NOTE: While we put this issue together, the United States government was in partial shutdown mode. It lasted 35 days. Among the government agencies affected was the National Park Service and the many “units” in its system. Across the country and especially in the West, communities were outraged as the closures adversely affected their economies. In 2019, Industrial Tourism has a vested interest in these matters. In Moab, we’ve heard quite a bit about the negative impacts..
The last time the government closed for an extended period of time, Moab existed in a different world. In October 1995, the government shut down for a few days, then re-opened, then closed yet again for three weeks in December. The impacts to local businesses were minimal. I can’t even recall anyone complaining, especially during the longer closure in December. Moab and Arches were quiet enough already in the winter of 1995. The park closure was just a ‘bonus’ of sorts. I looked at it as a time to give Nature some time alone to gather its thoughts, revel in the silence and enjoy the absence of humans.
Except for me…As a former ranger who had always dreamed of seeing Arches empty, I decided to break the rules and go for a ride in my old park. Secretly I even hoped I’d get busted.
Here are my two accounts, published in The Zephyr 22 years ago. And please note, I do not encourage ANYONE to break the rules as I did. Remember kids: “Crime Does NOT Pay.” I was bad.
Back in my ranger years at Arches, I used to dream of the day when I had the park all to myself…I imagined that all the tourists and even my fellow employees had magically disappeared. Seventy-thousand acres of rock, junipers, critters, and me. It was selfish, of course, and hardly in the public’s best interest, but I really didn’t care. Just once, I wanted to experience True Solitude at Arches National Park. My only hope for such a miracle was a natural catastrophe on a massive scale or a government shut down. The second option came first.
Even during my tenure as a seasonal ranger in the late 1970s and 1980s, the politicians in Congress frequently threatened to close the government down (and thus the parks) but they always managed to eke out a last minute deal. Once it came down to a matter of hours; I was even told I was “essential personnel,” which filled me with both pride and bewilderment. It meant I’d be able to stay on the payroll and drive around an empty park, in search of would-be park interlopers.
Those were the days when I was still young enough to be self-righteous and really mean it. But an eleventh hour Congressional compromise once again killed my vision. I left the Park Service, never realizing that dream.
And then it all came to pass, nine years later. According to news reports, because Newt Gingrich had to sit in the back on Air Force One (and a few other points of contention between Wild Bill and the Republicans) the government ran out of money and shut down. Lifelong bureaucrats discovered they were non-essential and sent home, and Arches National Park closed its gate to the public.
I drove out to the Park the day following the announcement and found two rangers at the entrance station, including Chief Ranger Jim Webster. Webster informed me they were in a “soft closure” stage for the time being. People still in the campground could remain but no new visitors were allowed to enter. He expected the Park to assume a “hard closure” mode in the next couple of days if the shutdown continued.
He was right. By the weekend, the park was closed to everyone. All the campers had been driven from the place and the gate on the main road adjacent to the visitor center was locked up tight.
I was indignant. My self-righteousness has changed sides. Years ago, I was the sanctimonious ranger, out to zealously guard “the resource.” Now as a civilian, a taxpayer by God who pays their salaries, I was outraged that these lazy, do-nothing government employees were going to such lengths to keep me out of my park.
I knew these guys. I know how they think. They used to be “my people” and I have no doubt they were getting a good chuckle out of this. They were probably hunkered down under a tree somewhere, catching a little nap while they (eventually) drew their pay. I realized they might even be using the same tree I depended on to hunker down under. My hunker-down tree. Get your own damn tree, I’d like to tell those uniformed bureaucrats.
Anyway, after careful deliberation and the fact that I’ve been feeling a little on edge lately…OK, really on the edge lately (and also because once again I had nothing to write about this month), I decided to try to get myself arrested for illegally entering a national park. In fact, I hoped and prayed for the whole nine yards. I wanted to be apprehended, cuffed, placed in an official Park Ranger Law Enforcement Police Cruiser and driven to the federal magistrate to be “processed.” The whole “Alice’s Restaurant” scenario.
* * *
First, a logistical concern. There was no way to get through the main gate. I wasn’t prepared (at this time) to cut the padlock with my bolt cutters and get myself charged with petty vandalism as well. The day I commit an act of vandalism, I want it to be BIG.
