of myself. It was liberating to be a young idealist, where it was enough to simply think I was right, and subsequently feel superior to others, without acknowledging any responsibility to actually make the right thing happen.
(It’s stunning to me how so many of today’s Millennials remind me of myself, many years ago. I’ve realized that the only generation more full of itself, more absurdly uninformed and arrogantly stupid than the current crop of young morons was my own)
I also tried to drink more beer. And whisky. And tequila. I wanted to be able to drink bourbon straight. But I never acquired a taste for any of it and as even Abbey would realize years later, “You’re sort of a light-weight aren’t you?”
Earlier in the fall, I had set out to find Abbey at a semi-mythical place called Wolf Hole on the Arizona Strip. The Hole was there, sort of, but no Ed. Weeks later, cold and depressed, a ranger at Natural Bridges NM, ol’ Dave Evans, took pity on me, coffee’d me up and invited Muckluk and me to hang out at Bridges for a few days.
This was early in November and most of the seasonal rangers at Canyonlands and Arches had been laid off the previous week. In those days, the seasonals in the “Canyonlands Complex” functioned collectively as a low rent social club of sorts (they, later we, were all broke or near to it). They gathered at season’s start for group dinners, visited each other on days off (“lieu days”), righteously shared their mutual political views, and had each other’s backs in general. In the days that followed my arrival, a string of seasonals passed through, on their way to some post-season excursion and/or bus man’s holiday.
One of them was the seasonal ranger at the remote Maze district, on the other side of the river, Doug Treadway. Doug was the master of “laid back.” He had a way of rolling with the punches that I deeply admired. He’d say, “Well Amigo…I just like to take it slow. Usually I’m the last guy to saddle up and the last man off. No hurry.”
I wanted to grow up to be like Treadway.
He and his three black labs stopped by Bridges one afternoon and, both being dog lovers, we became instant friends. In fact, Doug and his pooches had created something of a sensation a few weeks earlier. He’d been on backcountry patrol, out near the top of the Flint Trail, with his dogs, of course, when he spotted a low-flying Cessna. It was Dick Smith, the owner of the Needles Resort, a veteran bush pilot, and a good friend.
Always the…uh…playful type, Doug stripped down to his shorts, grabbed one of his labs and pretended to be— how should I say it— consummating their relationship. At the time, Treadway assumed Dick was flying solo. Only later did he learn that Dick had some passengers along for the ride. In fact, the entire secretarial pool of the Canyonlands downtown office was on board. Sweet dear LDS ladies, all of them. Treadway waved furiously as the plane passed over him and his canine amour and then turned sharply to the north. He could not understand why Dick had failed to make a second run. They say Marge Stocks and Sandra Eshom were never quite the same again.
Inevitably, talking with Treadway. Abbey’s name came up and I told Doug about my pilgrimage to Wolf Hole. Treadway had this unique and unforgettable laugh where he involuntarily raised his eyebrows, closed his eyes, and wrinkled his nose, each time he was gripped by a mirthful moment. Wolf Hole triggered that reaction and when he could finally collect his breath again, Doug explained that Wolf Hole was Abbey’s way of torturing his readers…
“Hell, ” Doug said, “Ed and his wife live in a ranch style home on Spanish Valley Drive in Moab. I’m not sure he’s even been to Wolf Hole.”
“You’re kidding me,” I said. I imagined Abbey living alone in a primitive stone hut, somewhere on the edge of the Grand Canyon. “He lives in Moab? In a regular house? With a flush toilet and a refrigerator?” I was crest-fallen.
Treadway’s nose turned to wrinkles again. “They might even have a dishwasher, for all I know. But if you’d like to meet him, we play poker almost every Wednesday night at the Ranch House. You should come by. I’m sure Ed would get a kick out of your story.”
I’d driven all the way to Wolf Hole, assuming that most likely, I’d never find Abbey. Now that I knew where he really was, that we now had mutual friends and that if I really wanted to shake hands with Cactus Ed, it would almost certainly happen, the thought of it was absolutely terrifying. I needed to think.
* * *
Meanwhile, there was still the imminent threat of winter, frostbite and starvation. I could only sleep on Dave’s couch for so long. I’ve always tried to end a visit with a friend before my gracious host asked me to go. But my prospects were dim and it was getting colder by the day. Even my husky, Muckluk the Wonder Dog, seemed ready to put down some roots and call it home—at least through the winter.
But Ranger Dave had an idea. “How would you like to be a VIP?” he asked one day. No, I wouldn’t become a “very important person,” but there was a Park Service program called “Volunteer In the Parks” ( V…I…P) and Arches was looking for someone to staff the visitor center desk, do some mining claims research at the county courthouse, and run a road patrol from time to time. Would I be interested?
“And before you ask,” Dave added, “It pays three dollars a day and a free apartment in the Arches residence area near the visitor center….it’s heated.”
