Place: Rocky Mountain National Park – Alpine Visitors Center
Elevation: 11,796 feet
Date: September 2, 2013
“The National Park Service budget is down seven percent due to sequestration. We had to close the Morain Visitors Center and the Glacier campsite as well as some parking areas. We have fewer rangers and park police.” That was what the baby-faced ranger wearing the Smokey Bear hat told me. Both of us were leaning on the Visitor Center’s sales counter, me out of exhaustion from a seven-mile trek across the Ute Trail’s treeless tundra, and he because it was the end of his shift. As if to prove that they could “tough it out,” an elderly woman volunteer staffing the cash register chimed in, “We have 1700 volunteers alone at Rocky Mountain National Park.” And from what I could see gazing out across the vast, road less expanse of jagged mountain peaks, they needed every one of those mostly retired and usually senior citizen volunteers to keep the burnish on this national jewel.
Only the day before I had taken a “warm up” hike to Gem Lake located along the Park’s eastern boundary. With less than a 1,000 feet of vertical to ascend, I regarded it as preparation for the more strenuous assaults to follow in the coming week. But what struck me that day wasn’t the easy and pleasant way I found my way to some of the most breathtaking views in America, it was the throng of people whose quest for quality time with nature had surmounted daunting physical limitations.
As I sure-footed my way over roots and rocks with the goal of reaching the peak before lunch, I came upon a middle-aged couple leading their blind son up a steep section of trail. He cautiously picked his way step-by-step with his cane while mom and dad took turns giving him voice instructions. “One more little step to the right; careful, you’re very close to the edge of the cliff,” they told him. “I guess I shouldn’t look down,” he quipped (blind humor, I assumed). The exhilarating look on the young man’s face was one of either joy or terror but the trio were clearly in thrall to their collective determination to surmount an endless series of obstacles.
Equally courageous was the red-haired, teen-age fellow whose physical disabilities were so severe that his father had to brace his son’s every lunging movement. One hard, pounding stride was followed by several short stumbling shuffles until his balance was regained. The pair would stop to catch their breath, the father sweating profusely while his son’s visage shifted between fear and bewilderment. I passed them on the way up, and noticed they eventually made it to the top. Together, up and down, father and son would take several hours to travel the 3.5 miles that I traversed in 90 minutes.
The beauty of the day and place only reflected the beauty of its visitors. These were a veritable United Nations of hikers – besides the spoken languages I recognized there were several about whose origins I was clueless. The race, age, and ethnicity of the trekkers was as multi-varied as it was multi-hued. African-American and Latino families were prevalent, and so were the elderly, some of whom were in such good shape they politely asked if they could pass me.
And then there were the obese, some panting so hard I hoped for their sake that an evacuation helicopter wasn’t far off. But like everyone else who didn’t fit the standard REI profile, they were out there trying real hard. Whether they were heeding the call of the wild that yelped at them from within, or responding to Michele Obama’s call to “Let’s move!” they were striding, some gracefully and some much less so, in one of our Nation’s grandest public places. Paying no attention to how they looked or what anyone might think of them, their every stretch and every reach were informed, in some cases heroically, by unbridled enthusiasm.
Fast forward 30 days and now even the most earnest National Park volunteer will make no difference. Whether there are 1,700 or 17,000, they can do nothing since the Republican members of Congress have locked the gates to the people’s parks. The heroism I saw that day on the Gem Lake trail has not been matched by anything remotely heroic among the knuckle-dragging Neanderthals who cynically call themselves the Tea Party. For those whose fiery spirit and determination lifted them like angels that day in the Rocky Mountain National Park, please know you deserve better, and please, please, never give up.