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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.

Every first-time hiker in the Grand Canyon underestimates how hard, hot, and steep it is. Occasionally, hikers succumb to the exertion or the heat, collapse on the trail, and die. When this occurs during the peak hiking seasons, rangers must redirect hiker traffic around the body. Word travels. I’ve seen days when this morbid news infects backpackers with a unique hysteria. At their campsites they wring their hands with worry, and accost park rangers when they walk through a campground to check permits.

"Ranger, please! Anything for a helicopter ride to the top!"

"I’m sorry," the ranger says. "Helicopter flights are dangerous and expensive. We use them only to rescue people with life-threatening medical conditions." The next day, by the middle of the trek out, some hikers will offer substantial bribes to park rangers in return for a helicopter ride out of the canyon. Others issue threats: "I’m calling my congressman first and my lawyer second if you don’t fly me out of this canyon!" A few resort to trickery: "Ranger, you have to get me out of here," the clever ones say while clutching their chests. "I feel the big one coming." Some simply give up and just plop right down on the trail. "Ranger, I’ll never make it," they moan. "So why prolong the misery? I’ll just die right here. Please tell my wife I love her."

Park rangers call a hiker like this a "Code W." A Code W is a wimp. There is nothing medically wrong with a Code W. He is only tired and sore. His spirit, not his body, is broken. A Code W does not consider the many real emergencies and depressing tragedies the ranger has dealt with that day.

The park ranger secretly loathes the Code W. The ranger has seen 80-year-olds, cancer survivors, and one-legged women hike out of the canyon without so much as a whimper. The Code W is the reason the ranger has not slept in 24 hours. He is the missed lunch, the romantic dinner date stood up, and the stack of paperwork that’s never finished.

Between the Code W’s and the real emergencies and the lack of sleep, who can blame a ranger for acting like an ******* once in a while? Like the day I started down the Bright Angel Trail to begin a nine-day tour at the Grand Canyon’s Phantom Ranch. That morning I had recovered the body of a local waitress who had slipped off the edge, nearly been saved, and then fallen hundreds of feet before rangers could rig a rescue line.

Hours later I was descending the tortuous switchbacks of the Devil’s Corkscrew when a fast hiker coming from the opposite direction waylaid me. "Hey, ranger," the man said. "You got any Band-Aids? They aren’t for me. But I know some people up the trail who might want some."

"Sorry," I said cheerfully, "I’m all out of Band-Aids today." This was irrational and lazy of me, I admit. Toss the guy some Band-Aids and be done with it. But I had slept less than two of the last 30 hours. Five hours earlier I had held a young woman’s brains in my gloved hands (you’re so thoughtful, my partner had said), and I had five additional hot miles of trail ahead of me. Digging through my backpack to hand out Band-Aids to a Code W was more than I felt capable of doing at that particular moment.

"You’re lying!" The man could tell I was blowing him off, and he was furious. "What is your problem, ranger? You can’t give a man a couple of Band-Aids? You know something? The American taxpayer pays you to hike all day," he said, swinging his arms out over the scenery. "In fact, you should pay me for allowing you the privilege of working here!" I narrowed my eyes at the man. "You can have my job if you want it," I said, "but you wouldn’t last two days." Amazing how quickly an irate woman carrying a pistol can end a conversation.

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