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Ramblings of a Ranger- The Grand Canyon Watchers

Updated on May 10, 2013

Sunrise over the Grand Canyon

From the Summit Lake Ranger Station Log Book, Lassen Volcanic National Park:'s 10 minutes to the hour of midnight, and I'm ready to sign off, go to bed. I'll sleep on the back porch of this old log station and gaze at the stars... Tomorrow: a day off- plans to run trails, climb the peaks and participate in a BBQ at Manzanita Lake... it's Tuesday, (but MY Sunday), and last night's full moon hike to Cinder Cone was fabulous! Good people, great weather- lying in the bottom of Cinder Cone looking up into the dark void as evening stars and planets lit the Heavens... spectacular!

So, on a winter day in the woods of northeast California, outside of the tiny town of Shingletown, I went out cross country skiing after work. It was just that perfect temperature, maybe 33 degrees F, where some of the heavy snow outlining branch and bough was dripping and slipping and showering off... I skied across through the forest. Light, a sense of white light from the clouds above and reflected from the snow all around me, surrounded me. My two dogs raced ahead and out of sight, then reappeared to check on my progress: hurry up! they said, then they were off again.

Then I stopped to listen to the forest. It's always different and fascinating and alive, sometimes so hushed I hear my own breath and my heartbeat in my ears, but this day the sound from the trees dripping water and shedding ice and plops of snow was a steady chorus. For all the world, when I closed my eyes, it sounded like a bowl of rice krispies that had just had milk poured upon them, snap!crackle!pop! Underlying this was a steady silence, the balance of a natural world far older than us, and one that will be here long after we are gone, if we don't damage it too much. There comes a peace that settles over me, I let some worry go... a deep breath and keep on skiing.

In another moment, as a light snow fell, a cry from above keened. I looked up, and barely seen through the low cloud and swirling flakes, a flock of snow geese winged by, calling out in their V-formation, and then lost to the misty snow, a moment's chance meeting. I stopped and just took the moment to BE, to feel all that open space and life around me, nurturing me and letting it fill my spirit cup. Edward Abbey, famous for his classic books, The Monkeywrench Gang, and Desert Solitaire, said, "It is not enough to understand the natural world. The point is to defend and preserve it." But understanding is a good first step, and loving and needing that connection, so vital to us all.

I am suddenly reminded of a summer spent working at the Grand Canyon National Park, one of my first ranger seasons. I'm rambling my way through life, season by season, and here I am at the South Rim. And to look over that rim and down into its depths is so grand, so immense, so full of the play of light and distance, shadow and the feeling of time, immeasurable time, that tears spring to my eyes just to see it, to know that I am like such a tiny grain of sand in all that space.

Grand Canyon is a happening place! On a hot summer's day, thousands of tourists swarming around, the shops and stores crammed with sweaty, tired travelers, the campgrounds and lodges brim-full. Medical emergencies, lost hikers, petty crooks doing crooked things, lines of people, lines of cars, lots to do to keep me busy. And, every chance I get, I am at that rim, staring across and down into that wonder, and running up and down the Bright Angel trail, or out into the vastness along the edge, away from all those ant-like, scurrying humans... am I really one of them?

My ranger duty schedules vary, but I quickly learn to love the a.m. shift, most of all. Up before dawn, calm blackness of stars and silent forest, and the whole South Rim Village so still, all asleep, the woods and layered rock, the slip of a moon and cold air, calling for me to come out and play! And I soon find out about the Watchers. They are out there, even now, stirring, rising, getting ready, and I join them every chance I get.

Into my ranger patrol vehicle, quick check of equipment, medical supplies, weapons; call in-service to the always on-duty dispatch office (darn, I don't let the giant dispatch complex wreck my idea that I am alone, the only one awake, sailing forth to challenge the day!) Carpe Diem! and I drive and walk my rounds all about the South Rim area. Out through the village, check trailheads (make sure no 'car clouts', no illegal campers), drive past the campgrounds, find 'out-of-bounds' campers sleeping on picnic tables (either the campground was full the night before, and they are waiting for a site, or they may have come early, early... I'll let them sleep for now, and be back later to roust them with a vibrant call of, "Let's go, Volleyball practice! Everyone up!"

