“Drop the Wildflower, Kid.” Memories of a Tree Fuzz at Arches NP (Ranger Stiles #7 1975-1986) …by Jim Stiles

park service ranger
photo credit: NPS

Every year, seasonal and permanent rangers at national parks across the fruited plain gather for their annual law enforcement training refresher course. The NPS takes itself pretty seriously these days. It’s been decades since the Park Service decided to strip its ranger/cops of their outdated Smith & Wesson .357 magnum revolvers and replace them with something sexier, like a Glock 40 or a Browning 9mm semi-automatic. All that training with PR-24 Combat Batons didn’t offer enough protection; the semi-automatic sidearms guarantee the nickname Ranger-Robo-Cop for the men and women hired to defend Volume 36 of the Code of Federal Regulations.

Since I exited the Park Service, more than 30 years ago, the emphasis on law enforcement has become more apparent in national parks across the country, whether the park is a seldom seen backwater gem of the NPS, or a high profile nightmare like the Grand Canyon. Did it have to change? Did the Park Service respond to a need for higher profile cops, or did across-the-board changes in NPS law enforcement policy create new problems and forever alter the image of the kind-hearted ranger who’d rather talk about his latest bird sightings? 

Rookie Ranger Jim ("Sonny Bono") Stiles.
Rookie Ranger Jim (“Sonny Bono”) Stiles.

Here is the way I remember my “law enforcement duties” when I put on a badge at Arches, more than three decade ago. Rangering, like Life, was a lot simpler..

When I became a seasonal ranger, I had a fairly well-defined vision, in my mind at least, of just what my rangerly responsibilities would be. I assumed I would walk lonely trails, watch desert sunsets, observe the “flora and fauna,” occasionally assist a lost or confused tourist, and otherwise perform all those ranger-type tasks that I’d read about in Desert Solitaire. I’d hoped to be a sort of short Ed Abbey.

It wasn’t quite like that. Although the numbers pale by today’s levels of sardine-can insanity (the NPS expects 2 1/2 million souls through the gate in 2020), in 1976 Arches rangers received, welcomed, revived and often hid from more than a quarter of a million tourists. It felt pretty crazy to me.

Devils Garden Trailer photo by Mike Brohm
Devils Garden Trailer. Photo credit Mike Brohm

I was charged with maintaining order in the Devils Garden Campground. Back then, during most weekends in the Spring, before mountain bikes transformed the Sand Flats area into one giant Hooverville, the campground at Arches represented the second densest concentration of human beings in Grand County; I was the mayor, sheriff, sanitation engineer, family therapist, and token whipping post for all these good people. They’d come down here to “have fun,” and they intended to succeed, even if it killed them. Sometimes I thought it would kill me.

Enforcing park rules and regulations was not easy when confronting a mass of escapees from Salt Lake City, all of them suffering from a long, polluted winter, and terminal cabin fever.  Sometimes, it got nasty.  And yet, law enforcement is not the word that came to mind when I had to resolve some of the crises that passed my way. Consider one of my favorite anecdotal tales, the “dumping station/robust lady in a lavender jumpsuit” story for instance:

cartoon by Jim Stiles. Arches Tourists

I had been on backcountry patrol, hiding out really, in an isolated section of the Devils Garden, and had just returned to the campground.  As I climbed out of the park jeep, my peripheral vision picked up a flash of purple coming at me from campsite #2… 

“Young man … are you the ranger?”  

A very…sturdy… woman stared at me skeptically.  She wore lavender jumpsuit with “Minnie Mouse” stitched across her chest.  She had the look of someone who suffered from terminal unpleasantness.  This unhappy camper had just emerged from a 38-foot Airstream trailer and was headed straight at me. 

airstream

She looked…distraught.  I considered making a mad dash for the front door of my own little tin home, or just pretending to be deaf. Or maybe I’d claim I couldn’t speak English (“Je ne comprends pas … parley-vous francais?”)….a foreign exchange ranger.

But it wouldn’t work.  I could run, but I knew I couldn’t hide. I brushed the dust off my shirt, tried to stand up straight and braced myself for the inevitable.  She was now squarely (or roundly) in front of me.

