It was delightful, as odysseys go, and I wouldn't mind doing it again . . . and again.
The six national parks that I visited and wrote up for this magazine (hard job but someone has to do it) were all magnificent in their own unique ways. Two—the Grand Canyon and Crater Lake—were about holes in the ground. One—Death Valley—was about millions of acres of desert that seemed, on first look, to be essentially and primordially barren, but turned out to be alive and enchanting. The remaining three—Glacier, Rocky Mountain, and Zion—were about high country, each unique.
But all of these parks had this in common: the excellence, professionalism, and good nature of the rangers who staffed them.
This didn't occur to me until later in my tour, but when it did, I thought back and recalled how I had been guided and helped by people eager to assist and explain. You wonder why the airlines, for instance, can't find people like that. But you don't dwell on it very long.
More pleasant, by far, to recall the ranger at Death Valley who spent 30 minutes over the map, carefully highlighting the things he thought I ought to see. I took the map and followed his instructions—to a little canyon that looked like nothing much from the road but opened up into a place of marvelous light and shadow once I had walked a mile or two. By the time I'd turned around, I was grateful for his reminder to pack water. Everyone knows that it gets hot in the desert. But you are inclined to forget just how hot.
Later in the trip, I drove by a sign pointing the way to some forlorn and forgotten mine. I thought it might be worth hiking back in with the camera, later in the day, for some mood shots and mentioned that to another ranger at a different station. He shook his head.
"Too hard a walk?" I said.
"More like . . . dangerous."
"We've had some reports of, uh, illegal activity up there."
"I hate that," he said in a distinctly proprietary tone.
"I can imagine," I said.
The very idea. In his park.
That note of pride was common to all of the rangers I talked to. Whichever park they were working, you got the sense that they felt it was the earth's most splendid piece of topography since Eden, and they were fortunate to be its custodians.
A ranger at Crater Lake spent a full hour giving me the account of how the great hole in the earth came into being. There was a film, playing in a little theater just a few steps away from where we stood, and it would have told me everything I needed to know about this subject. But the ranger plainly enjoyed telling the story as long as he had an audience.
On my way out of the visitors' center, I asked another ranger to help me identify a couple of the majestic conifers on the ridge above the parking lot. He gave me the full tutorial, and I left feeling like I could have passed an exam at the undergraduate level on old-growth forests in Oregon.
It was like this at every park. So it came as no surprise at all, a while later, when I read that in terms of citizen satisfaction, the Department of the Interior leads all government agencies. The 300 million people who visit the various parks every year obviously experience the same sort of enthusiasm and competence that I had encountered.
In this survey, by the way, Interior was given a grade of 75. Not too far off the highest private sector number of 79, which went to the manufacturing/durable goods sector, and especially impressive when you consider that, as the report notes, "both federal and local government services score far below every private economic sector in user satisfaction."
One might be inclined to shrug all this away, thinking, "Well, how hard can it be? You work in beautiful surroundings, and everyone you talk to is there by choice. Not like you are an agent of the IRS."
True enough, I suppose. But, then, this is the government we are talking about. Nothing in the regulations required the ranger at Glacier to take the time to guide me to a trail that didn't look like much on the map but was, she said, "one of the most beautiful spots on earth."
I found the trail, and it led to a meadow that was, in fact, pretty special and that I never would have seen if she had been content to do things according to that old mantra, "Good enough for government work."