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Another Epic Tale from the Sierra

Discuss your favorite wilderness related books. Share your favorite poetry, quotes and folktales. Here's your chance to showcase your creative side!
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Postby Snow Nymph » Tue Aug 29, 2006 12:41 am

George,
Do you remember calling for a helicopter in '89, from Guitar Lake for a pulmonary edema victim? And them meeting the person on the trail a few years later (near JMT/Charlotte Lake).
Expose yourself to your deepest fear; after that, fear has no power, and the fear of freedom shrinks and vanishes. You are free . . . . Jim Morrison


http://snownymph.smugmug.com/



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the last season

Postby Wade Helding » Tue Sep 12, 2006 12:25 am

George and others,
I just finished reading The Last Season. It is a testiment to Randy, the author and the Sierra that I want to discuss it. I am from Wisconsin, home of John Muir, it is beatiful country, it is to bad he felt he had to leave it. I have questions and obseravtions about the story that I would like to discuss, but it will not always be a love feasts and I know Ranger Randy was a friend to some of you and I don't want to offend or disrespect anyone. I am impressed with the detication and ability of the Back Country Rangers, however not as impressed as the author. it would seem to me the the list of people that would love to, and have the ablity to do this job, is longer than the availible slots to be filled by the NPS. Basically to my mind, I am more impressed with people who do a job most people are unable to do, neuro-surgery, or a job they are unwilling to do, janitor, than people who do a job many would love to do. I bring this up because the author of the book makes the fact the Randy does this brutal, dangerous, low paid job, a central theme in Randy's persona. The author seems to think that fact that Randy was a back country ranger makes him some kind of hero. I say he was lucky to get paid to do what he loved, that many people work in a cubicle to work and get a week each summer to experience the wilderness he got paid to experiece. Anyway, that was one of my thoughts as I read the book. Again I know he was a friend to those who knew him and I don't want angry responses, I just want to discuss my thoughts with some others who know the situation better than I do.
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Postby rightstar76 » Fri Sep 15, 2006 1:24 am

While the author of the book acknowledges the popularity of the position Randy held, he also highlights the negatives. The author does this to illustrate to his readers how what appeared to be a plum job was actually a ball and chain to Randy. The author also includes Randy's personal journals which reveal great psychological suffering over having to play the role of ranger, something the public and Randy's colleagues didn't see. The author only lists Randy's accomplishments to show that he took his job seriously and served the public above and beyond what was expected of him. I don't think the author is trying to make Randy into a hero. Rather, the author I think wants to contrast the view of Randy the public had versus Randy's inner self. The author shows how people saw Randy as a hero and a legendary figure as well as a modern day John Muir. That's why people were so surprised when Randy disappeared. He was the last person anyone would have thought could be susceptible to dying in the mountains. The author explores reasons why Randy might have died so we can come to our own conclusion. He reveals a side of Randy that is flawed and psychologically disturbed. Randy wants very badly to be his true self, but he doesn't know how to integrate his true self with his role as ranger and fervent environmentalist. At times he becomes aware of how he alienates other people for example when he visits his colleague at Simpson Meadow and apologizes for his behavior but says he doesn't know why he does it. Even after the affair and having alienated most of his colleagues, he still doesn't understand himself or the consequences of his actions. His journals reveal that for years he has been lonely and doesn't know how to solve it. This is why I really don't think the author is trying to show Randy as a hero. The author is trying to show that there are costs keeping a fun job like Randy did. In exchange for all the time he spent outside, he traded in security and recognition. He also gave up any chance of making management decisions for the mountains he so loved. That's because he would have had to work in an office and/or go back and get his college degree, something he didn't want to do. However, the author isn't trying to portray the job in a negative light by any means. A lot of people are park rangers a better portion of their lives and are happy and content and wouldn't do anything else no matter what the pay. However, for Randy this was not the case. Underneath his heroic image was a sad and desperate person. The fact that nobody knew about it is one of the reasons the book is so interesting.
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Renaming Peak 13,920+ To Mt. Morgenson

Postby Richard » Wed Dec 06, 2006 8:18 pm

Trying to get the word out about this, so there will be more discussion.

http://www.whitneyportalstore.com/cgi-b ... 005219;p=0

http://www.mt-whitney.info/viewtopic.php?t=1497

BTW, I thought the book was excellent.
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Postby BSquared » Thu Jan 11, 2007 8:55 pm