“Yes ma’am,” I sighed.  “I’m the ranger.”

“Well, young man, would you please tell me where the sanitary dump station is for disposing of trailer toilet wastes?”

Not again, I thought. I looked closely at this trembling, near-hysterical woman. If things turned ugly, I considered, surely I could outrun her.

“I’m sorry ma’am.  We don’t have one.”

The lady’s stare revealed the potential for physical violence; her body stiffened.

“I don’t think you understood my question, young man.  Where is your dumping station?”

“I’m telling the truth,” I shrugged.  “We really don’t have one.”

The lady blinked at me with dumbstruck disbelief, as though I’d deliberately defied her…denied her the right to DUMP.  She began to tremble.

“That’s impossible!  There must be a dump here!”  she cried uncontrollably.

“Please ma’am, don’t cry …. this is nothing to cry about.”

“YOU CALL YOURSELF A NATIONAL PARK, AND YOU DON’T HAVE A DUMP STATION?” she screamed.

The purple woman tried to get control of herself; then with a sudden look of triumphant indignation she proclaimed,  “Alright ranger, I’ll just dump my sewage on the ground.”

She lunged toward the trailer, with me right behind her.

“Don’t do it!” I yelled.  “You can’t do this! It’s…it’s illegal!”

“Try to stop me!” she snarled.

Ranger Stiles
Ranger Stiles, feeling a tad edgy…

The lady grabbed the end of the four-inch diameter accordion sewage hose and aimed it right at me.  She placed her left hand on the lever, the trigger, that released the flow. I was looking right down the barrel of eight days of raw sewage. In that moment of truth, as her hand trembled on the release handle, as beads of sweat trickled down my face, I thought of faraway places and coyotes howling at the sky, of ravens croaking in the twisted dead branches of a fine old juniper tree…oh to be there. To be anywhere. But here.

As I was about to give up hope of escaping her hose, of being soaked in camping effluent, my adversary’s husband peered out a louvered trailer window, saw the showdown scene and bolted out the door.

“No! No, Honey! Not AGAIN!”  

He grabbed his beloved from behind and pulled her away from the trigger…just in the nick of time.  “Listen to me, Florence,” he pleaded as she struggled to break loose, “you can’t hose down every ranger you meet, just because the park doesn’t have a dumping station.  We’re already banned at Zion and Bryce; let’s just forget it!”

Ranger Stiles Campground Full Arches National Park

Again?  Banned at Zion?  This crazed woman has been running around Utah, spraying rangers with sewage and she’s still at large?  She hasn’t been incarcerated?  Or worse?  I thought of all the other rangers who must have been forced to endure gamma globulin shots because of this loony toon. 

But then I considered the alternative—the handcuffs, the long drive to the Grand County sheriff’s office, the trial–was it worth it? I decided that I was grateful just to be unsplattered;  I “released” the woman on her own twisted recognizance into her husband’s custody. Once again, Florence escaped unscathed. But at least fortunately, so had I.

That was the kind of problem I dealt with at the campground, although the scenarios were as varied and diverse as the scenery itself.  It was generally a case of Good People Gone Goofy.  Campers making nuisances of themselves … or creating them for others.  But very seldom did we have a serious law enforcement problem.  

Not too many hard-core criminals came to Arches National Park; we faced the obnoxious and ignorant and often frustrating types, of course, but no real felon-types. And that was good to hear when I first went to work at the park, for I had little intention and even less desire to become a gun-toting smokie.  Besides, I was too short, skinny, and lovable to ever fit the image of a cop.

Still, on that first day of my premiere season, as I loaded a pile of medical and emergency equipment into the park pickup, my Chief Ranger, Jerry Epperson, handed me a heavy lumpy object rolled up in a sock.

Chief Ranger Epperson Arches National Park
Chief Ranger Epperson

“What’s this? I asked.

I unrolled the sock and peered inside; I pulled out a little Smith & Wesson .38 revolver.

“It’s a revolver,” Jerry explained.

“I can see that…What do I do with it?

“Where do you keep your underwear?” he asked.

“Excuse me?” I said.

“Look, take this thing and put it in your dresser under your socks and underwear …. you do wear underwear, Stiles?

“Well…mostly.”