But I knew there are other ways to penetrate the park perimeter, so I drove north on US 191 to the old entrance road, a dirt track that is now accessible only by 4WD. On the way in, I encountered local rancher Don Holyoak and his wife. They were herding their cows to another allotment and although Don generally abhors my bleeding heart, pro-environmental philosophy, he supported my plan to get myself arrested 100 percent. “Stiles,” he said, “if you get arrested by those damn rangers, I’ll come bail you out.”
Knowing that at least one cowboy was prepared to post my bond, I sallied forth with unbridled confidence and unwavering conviction. Grinding slowly across the bare slickrock and in and out of dry gullies, I finally came to the west entrance. Blocking the road and flanked by neon orange pylons was a white “ROAD CLOSED” barricade. Stapled to it was a personal message from the park superintendent Noel Poe:
DUE TO FEDERAL BUDGET SITUATION
That Noel Poe, he always was a gentle soul…courteous to a fault. And I was sorry too. However, I had no choice but to ignore Noel’s apology and enter the park. I was on a mission. I had committed myself and now I was an illegal intruder, subject to punishment by law. I moved the barricade, slid by the pylons and then returned the sawhorse to its closed position; after all, I didn’t want anyone else to violate the rules. Only me.
I drove slowly along the old entrance road, enjoying the lovely fall weather. I paused a couple of times to stretch my legs and check out a distant tree or an interesting rock formation. I reached the main paved road at Balanced Rock a couple hours after my crime spree began. I shut down the engine on my 1991 Yuppie Scummobile (’91 YSM) and listened for approaching traffic.
Nothing. Not a sound except the chattering of a few juncos and the rustle of the wind through the trees. I set the timer on my camera and posed for a shot lying flat on the macadam near the usually frenetic Balanced Rock Parking Area.
Still, I continued to consider my
possible apprehension by the authorities. What would I do if I turned
the corner on Whoa Hill and encountered an oncoming Ranger Vehicle? What
if they slammed on their brakes and did one of those Hollywood 180s and
came after me on a Code 3 (lights and siren, if memory serves)?
I gave it careful thought and decided I’d follow the O.J. Slow Speed Chase Scenario. I’d keep my speed under the 45 MPH limit and maybe flip on a turn signal just to confuse them, but I’d keep going. I wouldn’t turn around in the seat or give any clue that I even knew they were behind me. Would they try to shoot out the tires? Would the media be notified? I imagined Ken Davey (the Dean of Moab’s Press Corps) on board a government SWAT team helicopter, broadcasting live reports on the Flight of the Intruder.
Perhaps at some point I’d pull to the side of the road, climb out of the car with map in hand, casually walk back to the rangers’ police car and say, “I’m confused…Isn’t this the road to Dubinkey Well?” just before they slammed me to the ground and wrapped those plastic Flexi-cuffs around my incarcerated wrists. And read me my Miranda Rights.
But none of this happened. I couldn’t find a ranger anywhere. In fact, I concluded it’s almost as hard to find a ranger when the park is closed as it is when the park is open. The new four million dollar Delicate Arch Viewpoint Road was deserted. The Parking lot looked like a K-Mart lot on Christmas.
The campground was empty too, except for one government vehicle, but there was no sign of the driver…he was probably asleep under that tree I mentioned. Even the Devils Garden Trailhead was completely vacant. I felt I was witnessing a miracle. I took the opportunity to park my YSM in the middle of the pavement and I shot a couple of pictures, just like a real tourist(!) before I left the main highway and made my way north on the Salt Valley road.
As long as I had the run of the place, I stopped for a while to check out the NPS Tamarisk Control Project in Salt Valley and took some more snapshots for a future Zephyr story. I figured if I was going to find rangers at work anywhere in the park it would be near tamarisk, a plant despised by most park rangers to the point of obsession and once described by my old ranger partner Manny Cordova as the Arrogant Interloper. I guess the tamarisk and I had something in common on this particular day.
But there was nobody there either. Frustrated to tears, I gave up, walked back to the car and headed for the boundary. The rest of the trip was as uneventful as the beginning. I could not find a ranger. I could not get arrested. I couldn’t even locate an NPS employee to write me one of those silly “Courtesy Tags.” I reached the north entrance at sunset, slid another barricade out of the way and drove through the opening to freedom. But it wasn’t the exhilarating experience I’d hoped for. No slow speed chase…nothing.
