Why the National Park Service?

Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument

(Photo credit: Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, courtesy Frank DiBona, Flickr Creative Commons)

Though my main job is college professor, I’m also a seasonal park guide/ranger, working intermittently at a historical park in Pennsylvania. So how the hell did a Scottish immigrant end up working for such an iconically American outfit as the National Park Service? I’ve often asked myself that question. I’m not exactly sure when I started thinking I wanted to do this. I had a student friend years ago who had done the park ranger thing; he loved it, and it had always stuck in my mind as potentially a cool thing to do. At the time I wasn’t a U.S. citizen so it got pushed to the back of my mind, only to re-emerge years later.

But long before that, as a kid in Scotland, I remember being impressed and charmed by documentaries highlighting America’s national parks and national forests. I knew, sort of, what Yellowstone and Yosemite represented—the great outdoors, giant trees, giant geysers, majestic animals, and guys in uniforms and funny hats showing groups of tourists around. All of this was communicated to me, via the telly, on lovely, grainy Kodak 16 mm film. But I had no idea where these “parks” were—if anything, they were all sort of fused together in my head into a single Big Park, Somewhere in America. Even calling it a park was weird: to me, parks were supposed to be small pieces of green and concrete in towns and cities where you went to play on the swings or feed the ducks.

I had even less of a notion about what the U.S. national parks were or how they’d come into being. However, whether they were bathed in summer sunshine or clad in deep winter snow, they did seem endless and magnificent, even on our pokey little 21” black-and-white television set. Actually, when my family got its first color television in 1973, an American nature documentary was one of the earliest shows we saw in vivid color. I have lots of mental images of vast canyons, steep mountains, and cars driving through gigantic trees with tunnels cut through them. And often, in these shots, were these green-clad individuals with wide-brimmed hats, not soldiers, not quite policemen, yet somehow seeming like they belonged there.

Big trees, mountains, and rangers seemed to go together in my young imagination, fueled by occasional fresh glimpses into this distant wonderland in either print or visual form. I would read about the national parks in Look & Learn, a fantastic (and sadly long-dead) British weekly kids’ educational magazine that also covered uber-geeky subjects like the space program and kings and queens of England and Scotland. Back in TV-land, on our new set, another one of those early color extravaganzas that sticks in my mind was a Walt Disney documentary (from 1973) about fire spotters that I found strangely engaging. It was called “Fire on Kelly Mountain,” and focused on the adventures of a fire spotter for the forest service. It featured Larry Wilcox, an actor I got to know later when he played Officer Jon Baker in “CHiPs.” As Larry stood in his fire tower keeping watch for fires over vast swathes of forest (and of course saving the day), he seemed to epitomize something quite exotic, quite romantic, and very American. Actually, he was a forest ranger, not a park ranger, and stationed in the Eldorado National Forest in California, near Lake Tahoe; but at the time I had no idea of the difference, or where Lake Tahoe was. I did think it was cool.

I can’t not mention another 1970s park service-related cultural icon that was very popular in Britain: Yogi Bear, Hanna-Barbera’s denizen of Jellystone Park (which I later learned was a takeoff of Yellowstone National Park). Here’s how well known Yogi Bear was at the time: Later, at my high school, we had a history teacher called Mr. Blair and everyone referred to him as “Yogi Blair.” In the same vein, our chemistry teacher, Mr. Hill, was known to all as “Benny Hill”—so Yogi had at least the same level of cultural impact as one of Britain’s best-loved slapstick comedians of the 70s. (It’s probably no surprise to anyone reading this that none of us had the faintest idea who Yogi Berra was.) Of course, Yogi and his sidekick Boo-boo had to have an antagonist, a rival, and in this case that rival was Ranger Smith. Ah ha, thought my 8-year-old self: that’s what a “ranger” is. It’s Ranger Smith.

All this had a lasting impact on me. But it was all to lie dormant for many years. Much as I liked watching these nature documentaries, in my youth I was more inclined to be an indoorsy swot and history geek than a rugged, outdoorsy naturalist. All those childhood televisual memories got pushed way back into the memory banks in my later childhood and early adulthood, and it wasn’t until I started living in the States in my later 20s that they began to be resurrected. But when I first saw real live rangers in real live settings in real live America, it wasn’t in the grandeur of the great Western parks; rather, it was in the implacably urban setting of Philadelphia, PA. My first ever trip to a National Park, around 1992 I think, was in fact to a National Historical Park: Independence NHP, home to Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, and all that good stuff. Then, in subsequent years, I visited a small but significant set of historical sites such as Fort Sumter National Monument (in Charleston Harbor) and Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument (in Montana), as well as natural parks such as Theodore Roosevelt and Mount Rainier. And at some point during these visits it sort of dawned on me, albeit vaguely, that these places were all run by the same organization, and that these were the same guys as the rangers I remembered from 70s telly-land. And the stuff being done by these guys was pretty darned cool. This was a highly visible national organization devoted not only to protecting both natural and historical resources, but also to connecting these same resources with ordinary Americans who actually owned said resources in common trust. Now that was something.

What particularly sticks with me from the mid-90s is an interpretive talk given by a ranger at Little Bighorn (see above). He was a Native American—a Lakota Sioux or Cheyenne, I think—but he wore the Park Service uniform along with long, dark hair braided into a single pigtail. And he did an amazing job of bringing to life a stark battlefield that had almost no clearly defined major features or points of interest (graveyards yes, but no sunken road, no battered church or household where a last stand was made). At that time, listening to this fascinating individual, I clearly remember thinking to myself: I’d love to have a go at doing something like this. At the time we were driving across country to Seattle where I was about to become a graduate student and teaching assistant at the University of Washington; but there I was going to be stuck in a sterile classroom. Out here in the prairie of Montana, this was teaching too, but in an open-air class that incorporated a real space where real shit had really happened. And that automatically made it more special.

I do think this was when the germ of an idea was planted, that somehow, somewhere, I’d like to do this too. It was to take another 14 years, but eventually I got my wish, albeit in an environment about as different from Little Bighorn as it’s possible to get in the lower 48. But I’d be doing it with the same guys, and that would be cool.

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