“Good.  Put the gun under the underwear; every time you see the gun rolled up in the sock, you’ll know it’s time to do laundry.  At the end of the season, bring the revolver back down here.”

It all made perfectly good sense to me.  So I did as Jerry instructed, and about every 21 days I’d see the sock and do my laundry.  In October, emptying out the trailer for the winter, I brought the sock back down to Epperson. 

It all made perfectly good sense to me.  So I did as Jerry instructed, and about every 21 days I’d see the sock and do my laundry.  In October, emptying out the trailer for the winter, I brought the sock back down to Epperson.  

Once during the summer, we went out to the range and Jerry showed me how to fire the weapon, just in case we were invaded by the Soviet Union (ah…the good old days) and I had to protect the campground from armed commie aggressors.  But nothing happened. I felt we had an excellent law enforcement program at Arches and one that never needed to be readjusted or modified. Such thoughts are the kiss of death.

The next season the Park Service changed all its rules.  From now on, they decided (just who was they, we wondered), any ranger performing any law enforcement duties at any park was required to undergo a minimum of 200 hours of intensive law enforcement training.  Whether we worked the South Rim of the Grand Canyon or Herbert Hoover’s birthplace, we were all subject to the same training. I was flabbergasted; I was gasterflabbed.  Tell me it’s not true, I pleaded.

FLETC Photo credit US Government
Photo credit: US Government

“You’re going to F.L.E.T.C.,” Jerry replied.

“Fretsey? What’s a Fretsey?” I asked.

“No … no.  That’s FLETC,” Jerry explained.  “The Federal Law Enforcement Training Center.  It’s in Brunswick, Georgia.  You’ll have a great time.  I hear south Georgia is beautiful this time of year.”

“Jerry, it’s late June,” I pointed out.

“I know,” he said, grinning.  “I was only kidding.  It’s a Hell Hole, but you’ve got to go and that’s that … send me a postcard.”

There was some comfort in the fact that four other seasonal rangers from Arches and Canyonlands were also being conscripted to participate in this boot camp for tree cops. In fact, our entire class would be composed of seasonal rangers from parks in our region. Still, I left with a sense of dread.  We took a jet from Grand Junction and landed seven hours later in Jacksonville, Florida.  

An old school bus, painted green with the NPS arrowhead emblem emblazoned on its side awaited our arrival.  The temperature was 96 degrees and the humidity was 99%.  My clothes were dripping wet and stuck to the back of the seat as we made our way to FLETC, an abandoned navy blimp base.  In the twilight gloom, we passed little Georgia towns that looked alien and ugly.  I looked at the other faces on the bus as they lit up in the glow of oncoming traffic.  Each of them looked the way I felt; It was one of the loneliest nights of my life.

We were assigned quarters.  The next morning, at 7AM (they had to be kidding) we reported to our first class.  As required, we were dressed in our Class A uniforms, which felt just delightful in this mosquito infested, sweat-dripping inferno. 

FLETC Training
photo credit USMarshal.gov

We learned at the start, that FLETC was a training center for all Federal law enforcement agencies: Border Patrol, Immigration, Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, the Secret Service …. all of them.  These people faced life and death situations every day…real heady problems. 

Our instructor at this first session, in an effort to relate better to the kinds of crises we faced everyday, asked for input from the class.  He scanned the cardboard name cards that were placed in front of us for easy identification.

“Mr. Stiles … uh, you’re from Arches National Park … Utah?  What are your most serious law enforcement problems?”

gather no wood in the park sign

That was a tough one.  I gave it a few seconds of thought.  “Well, that’s not an easy question to answer,” I said. “But if I had to pick the top two, I’d say they are picking flowers or gathering wood illegally and dogs running loose without a leash.”

The instructor stared at me.  “Are you trying to be funny?”

“No sir, not at all.”

“Well, what about serious crimes?  Robberies, rapes, assaults?”

“Nope.”

“Burglaries? Car theft? Kidnapping?”

“No sir.”

“None?”

“Sir, I don’t think we’ve had a felony arrest in fifty years,” I explained.

“Why are you here?” he asked.

dog off leash

“They made me come,” I told him.  “Because I’m here, there are probably loose dogs at Arches running amok everywhere.”

