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Missing in Action: How a Backcountry Ranger With 28 Years Experience Disappeared

Did High Sierra ranger Randy Morgenson succumb to depression or disaster?

The average tourist might have pegged the group as a mingling of Whitney-bound mountaineers, dirtbag climbers, and aging hippies. But make no mistake. These were America’s finest backcountry rangers–Special Forces, if you will–disguised as an army of misfits. And most of them were just fine with that description.

Not one of them wore the nostalgic cavalry-inspired hat so often associated with American park rangers. They weren’t there to appear officious in head-to-toe gray-and-green uniforms; in fact, many were uncomfortable wearing a badge and carrying a gun. They weren’t interested in being wilderness cops; in fact, they wanted to be as far as possible from the roads their counterpart frontcountry rangers patrolled in jeeps and squad cars.

There are few blacktop passageways running east to west for any distance in the Sierra, and none running north-south. In the high country south of Yosemite, there is a conspicuous absence of paved roads for more than 200 miles. The most traveled thoroughfare is actually the John Muir Trail, which ends atop 14,495-foot Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the Lower 48.

Jokingly referred to as a freeway, the JMT is rarely wide enough for two backpackers to walk shoulder to shoulder. Elsewhere in this craggy, high-altitude desert of granite and metamorphic rock, the crowds thin; it’s estimated that 99 percent of the parks’ backcountry visitors stay on designated trails. Which leaves the bulk of this rugged landscape to backcountry rangers.

The rangers at the base that day held master’s degrees in forestry, geology, computer science, philosophy, or art history. They were teachers, photographers, writers, ski instructors, winter guides, documentary filmmakers, academics, pacifists, military veterans, and adventure seekers who, for whatever reason, were drawn to wilderness. In the backcountry, they were on call 24 hours a day as medics, law-enforcement officers, search-and-rescue specialists, and wilderness hosts. They were interpreters who wore the hats of geologists, naturalists, botanists, wildlife observers, and historians. On good days they were “heroes” called upon to find a lost backpacker, warm a hypothermic hiker, or chase away a bear.

On bad days they picked up trash, extinguished illegal campfires, wrote citations, and were occasionally called “f*^%ing assholes” simply for doing their jobs. On the worst days, they recovered bodies.

Park service administrators often referred to these rangers as “the backbone of the NPS.” Still, they were hired and fired every season. Their families had no medical benefits. No pension plans. They paid for their own law-enforcement training and emergency medical technician schooling. And there was no room to complain because each one of them knew the deal when he or she took the job.

They were seasonal help. Temporary. In the 1930s, they were called “90-day wonders” who worked the crowded summer season. Stereotypically, seasonal rangers were college students or recent grads taking some time off before starting “real” jobs. They would hang out in the woods for a few summers and then move on, or start jumping through the hoops required to secure a permanent position with the NPS or Interior. Sequoia & Kings Canyon, however, sucked in seasonal rangers like a vortex. More than half of the backcountry rangers who reported for duty in 1996 had been coming back every summer for more than a decade, many for two decades. Randy was the veteran, with almost 30 years of experience.

He was one of 14 paid rangers budgeted to watch over a 1,350-square-mile backcountry area. Two of them patrolled on horseback, the other 12 on foot. Some of the park administrators called the backcountry crew at SEKI (government-speak for Sequoia & Kings Canyon) “fanatics.” Most of the rangers were OK with that also. They were OK with just about anything as long as the weather would hurry the hell up and clear so the helicopters could transport them and their gear into the backcountry before their fruit began to rot.

As Randy milled about waiting for the weather to clear, his colleagues noticed something was amiss. By most accounts, he was “in a funk,” “out of sorts,” and conveyed little excitement for the season to come.

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