The National Park Service turns 100 years old in 2016, and dirtbags nationwide are finding creative ways to commemorate the NPS Centennial. (My favorite so far is the Dirtbag Diaries’ Milepost series.) I, on the other hand, lack artistic sensibilities, and am thus marking the occasion in the same way I celebrate everything else: by eating. Without further ado, then, I present my first in a series of installments about things I’ve eaten (or seen eaten!) in national parks.
I realized I didn’t want to be a teacher approximately one week before spring classes ended my junior year of college. Panicked that, at twenty, I’d already signed away the rest of my life, I approached my undergraduate adviser in his dingy office in the basement of Hellems Arts & Sciences, where he recommended I take a stab at what the hell it was, exactly, that I did want to do before changing my major and indefinitely delaying my graduation.
“I like to hike,” I told him, and we formed a plan: I promised not to do anything rash and graduate on time with an expensive degree for which I had no intended use, and he would give me a series of trifling consolation prizes, including administrative approval to take environmental science classes I wasn’t remotely qualified for and—more importantly—a letter of recommendation for a volunteer position in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Maybe if I could cobble together enough extracurriculars, I reasoned, I’d get into graduate school for something I actually wanted to do, thereby saving myself from school with more school. (Paradoxically enough, this, unlike most of what I thought at twenty, turned out to be true.)
After my last final that semester, I drove my ’97 Forester up Highway 36, bypassed the fee at the Beaver Meadows Entrance Station by proudly presenting my acceptance letter, and arrived at my first training session for the Bighorn Brigade.
That’s right: while my fellow students were celebrating the advent of summer break with bong rips on the quad, I was eagerly taking notes on bighorn sheep physiology and park visitor management alongside a couple dozen AARP cardholders.
I’m kind of an old soul, I guess.
A little background on the alliterative Brigade: after a rapid decline in numbers thanks to hunting and disease, bighorn sheep were reintroduced to the area surrounding the Park in the late 1970s. Wildlife biologists estimate something like 400 sheep live in the park today, mostly in remote areas inaccessible to day trippers.
One group of sheep, the Mummy Range herd, remains in close proximity to the well-trodden Highway 34, which it must cross to access a pair of kettle ponds in Horseshoe Park. Sheep Lakes, as they’re known—left behind by receding glaciers some 15,000 years ago—contain essential salt and minerals, and the sheep schlep down from their alpine fortress for a multivitamin every whenever-they-damn-well-feel-like-it or so.
You’d think drivers in a national park would stop for the sheep without being told, or at least slow down, but this has not proven to be the case, and without much in the way of sheep to spare, the Park concluded, at some point, that there ought to be somebody with a a neon vest and a walkie-talkie at Sheep Lakes to sort things out. Each day from mid-May through the end of August, a troop of hardy volunteers (mostly snowbirds and retired science teachers), supervised by an interpretive ranger, staffed the Sheep Lakes kiosk from 8:30 to 4:30, the park’s busiest hours.
The Bighorn Brigade doesn’t see much action from the sheep. I saw them maybe three or four times in the two summers I volunteered—by the time I came around, biologists were beginning to speculate that perhaps the sheep had found some other nutrient source, rendering the trip down to Sheep Lakes less appealing.
What we did see were literally hundreds of tourists each day, because when visitors in a national park see a car pulled over, it is assumed that they must also stop or else risk missing out on seeing The Most Incredible Nature Thing. The small parking lot around the kiosk was usually packed for my whole shift. I spent most Sunday afternoons cheerfully answering the same three basic questions:
“When will the sheep be here?”
“Can I touch the sheep?”
“Where is the nearest bathroom?”
The answers to the first two questions, I should hope, are fairly obvious: they are I couldn’t possibly know that and No, respectively.
It was just outside the answer to the third question, midway through that first summer, that the highlight of my not-so-storied interp career occurred. Hoping to duck the usual barrage of Can you tell me where I can hike to see a bears and Do you have any suncscreens and eat my turkey sandwich in peace, I’d driven just down the road from Sheep Lakes to the Lawn Lake Trailhead for lunch.
As I fished the M&Ms out of my trail mix, my radio crackled to life. This wasn’t unusual; law enforcement rangers and the visitors’ centers were forever trying to raise one another to retrieve some Griswold’s keys from his locked car or shoo unruly herds of tourists off the fragile alpine tundra. This wasn’t a stoic ranger, voice, though—no “10-4” this or “copy” that—it was the familiar voice of my best Bighorn Brigade buddy, Maryann, who on my first day joked that her volunteer uniform was older than me, except her faded khaki NPS-issue shirt told me it probably wasn’t a joke.