To me, it felt like I’d won the lottery. A few days later, I drove up to Moab and met the Chief Naturalist, Dave May, who also oversaw the volunteer program. The three NPS units in Southeast Utah–Arches, Natural Bridges, and Canyonlands (ABC)–operated administratively under one superintendent and the entire admin staff worked out of a small downtown office on Main Street.
I’d shaved off my beard as a sign of good faith, but after a few minutes with Dave, I realized I’d sacrificed it for nothing. He couldn’t have cared less. In the middle of our chat, Larry Reed poked his head in the door. Larry was the ‘unit manager” at Arches and as kind and easy going as they came. He told me I could start work on Monday and that I could pick up a key from the chief ranger, Jerry Epperson, who lived in the park residence just south of the seasonal apartments. It felt like a miracle. After almost six months of living out of a VW bus, I was about to sleep on a bed again. Life was good.
On Sunday afternoon, I knocked on Epperson’s door for the first time. I told him who I was. He handed me a key, barely saying a word, and closed the door. I feared I’d made a bad first impression but I soon realized it was just “Jerry’s Way.” The next morning I arrived promptly at eight. Jerry was right behind me. He grabbed the keys to the Jeep CJ5 and said, “C’mon, let’s go for a ride. We’ll do a campground count and I’ll show you around.”
It was the beginnings of a great friendship and a life-changing moment for me. Jerry loathed awkward introductions and obligatory “tell me about yourself” chitchat. He assumed all that would come out later. I think the first question Jerry asked me was, “Do you know how to lock the hubs on a CJ5?”
The truth was, I didn’t know much of anything. I had a lot of outdoor experience and camping skills; after all I was an Eagle Scout! But not only did I not know how to lock the hubs on a CJ5, I didn’t even know what they were. Or a CJ5 for that matter. The fact that I admitted from the get go that I had a lot to learn went a long way with Jerry. He had no use for a bullshitter and, at least for the moment, I kept that particular skill in a back pocket.
“So…” Jerry said, as we climbed into the park’s Jeep, “This is a CJ5.”
In the weeks that followed, Epperson took me under his wing and gave me a crash course in “rangering.” He enrolled me in a Red Cross Advanced First Aid/CPR course, and he took me out to what was called the “park climbing/training wall” and taught me the basics of rock climbing and rescue. I learned how to rappel and, just as importantly, how to belay somebody else (“NEVER let that rope go slack.”). He showed me how to rig a sling and create equalizing anchor points when there was no suitable natural anchor to tie on to, and how to rig a Stokes litter if we needed to lower an injured person over a cliff. I learned how to tie a bowline on a coil, and how to coil the rope properly so it didn’t get tangled.
I learned proper two-way radio etiquette (“Never say ‘roger wilco,’ just say ’10-4′”), and how to run the visitor center information desk (Most important answer to a tourist question: “Outside and to the left.” Question being asked? “Where’ are the rest rooms?”)
And I did indeed learn what ‘hubs’ are and how to lock them. We took the Jeep out in the worst kinds of weather, Jerry would order me to get the CJ stuck in quicksand or mud or whatever was handy, and then he’d explain how to extricate myself. Some of his solutions were pure Epperson genius. I learned how to use the Warn winch and how to traverse–climb in fact–extremely steep ledges that someone claimed was a road. “The secret to all things four-wheeling,” Jerry would say, “is to go slow. Let the machine creep. Let it do the work. Don’t gun it.” And of course he was exactly right. I got pretty good at it.
One day a week, I was sent to the county courthouse to do some research. Larry Reed wanted to know how many active mining claims still existed in the park after the 1969 boundary expansion and the subsequent readjustments when Arches changed from ‘monument’ to ‘park’ status. The county recorder was a wonderful, tough-as-nails woman named Alice McKinney. As it turned out, her husband, Lewis “Mac” McKijnney had been the Arches custodian in the late 40s and Alice had many stories to tell.
She set me up at a table in the corner and showed me how to access the records I needed, but we probably spent more time talking about the “good old days,” than I did reading mining claims from 1957. I told Jerry I was not getting as much done as I’d hoped and he laughed and said, “Getting an education on the history of the monument from Alice is invaluable. Soak it all up and try to remember as much as you can.”
On most mornings, I was up early and at work before 8 am, but there was so little traffic coming into the park that we didn’t bother to open the visitor center until ten. Jerry usually sent me into the park to check the roads and do a campground count. If there was one person camped at the Devils Garden, I was surprised. When needed, I’d check the traffic counters that were placed at various road junctions. The park was always almost completely empty.
My afternoons behind the desk at the visitor center passed slowly. In fact, it was so slow that I often found myself actually hoping that a tourist would leave the main highway and stop by for a chat. The view out the back window of the visitor center (forthwith called the ‘VC’) allowed me to observe incoming traffic and each approaching vehicle would give me hope that my ‘alone time’ might be coming to an end. I’d be devastated when the vehicle proceeded into the park without stopping for a chat.