The instructor grilled the other seasonal rangers in the room, most of them from small parks and also facing the same kinds of heinous violations. Our teacher didn’t know what to say.

But we were there for the duration.  There was no way out of it.  We went to physical training and personal protection class everyday.  The instructor taught us how to use a baton or nightstick.  His learning technique was to attempt to beat us over the head with his baton while we tried to protect ourselves with our own.  Some of us were more successful at this than others.  The guy next to me wound up with four stitches in his scalp, when the instructor split the student’s baton in half and cracked him above the forehead.

The teacher, who came to be known as M.D. (Mad Dog), taught us how to break pubic bones. Seriously. When one member of our class snickered at the thought of it, MD bristled. “The pubic bone,” he snarled at my skeptical colleague, “is the most vulnerable bone in the body.”  This bone, Mad Dog insisted, is what maintains the structural integrity of the entire skeletal system.  By breaking it, the victim would surely collapse into a quivering pile of organic debris, and often the theatrical Mad Dog demonstrated just what it looked like to have one’s public bone broken.  It was not a pretty sight.

“Would you like to experience the snapped pubic bone for yourself, Ranger?” Mad Dog threatened. My seasonal buddy from Capitol Reef was almost in tears. No, he said silently. He felt that his pubic bone was fine, just where it was.

We moved on to the firing range every afternoon at one o’clock. At about that time, the no-seeums and mosquitoes and bottle-ass flies are so thick, its difficult to even see the target through the fog of flying bugs. 

At our firearms class, we learned about the “universal language.” Until my experience in Georgia, the concept of a universal language had a different meaning for me.  The laughter of children, the singing of birds, the touch of two lovers, the human smile— these notions came to mind.

I was wrong.  At FLETC they set me straight.  The “universal language,” I learned, was in fact the pump action sound of a 12 gauge riot shotgun being racked, a language our instructors insured us that everyone understands.  So much for the laughter of children.

Bruno, the firearms instructor, taught us how to “smoke dirtbags” — the unofficial but socially acceptable FLETC term for shooting persons suspected of chronic illegal behavior.  

“Once you’ve smoked the dirtbag,” Bruno was fond of saying, “you’ve got him suckin’ sand.  Yessir. Suckin’ sand.”

Bruno would use that expression, “suckin’ sand,” thirty times a day. Just the thought of it made him happy.

Tom Workman and his fu manchu mustache
Tom Workman and his fu manchu.

A seasonal from Glen Canyon, Tom Workman,  and I were positioned at the end of the line when we did our daily practice at the shooting range. Both of us were too shaggy and unkempt to suit most of the instructors and Workman’s fu manchu mustache particularly irked Bruno. He thought we were both a couple of slackers and spent an inordinate amount of time yelling at us. 

He didn’t like our ‘shooting style,’ whatever that meant. Bruno kept screaming, “You’re sighting out of the wrong eye! What the hell are you doing?”  When we both qualified as “experts” Bruno was devastated. After he looked at our targets and tallied our scores, he shook his head and muttered, “I don’t know how the hell you did that,” and walked away. Defeated.

But it wasn’t all shooting and blasting. We had classes in crime scene investigation, pursuit driving, interrogation techniques (“Where’d you get the flowers, kid?”), BOMB REMOVAL, cuffing techniques … even hostage negotiation.

I was prone to ‘drift off’ during some of the more stimulating lectures about chains of evidence and search and seizure laws. I always kept my FLETC schedule nearby, which allowed me at a glance to determine how many more hours of this ordeal remained. Like everyone, I am inclined to doodle to pass the time and I semi-consciously found myself altering my schedule’s title page. The lecturer, who liked to pace the aisles as he bored us to near-death glanced down at my editorial skills and stopped in his tracks…

“‘–Lice Training Division’ Ranger Stiles? Not PO-lice but LICE? Is that how you’d characterize these sessions? Are we boring you?”

All these years later, I still have the offending material…

Doodled Schedule

My compadres and I endured the tedious regimen day after day, taking comfort only in knowing that eventually we would be allowed to leave this humid swampland and return to our beloved West.  Finally, the last day arrived, the last class endured. We proudly attended the “graduating ceremonies,” posed for the traditional class group picture, and received our diplomas. They even handed out the marksmanship certificates. 

