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Ranger Confidential: Secrets of the National Park Rangers

True tales from the front lines--and behind the scenes--of America's national parks.

What hiker hasn’t dreamed of being a National Park Ranger? It’s the primo job in the outdoors, right? You patrol the country’s most spectacular wilderness preserves, become a backcountry hero (with government benefits!), and get to wear that iconic hat. But what really happens when you put on a smokey the bear stetson?

For 12 years, I wore the uniform: I performed law enforcement, fire fighting, and search and rescue at parks like Zion, Yosemite, Cape Hatteras, and the Grand Canyon. I directed traffic around tarantula jams. I pursued bad guys while galloping on horseback. I jumped into rescue helicopters bound for the depths of the Grand Canyon. I won arguments with bears. I dodged lightning bolts. I pissed on wildfires. I slept with rattlesnakes. I also saved endangered turtles, helped hikers get home, and saw a lifetime’s worth of sunsets.

It really was the best job in the world.

It was also one of the most dangerous. Over the last decade, a national park ranger was more likely to be assaulted in the line of duty than any other federal officer, including those who work for the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Secret Service, and the Drug Enforcement Agency. Add fatal accidents involving natural disasters and plane crashes, and a park ranger is up to 12 times more likely to die on the job than a special agent for the FBI. In light of these numbers, reported each year in Department of Justice statistics, park rangers have been described–like grizzly bears, wild orchids, and sea turtles–as endangered.

Which means there may just be an opening for you. Still interested? Here’s what to expect.

First-year ranger Chris Fors caught and cuffed the pervert before the would-be victim even saw him. When the sunbather figured out what had nearly happened, she ran up to her saviour and said, "Thank you, trooper!"

Standing next to the bikini-clad lady, Chris felt great, like a hero. Still, did she have to call him a trooper? Couldn’t she see the patches on his ball cap and on his sleeve, the brown arrowhead-shaped fabric with the bison and the sequoia tree and the snowcapped mountains under the words "National Park Service"? He wasn’t a trooper. He wasn’t a police officer, and he wasn’t a forest ranger, either. He was a national park ranger. If she was going to call him a hero, was it too much to ask that she give credit where credit was due?

"I’m a park ranger, ma’am."

"Oh, yeah, right. Ranger, trooper, whatever," she said. "Thank God you showed up when you did!"

After a week of saving topless damsels from molesters and protecting nesting plovers from ignorant brutes, Chris and a few other Cape Cod rangers decided to get some downtime at a local bar. But once the rangers entered the club, it was obvious they were not welcome by some of the locals.

"Here come the pine pigs," murmured someone at the end of the bar. Then the lead singer of the Provincetown Jug Band, a town favorite, grabbed the microphone and announced the arrival of the "Tits and *** Plover Patrol." Laughter filled the dark room. Chris smiled and tipped his beer bottle to the band. It was funny. Still, he wished they would hurry up and start singing the next song.

For the rest of the summer, Chris continued to steer tourists away from nudists, off-road vehicles away from plover nests, and perverts away from everybody. And he continued to be mocked for doing his job diligently. By the end of his first season, the newbie ranger began to feel a peculiar pull. Yellowstone. Yosemite. The Grand Canyon. The big parks. The Crown Jewels. The parks with bigger animals to protect, bigger scenery to guard, and bigger bad guys to bust. The taunts and insults would seem tame.

Back then, 22-year-old Chris Fors couldn’t know that after living and working in an iconic park in Western North America, a park ranger might suffer from paranoia, anxiety attacks, and nightmares–gruesome dreams that would wake him up screaming and grasping at his sheets. Who would tell him?

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