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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BSquared
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Post by 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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gdurkee
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McClure

Post by 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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gdurkee
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last season

Post by 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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BSquared
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Re: last season

Post by 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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Post by 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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