“The sheep are down!” The static did little to hide her excitement. A visitor, I’d learn later, had overheard her telling someone how unpredictable the sheep were, that they hadn’t been spotted at Sheep Lakes in days, etc., and casually informed her they’d just seen a couple of rams up Fall River Road.
I hurried to the end of the pavement, thrilled for a reason to use the flagging I’d stashed in the backseat. The sheep were a hundred yards above Fall River Road when I spotted them, but by the time I’d put a couple of traffic cones in place, two adolescent rams had wandered into the middle of the road, their sideways pupils ablaze with confusion at the lack of mineral-rich mud.
“The lakes are that way, fellas,” I heard myself saying, much to the delight of the 47 retirees who’d gathered to watch the show. I am a real hit with the Social Security crowd.
Before long, a ranger showed up with a few other volunteers in tow. There wasn’t much to do, really—we answered questions about the sheep and told a few would-be Ansel Adamses not to get any closer, but for the most part, people stop their cars to see the wildlife and traffic pretty much directs itself. This is, like, why people come to national parks, right?
There was this one couple, though: exactly who you’re picturing when I say they drove a bronze Buick LeSabre in mint condition. The husband honked his horn as I explained to the driver in front of him why traffic was stopped.
“What the hell is this?” he snarled at me. He did not laugh at my Little Bo Peep joke, which had gone over very well with an RV a quarter-mile up the road.
“We’ve got places to be,” his wife chimed in, “We haven’t got time for this!”
Nevermind that the pavement dead-ended half a mile ahead, or that the LeSabre had a snowball’s chance in hell of making up Fall River Road, which, by the way, was still closed for the season. No dice.
I was trying to think of a better reason to have stopped traffic in the middle of a national park than “Some endangered charismatic megafauna have graced us with their presence and are parading down the road” when the sheep appeared around the corner, joined now by an uber-majestic mature ram—his horns had the full curl, man.
I looked pointedly at the Crankshafts, figuring maybe they hadn’t understood until now what I’d been saying.
We didn’t make eye contact, though, because that old grouch was throwing the LeSabre into gear. Did he think he could turn around on the narrow road, or pass the line of 50 or so stopped cars?
“Sir!” I shouted, unsure what I’d say if he responded. The laws of man, and also physics, were not going to work on these people.
Well, I thought nobly, this is it. I will now use my own neon-vested body to save the sheep from the angry LeSabre. This will definitely make the park newsletter.
My orange traffic flag unfurled, I stood directly between the rams and their attacker, who proceeded to make the first of what turned out to be a twelve-point turn.
“Hey!” shouted the dad in the pickup truck behind him, laying on his horn, “You’re gonna scare the sheep off!”
“Good!” the wife hollered back, shaking her fist out the window, “We’ve got places to be!”
The sheep, amidst all this colorful language and beeping of horns, were nearly in a frenzy. One of the juveniles skittered into the big guy, who snorted and pawed at the ground like a college mascot.
The sound made by two sets of sheep horns being rammed together is way louder than you’d expect. It sounds, in fact, a great deal like a Buick LeSabre crashing into a brand-new pickup, which probably explains the look of sheer panic on its driver’s curmudgeonly mug.
By the time he’d reached the back bumper to inspect the damage, the sheep had made their way down the road, and thus ended both my career in traffic direction and the delay in this awful couple’s lunch plans, which I can only assume involved berating a teenage hostess to the point of tears and leaving their server a tip like “Keep the water glasses full next time.”
The rams made it to Sheep Lakes without incident and were joined that afternoon by a couple of ewes and their lambs. For three blissful hours, I didn’t have to tell a single person I didn’t know when the sheep would arrive, and only one family strode past me with the intention of getting “a better picture” (they were subsequently escorted back to their Nebraska-plated minivan by a ranger).
I held traffic for the Mummy Range sheep as they headed for the hills that evening, and one of the teenage rams marched confidently up to me, his beady little eyes staring right into mine. For a moment I thought he might ram me, and I started to back away slowly, as you might with an angry tourist.
As he licked his muddy lips, though—the result of an entire afternoon of delicious, salty mineral mud consumption—I could’ve sworn he winked at me. Not an ostentatious wink, like I imagine the driver of the Buick LeSabre would give, should he wink, but the kind that indicates a private shared joke: Thanks for the help, I figure he meant, See ya never.
Or maybe, you know, I guess he could have been startled by my brightly colored vest and unsure how to proceed, hoping that my vision was based on movement. I’m going with the former.