Well, I finally got the copy my wife bought me last fall (I couldn't help seeing the Amazon receipt come across on the Visa bill ;) ), and what a read! George: thanks SO much for the recommendation (biased or not!). I'm now trying to figure out whether I met Randy Morgensen... it would have been in the 70s some time, when a bunch of friends and I were doing ... um ... probably South Lake to North Lake (Bishop Pass to Piute Pass) and we camped in McClure Meadows. We always liked to bother the local rangers (we probably bothered you once or twice, George :wink: ), so we went to the cabin, but there was a note that the ranger had gone up to Muir Pass on a call. He later appeared at our campsite, apparently just to chat, and it was definitely a fairly short guy with a full beard; if I interpret the book correctly full beards were fairly rare among back-country rangers (but in the 70's?!?!? Egad, I had hair down to my waist, and I worked for IBM!). Unfortunately I have no notes about the trip so I can't determine what year it was. I believe the ranger had been up in the pass helping someone who'd had an attack of tachycardia, but I might be confusing trips (and things like that probably happen pretty frequently at altitude so it's probably not an event that anybody would recognize as defining a particular year). Regardless, I feel like I know the guy now, thanks to Eric Blehm's excellent writing.

Anyway, thanks to all and especially George for recommending a terrific book.
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McClure

Postby gdurkee » Sat Jan 13, 2007 11:47 am

Glad you liked the book. And thanks to you and everyone else for the "attaboys" of me and the rest of the crew. I have to say it's more than a little weird seeing that time through two perspectives: literature, as written by Eric and, of course, actually being there. Just weird.. .

You quite likely did meet Randy at McClure. He was there in '72 & '73 (his first rotation there, I think). NPS was pretty straight-laced and upright (hmm, maybe uptight??). Randy probably grew his beard one of those years and likely was the only bearded ranger until I got there in '77. Definitely his favorite place. I think he spent something like 8 seasons there -- which works out to 2 - 3 cumulative years or so.

g
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last season

Postby gdurkee » Sat Jan 13, 2007 12:04 pm

Also, while I'm here... .

Wade: As far as a subject for a book goes, that's really what separates a good writer from the rest. In all honesty, I didn't really think there was a book here when Eric started the project. But, he definitely pulled it off. There are books out there that make "heroes" (an overused word... Certainly doesn't apply to Randy or any of us...) of people in cubicles and almost all aspects of life. Just needs a good writer to do it. So I think I'd step back from the 'hero' thing and just get into what it's like living in the Sierra. Sure, we're lucky to be paid to do what we love, but Eric's point is that there's a price -- variable, but a price.

I don't want to make the job out as more (or less) than it is, but there's a lot of people who THINK they want to be b/c rangers. Hey, it looks great on paper. But the reality is that most reasonably intelligent people want some of the basic perks of the labor market: health insurance, retirement, a reasonable salary, recognition for what you do. Then there's the other basics like maintaining a relationship with spouses or even friends. And then there’s basic basics like fresh food, mail, a phone, a washing machine, running water, flush toilet etc. It’s fun and manly for a week or two backpacking trip, but for 4 to 6 months of the year for 25+ years??

Eric shows some of the problems of doing this when you disappear for 4+ months of the year. In the 70s and into the 80s, I'd constantly be asked what it takes to be a ranger (backcountry or otherwise). No one asks that anymore. No one... .

After his first few intensive years of exploration, even Muir ended up basing out of a city and making only forays into the Sierra and elsewhere. Your thoughts somewhat echo a reviewer in the Washington Post, who said something like "after all, this is just the story of a seasonal ranger, not John Muir." But what would have happened had Muir followed, essentially, Randy's path? Well, likely we never would have heard of Muir. (Muir came very close. He was going to travel up the Amazon when he got sick and ended up in California instead. I think had he gone to South America he might have ended up, maybe, as a strange footnote. Lucky for us he rerouted...).

What happens when you arrive on the scene 100 years after Muir but have that same fatal attraction to the Sierra? Also, you no longer really have the untapped market (or, alas, maybe the skill) to write about it. Randy spent more time in the backcountry than Muir. It’s not a competition. It’s about the compromises and sacrifices people make to continue doing what they love. Another reviewer (Contra Costa Times, I think) got it right. He said that this was a love story about the Sierra, and I think that’s it.

g.