One day in February, a man leaving the park stopped and ran into the VC. Almost breathless, he told me that the small ‘balanced rock’ adjacent to the famous “Balanced Rock” was gone. It had apparently collapsed and was now just a pile of rubble. But Jerry was skeptical and sent me to investigate. Sure enough, the feature once known as “Chip Off the Old Block” was gone. A week later, a front page story in the Times-Independent described the moment when “park volunteer Jim Stiles raced to the area and reported, ‘It’s true. The rock has fallen.'” But when did it fall?
None of us had noticed and in my own defense, I was something of a rookie. But I started reviewing the photos I’d taken during my early morning patrols. Sure enough, I found a picture I’d taken from the old dirt entrance road, a few hundred yards west of Balanced Rock. in that color transparency it was clear that the “Chip” had fallen…in early December. None of us had noticed. That tidbit of information remained a secret until this very moment.
In late February, I began to worry about my future again. Spring would be here soon and I still had no solid plan. Then Jerry told me I might consider applying for a seasonal ranger job. “The position up at the Devils Garden campground is open this year. It’s only a GS-3 fee collector job but it’s better than nothing.”
I was ecstatic but he warned me not to be too optimistic. “We have no idea who else may apply, but at least there’s a chance. And now,” he added, “you at least have a few more skills than you did when you got here.” Epperson uncharacteristically winked at me, giving me some slim hope of making more than three bucks a day.
I did all the paperwork, mailed in my applications and waited. The problem was, the applications went to some central NPS hiring center, where faceless bureaucrats would winnow the number of applicants to those they determined to be the top tier candidates. I thought, for cryin’ out loud, it’s just a fee collector job…surely I’m…top tier.
But weeks passed and no word. Nothing. I began to consider my options. I considered starting a grass-cutting business in Moab, or I might apply for a job doing land tours for one of the tour companies in town. But really, all I wanted was that job at the Devils Garden.
One day I was picking up mail at the downtown headquarters and the administrative officer, Lyle Jamison, called me into his office. Lyle was within a year of retirement but had been with the NPS for years. His Moab days went way back to the 50s when he worked alongside Bates Wilson in an army surplus shack that served as the parks’ “contact station.” But Lyle had taken a shining to me. He called me “Stiley” and I called him “Lylie.” I had often complained (in a good natured way of course!) about my pitiful three dollar a day stipend and had suggested I could barely afford the peanut butter that had become the staple of my diet.
“Stiley,” Lylie said. “You look pitiful. You’re even scrawnier looking than the last time I saw you. Why don’t you eat something. Get yourself a steak. Make yourself a baked potato with butter and a lot of sour cream. You need to bulk up.”
I laughed. “You know why I can’t splurge like that.”
Lyle smiled wryly and leaned back in his chair. “Well…you might not be able to eat steaks every day on $3.23 an hour, but how does Devils Garden ranger sound to you?”
I could have kissed that man. Sure enough, there were so few applicants for the job that even I looked “top tier” by comparison. Jamison produced a stack of paperwork for me to fill out and sign, and I had to schedule a physical to prove I was still healthy, albeit “scrawny.”
I drove back to the Arches visitor center where I found the usually inscrutable Jerry Epperson standing by the back door. He was actually grinning as I approached. “So,” he chuckled. “I hear you just bumped into Lyle.” Word travels fast on the NPS Grapevine.
Of course Epperson was behind it all along. “Did you think I taught you all that ranger stuff for no reason at all?” he explained. I wanted to kiss Jerry too but was pretty sure he might hit me, so hearty handshakes were extended all around.
My starting date was three weeks distant, and the park cut me an advance check for my “clothing allowance.” Marge Stocks gave me a Gregory’s Uniform Supply catalog to peruse and soon I was placing my first order. It included the standard Park Service grey shirt, the loden green trousers and, most of all, the iconic wide, flat-brimmed Smoky hat that all park rangers are identified by.
On April 11, Jerry handed me my badge. “Now it’s official,” he said. “Get out there and ranger…”
* * *
And now, two days later, I was talking to a crazy woman named Rubi who wanted me to eat roasted pig with the Salt Lake City Fire department, and “have some fun.” Was this the same place Abbey lost himself in, just two decades earlier? Or was this something new? Would I find peace and solitude or madness and noise….”Desert Insanitaire?” Or both? I decided to eat the pig first and worry about it later.
NEXT TIME: First encounters…Ed Abbey. Ken Sleight. Mormon housewives. Denis Julien. Reuben Scolnik…Bill Nesbitt…Ed McCarrick…et al.
Jim Stiles is Founder and Co-Publisher of the Canyon Country Zephyr.
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*Note: The Cartoonist screwed up. In a subconscious attempt to escape the world’s news, he changed one of our Backbone Member’s names from “Michael” to “Richard” Cohen. Sorry, Michael. We know you’re a way better guy than that infamous Michael Cohen and we beg your forgiveness.