But, now, I head east to the main park entrance and I see my first watchers, moving silently in the still-dark, walking along the trails and the roadways, heading east. A shiver of excitement runs down my back and I can see the first faint blush of light along the eastern escarpments, far off... it's drawing near! Out to the entrance stations, all closed, check for evildoers doing evil... nope: it's cold out and so early... a lousy time for crime! I eagerly head back toward that magic canyon edge. And the light grows.

One last sweep of the Village Loop, and along the way, in the just-first light, I see more watchers, in small groups of two or three, or singly, bundled up and grey and black against the sky and darker forest, walking, silently, eastward, drawn to the magic... and the light grows.

They are all bound for Mather Point, a great gathering, and I hurry through my final rounds, because that is where I, too, am bound.

It is obvious, now, that the eastern sky has something interesting going on, a pure sweet light, pale gold and white, heralding the coming, while to the west, the great canyons and valleys yet hold their dark secrets, velvety blackness deep in the earth. I drive back to Mather Point, to view one of the finest spectacles of earth, escape my vehicle and join the watchers, maybe 50 or 60, gathered around, silent, waitimg... and the light grows!

I walk out to the point, nod to a few folks, wearing the ubiquitous ranger hat, everyone quiet like, just small whispers and an air of anticipation. It happens all at once, you know? The great yellow star's fiery edge splashes over us with light, it's instantly warm, a sweet morning breeze from nowhere cools our brows, a canyon wren calls out its silvery descending scale, delighting the ear,( one of the finest bird songs on earth, I believe!), everyone is at once laughing and talking and its all bright light and dazzle and color and spectacle and noise... so wonderful to welcome a day this way.

For that short time, on those summer mornings, I didn't have to worry or be psyched up for the inevitable radio tone alerts and calls: 'fight in progress at the Fred Harvey concession employee housing', or 'heart attack at the Bright Angel Lodge', or 'heat stroke victim down on the South Kaibab Trail', or 'two dead and decomposing people in a tent are waiting for you to discover, Dave Frederick!' Well, I never really got that last radio call, but did, in fact. discover that sad and sorry scene.

It has been more than 30 years since I hiked and lived along that awesome rim, ran those trails, witnessed those sunrises. The memories are easily recalled, and are a comfort to a life turned to the nature side of things.It seems that we are programmed, as we get older, to see nature as an obstacle, to see the snow's fall as a barrier, as trouble, requiring extra effort and testing our survival skills. It's too cold! I'm sick of the rain! (wow, after four years of drought, to me it's a blessing!) I don't like the snow! (Then, why do you live here?) Wow, it's too hot! (Wade in the creek!) When I was a kid, I owned my world, my neighborhood, every nook and cranny, as only kids who live outdoors and 'run wild' can. I think that kids are far more tuned in to their environment than adults, but it doesn't seem to last; it takes some practice, and continued practice, to connect to nature, to feel and think and act like a kid, see nature through a child's viewpoint.

Maybe the trick is for us all to think and feel and act like kids, again; to remember the joy and strangeness of exploring a tide pool, the exquisite wonder of a spider web strung with dew drops, and know the bubbling energy and excitement of a growing thunderstorm. Wish we all could still go out and climb those trees, and skin those knees, and ramble down those trails through the woods, to see what mysteries await around the next bend, ready to unfold. Come to think of it, I will go climb a tree, skin a knee, ski across some meadow I've never been on before, and then dream the sweet, exhausted dreams of youth. Do yourself a favor and get out "into the resource" and maybe I'll see you rambling in nature somewhere!


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