Small literary side note. After one of the b/c rangers, Rick Sanger, was awarded the Department of Interior Medal of Valor for rescuing a guy out of a gnarly stream at high water, Rick modestly said he didn't think it was at all heroic or different from what a lot of rangers sometimes do. He said the difference was he rescued a good writer who was able to write up the epic and send it to influential people.. . So if you're an unsung hero in a cubicle, find a good writer... .
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Re: last season

Postby BSquared » Sat Jan 13, 2007 2:38 pm

gdurkee wrote:In the 70s and into the 80s, I'd constantly be asked what it takes to be a ranger (backcountry or otherwise). No one asks that anymore. No one...


Gee, I could have sworn I asked you almost exactly that question just a couple of months ago (though admittedly in the context of something to do during retirement). ;)

Seriously, though, I think one of the points Blehm makes most eloquently is that being a "permanent seasonal" (which, after all, is what most of the back-country rangers identified in the book seem to be) is utterly lousy as employment: low pay, marginal logistic support, few to no benefits, and apparently not even much of the informal "attaboy" kind of recognition that can make people feel better about what they're doing. The position seems fundamentally exploitative: using people's love of place to avoid treating them as proper employees. This should be a major scandal, part of the larger scandal of pitifully low funding and status for the NPS in general. Well, OK, in the context of today's government maybe not "major scandal" :unibrow: , but I do hope Blehm's book gets a wide audience among NPS officials and congresspeople.

On our 2004 JMT trip, we went out of our way to find the Tyndall Creek Ranger (hey, it was the end of a long day, and that extra 0.5 mi to the cabin seemed awfully long...) because we wanted to ask about a couple of potential camping spots and the likelihood of having to dodge t-storms on Whitney. She was sitting in the sun reading and apologized because it was her "day off." "Day off?" I remember thinking? How can a back-country ranger actually have a "day off?" Her radio was certainly on, and she was certainly happy to answer our questions (telling us the "frog ponds" were good camping, which they certainly were!). It wasn't until I read the book that I realized she must've just meant she wasn't being paid for that day! Ridiculous!
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Postby rightstar76 » Sat Jan 13, 2007 6:01 pm

George, thank you for bringing up some real interesting points for discussion.

First, the idea that the book is a love story about the Sierra is a very interesting one. It moves the focus off Randy being a hero and more on his obsession with the Sierra. This love affair with the Sierra I think has been a real reason for it being so popular here. I mentioned this in "The Last Season" thread here in the "Literature, Poetry & Quotes" forum. Everybody loves the Sierra until they get what they want. Then they wish they hadn't gotten it because of the sacrifice they have to make.

The second idea you mentioned about Muir being a city dweller after his initial explorations in the Sierra. This is also interesting. In the fall of 1894, Muir mocked Theodore Solomons' hasty departure from the Sierra...from his porch in Martinez. Yes, there is no question about it, Muir enjoyed a genteel life on his estate in the Bay Area. In contrast, Randy enjoyed living the rough life in the Sierra.

This brings up the 3rd point you made. Muir was a writer. Randy wasn't. Your point about Muir not having to be a stellar writer back in those days brought something to mind. Solomons pointed out that Muir told him how much he hated to write and how hard it was for him. Nonetheless, it was a passion to save the Sierra that drove Muir to write. Kind of like Dave Brower who was driven to conserve the American West. Like Muir, Brower spent most of his life in the city, perhaps even moreso. However, Muir and Brower made the necessary sacrifices to get their message across. Both wrote and Brower gave the same speech over and over again to as many people as would listen. In stark contrast, as Blehm puts it, "Randy was a dreamer" who for reasons which are clearly stated in the book and have been brought up in this thread, did not do the things he needed to get people to listen. Instead, he fumed in his journals. There was no way he was going to leave the Sierra like Muir and Brower.

4th point: Find a good writer. I think this is an excellent point! Blehm has done an outstanding job of making Randy larger than life. Hats off to him. There are many people who with the right publicity and marketing can be made to look like heroes. It happens all the time.

However, George, I do beg to differ in one small way. There has to be an audience to the effort, a marketplace so to speak. Blehm knew that there were lots of people who would just love to pay to read about someone who had lived for so many years in the Sierra and then suddenly mysteriously disappeared. I had no problem with running to Barnes & Noble and forking out $25 as soon as I heard about the book. It was a great story. Legendary ranger, extramarital affair, frustrated dreams, psychology, excitement, adventure. It was a tabloid story for the Sierra crowd. And it worked. Just look at all the outdoor magazines the story appeared in. We were the market, and a good one.
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