FLETC group pic
Police School Diploma
Firearms Expert Certification

The next morning, we got back on the same bus and returned to Jacksonville, where a Boeing 707 lifted us out of the humid jungle and winged us across the continent, back home to our red rock desert.

It seemed like we’d been gone forever, but everything looked the way we’d left it…the canyons, the polished sky, the dry mesmerizing, hypnotic heat. We reached Moab in the late afternoon.  I found my car and headed up the switchbacks to the campground.  I rounded the corner at the Devils Garden and there was my trailer — the ugly, dilapidated, paint peeling tin shack that I called home.  It looked beautiful.

Devils Garden Trailer Arches National Park
“Home Sweet Tinny Home”

I was pulling my suitcase from the trunk of the old Volvo, when a tourist walked up.

“Excuse me,” he said, “but I have a problem.  I just dropped my tennis shoe in the campground toilet and I can’t get it out.  Could you give me a hand?”

I thought of my recent training.  Should I smoke this dirtbag?  Maybe I should make him suck some sand.  Maybe I should interrogate him.  He appeared to be harmless, but …. you never know.

Five minutes later, I was on my way to the campground toilet, armed with my rubber gloves and a very long coat hanger. I was smiling.

NEXT TIME: Critters

Click Here to read the previous installments of Ranger Stiles’ Wildlife Observation Notes…

Jim Stiles is Founder and Co-Publisher of the Canyon Country Zephyr.

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1 comment for ““Drop the Wildflower, Kid.” Memories of a Tree Fuzz at Arches NP (Ranger Stiles #7 1975-1986) …by Jim Stiles

  1. Gary Cox
    December 3, 2019 at 11:31 am

    Your delightful article awakened charming memories of my own experiences with NPS Law Enforcement. In 1987, Maze District Ranger Ed Forner made a stab at mentoring me and advised that if I wished to do something other than give guided walks, campfire talks and work Visitors Center desks I had better go to Law Enforcement School. As a general rule, only Law Enforcement Rangers, he told me, were routinely sent into the remote backcountry – exactly where I wanted to be. Of course he naturally assumed I wished, rather than staying forever at the Maze, to purposefully pursue a career in the Park Service., which, it goes without saying, involves strategically climbing a bureaucratic ladder while hopping around from park to park. Incidentally Mr. Stiles, I think I can now fathom where your notion of recreational laddering came from.

    And so I loaded up my meager belongings into my rusty old Ford Maverick and in January of 1988 headed off to the Seasonal Law Enforcement Academy in Santa Rosa California. There, for six weeks, I had to endure some of what you were gruesomely subjected to at FLTC. The Seasonal Academy and its instructors as a whole struck me as a self-regarding living statue of fearsome masculinity – prickly as a porcupine, with arteries surging with proud currents of racism, sexism and impossibly bloated self-esteem. It was as repugnant as it could possibly be – but educational. Such that the Rodney King incident, which occurred a short time later, seemed merely business as usual – nothing to get excited or outraged about.

    I took me awhile to cleanse my mind of the adhesive ideological slime accrued in the course of this educational endeavor. But after a few backcountry patrols in the Land of Standing Rocks, Santa Rosa faded into receding nightmare status. I kept my pistol, as you did Jim, in my closet, buried under dirty socks and underwear. When it came time to gun down cardboard targets in the shape of human beings, I reluctantly unearthed the damned thing and performed the requisite ritual of proving my testicles were sufficient to brutalize my fellow beings if need be. But of course there never was a need. In my five years of Law Enforcement work at the Maze I never once felt obliged to write a ticket much less brutalize anyone. Friendly, rational conversation seemed always sufficient to bring about compliance. When the opportunity came to leave Law Enforcement, I did with a sigh of relief, even though it meant taking a downgrade.

    In my thirty three year career in the Park Service, I have steadfastly stayed on at the Maze (not a good career move) and have ascended from the GS-3 rung up to the GS-6 rung. Sadly Jim, I doubt that my bureaucratic laddering skills would translate well into the recreational realm.

    – Gary Cox

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