I realized that the old adage has never been truer, to wit:
“There’s never a ranger around when you need one.”
The whole dull incident had started to fade in my memory when my hopes were revived just a few weeks later. Somehow the Democrats and Republicans had hit another impasse in December and this time, it looked like the shutdown had some real legs to it. There was still hope.
Almost simultaneously, my old friend Dr. Reggie Gubbins arrived unexpectedly from England. A world-renowned expert on all things trivial and perhaps the world’s most successful freeloader, I also knew how much he loved Arches National Park. Consequently, it made perfect sense to attempt incarceration yet again, this time with Reggie in tow. After all, even if we got busted, it could still mean a free bed for him to sleep in.
Reggie was accompanied by his 110 pound dog Ramone; the two of them are inseparable (although Reggie insists they’re “just good friends”), and I didn’t feel like arguing with him, so we loaded Ramone into the back of my Yuppie Scummobile and made our way illegally into the park yet again via the Old Entrance Road.
But this time, I was luckier and I owe it all to Ramone. In fact, I’m convinced that without the Big Fella, we would have escaped unscathed yet again. But you see…rangers hate dogs. They can smell them. Even from a distance. It’s some kind of instinctive thing with those people. It’s genetic. It’s weird.
We were exploring the area near the Delicate Arch Viewpoint. I wanted Reggie to see all the good things the NPS had done for (and to) Arches since his last visit. After all, the new 1.5 mile road and associated viewpoints, bridges and parking lots only cost $4 million. Meanwhile, Ramone was doing what dogs do best; he was frolicking and exhibiting the kind of unrestrained happiness that all of us long for. As happy as a pig in a wallow…that’s Ramone. I believe he had just put his nose in an antelope ground squirrel hole and snorted a couple of times when a voice cracked the stillness of this lovely winter day.
It was Ranger Karen McKinley Jones in full combat gear and she’d caught us dead-to-rights. She was still more than a hundred yards away when she ordered us to return to the parking lot. We considered making a run for it, but then thought better of the idea. We met Karen face-to-face a few minutes later. Ramone came bounding out of a ravine ready to slobber all over Ranger Jones’ loden green pants, not to mention her standard issue, Browning 9 mm leather gun belt (complete with gun).
To her credit Ranger Jones was as tolerant and patient as we had the right to hope for. She was, in fact, downright pleasant (and besides I may, in the future, very well break park rules again, so “sucking up” had a certain strategic value at this point).
Ranger Karen issued me a “courtesy tag” for entering a “closed area,” in this case the entire park. And she gave Reggie a verbal warning about the dog. We left humbly, promising that if we ever did return to the park while it was closed and let a dog run freely, we’d be more discreet about it. We were escorted from the park. Jones opened the gate, waved us through, and locked the gate behind us.
In the days that followed, my Deep Throat inside sources told me that the incident had created quite an uproar (God, those rangers need some new hobbies). No one was particularly upset about the illegal entry; I’d described my first sortie in the November Zephyr and the park people sort of expected me to try again.
But the dog. It was the DOG that frosted their butts! That was going too damn far. Some of the other law enforcement rangers were furious that a real citation hadn’t been issued. With a FINE by golly! Even the normally mild-mannered, even-tempered Superintendent Noel Poe was a tad steamed under the collar. “If it had been me that caught them,” he is alleged to have muttered to a friend of mine, “they wouldn’t have gotten off so easy.”
Since then, my Park Service friends have been afraid to be seen talking to me. They nod nervously at the post office and keep moving. When they spot me at City Market, they shift to the next aisle. I’m a pariah with my old pals sporting the green-and-grey. But it’s okay. It’s worth the rejection. At least I know what lengths I’ll go to for a little peace and quiet. And if it ever happens again, I’m prepared to go serpentine one more time.
POSTSCRIPT: And as we all know, it DID happen again, 23 years later. I was even in San Juan County at the time, just an hour’s drive from my beloved old home at Arches NP. I considered my options and my frequent desire to re-live the past (or portions of it, at least).
But I’m older now, though maybe only a smidgeon wiser, and with a more refined desire to annoy only those people who deserve it most. In that regard, I feel like I’ve been “a real big success.” And so I decided to leave those poor hapless rangers alone. Just working for the government and being forced to wear those goddamn smoky hats is burden enough. I hope they’re enjoying my tree.
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.