When morning broke on July 21, 1996, Randy Morgenson was midway through his 28th season as a backcountry ranger at Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks. He was the most senior ranger in the High Sierra–the wise man of the woods, the ObiWan Kenobi of the high country. To most he seeemd immune to the Hazards of remote wilderness travel. After loading his pack, the robust 64-year-old veteran went on a routine patrol from his station near bench lake. He was never seen again.
Randy fastened the note to the canvas flap that served as his station’s door, tightened the laces on his size 9 Merrell hiking boots, and pinned a National Park Service Ranger badge and name tag to his uniform-gray button-down shirt. With an old ski pole for a hiking stick, he walked away from the station.
That afternoon, thunder rumbled across the mountains and raindrops pelted the gravelly soil surrounding the outpost, washing away Randy’s footprints and any clue as to the direction he had traveled.
For nearly three decades, when someone went missing in Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks, standard operating procedure had included at least a radio call to Randy, the parks’ most dependable source of high-country knowledge.
“Randy was so in sync with the mountains,” says Alden Nash, retired subdistrict ranger and Randy’s former supervisor, “that he could look at a missing person’s last known whereabouts on a topographic map, consider the terrain and how it pulls at a person. And make a judgment call with astounding results.
“One time, a Boy Scout hiking in the park got separated from his troop and couldn’t be found before nightfall. Randy looked at a map for a few minutes, traced his thumb over a few lines, and then tapped his finger on a meadow. ‘Go land a helicopter in that meadow tomorrow morning,’ he said. ‘That’s where he’ll be.’
“Sure enough, the Scout came running out of the woods after the helicopter landed in that meadow. He’d taken a wrong turn at a confusing trail intersection and hadn’t realized his mistake until it was almost dark and too late to retrace his footprints. The Scout was scared after a night alone, but he was fine.”
Randy’s career was filled with stories of ranger lore, a life he’d literally been bred for. He’d grown up in Yosemite National Park, where he had assisted Ansel Adams, lugging around the famous photographer’s heavy large-format tripod. He had joined the Peace Corps and been stationed in India, where he learned high-altitude mountaineering and expedition planning from the Sherpa. He had been a winter ranger in Yosemite’s Tuolumne Meadows, a Nordic ranger out of Badger Pass, and for 28 years a seasonal backcountry ranger in Sequoia & Kings Canyon. He was a writer who had been mentored by Wallace Stegner, and an environmentalist and naturalist who had spent more time in the Sierra than John Muir himself.
So, in summers past, Randy had anticipated boarding the park service helicopter and flying into the backcountry with the excitement of an 8-year-old on Christmas Eve. But the 1996 season had been different. The weather had grounded the A-Star chopper for more than a week, keeping the rangers on standby, in what Randy called “purgatory.”
Purgatory looked more like a UPS loading dock than an air base at a national park. Dozens upon dozens of cardboard boxes were stacked haphazardly in waist-high piles waiting to be airlifted into the farthest reaches of the backcountry. Each pile represented a ranger who had bought and boxed up enough food and equipment to last the summer and into the fall. Each box’s weight was written in black marker next to the ranger’s name and destination.
Many veterans reused boxes year after year, so station names and weights had been crossed out many times, telling the story of their travels like the tattered pages of a diplomat’s passport. Beside each pile of boxes was a backpack, maybe a duffel bag or two, and a crate of produce–oranges, apples, a head of lettuce, a couple of avocados–foods that would be eaten first and missed the most on the rangers’ tours of duty. The men and women who loitered about wore hiking boots, running shoes, or the odd pair of Teva sandals, usually with socks.
They were dressed in Patagonia fleece jackets, tie-dyed T-shirts, waterproof windbreakers, and shorts–usually green, but sometimes khaki–worn over long underwear. The ensembles showed the duct-taped or sewn scars of prolonged use and were topped off by beanies, floppy hats, and perhaps a forest-green baseball cap with the embroidered NPS patch.