Tuesday, October 1, 2013


For the last week visitors have been asking us for inside information on the possible government shutdown. Maybe they were hoping we’d received some secret letter from congress assuring us that this was all just for show and would be over quickly. We received the same letter every other federal agency got from the president; one expressing sympathy with the hardships of the now unemployed rangers, law enforcement, cashiers, janitors, mechanics and hotel workers in the park.

All staff was required to come in to work for a four hour day on the morning of the shutdown. These four hours (for which they will likely never be paid) were to be spent signing furlough paperwork and closing down the office. When I got there, trail closure signs were being handed out to the law enforcement rangers to be posted at the head of every trail; threatening fines and imprisonment. The reactions of the people I passed in the hall ranged from anger to sadness to humor with each reaction frustrating and intensifying the reaction of those who felt differently. Some were offended by the term “non-essential” that had been applied to them and resulted in their furlough during the shutdown. Though callous, it seems accurate to me; without tourists visiting the parks there’s no one to tell stories to or guide down the trails or show the night sky to. To me the term “non-essential” means that the whole idea of the national parks is being deemed unnecessary; an indication that when times get hard, we will discard the natural world in service of our own self interest.

Campers in the park were given 48 hours to pack up and exit the park; a timetable that I hoped would outlast the shutdown. Some of the other volunteers and I made a plan to gather up the remaining campers for an impromptu telescope viewing at Paria viewpoint that evening, as some last gesture for those that were trying to stick it out hoping that the shutdown would be resolved. Some had their own telescopes and I planned to sneak one of the park telescopes out before the building shut down. However, the HR director told us that we absolutely could not invite visitors out of their campsites into a park that was technically closed, whether we were in uniform or not.

One of the volunteers spent his morning next to the bare flag pole outside the locked doors of the visitor center talking to tourists that were stopping by on their way out of the park. They were angry, and rightfully so. A man from Poland stopped by; he had been planning this once in a lifetime tour of the national parks for years and was here for a month now with nowhere to go. Greater than their frustration was their sympathy with the people that were there listening and talking to them on what was now unpaid time.
With the geology lectures and astronomy talks and rim walks cancelled, my coworkers KL, KP and I decided to get out of the park and onto a trail that wasn’t yet closed. We checked the national forest website to see if they had closed their trails. Their website directed us to the USDA website for more information; following that link we were met with a banner informing us that the USDA website was down due to the shutdown. The department of agriculture barely has enough people to patrol the forests when they can pay them so we figured they’d have no ability to close all of their trails and decided to take our chances and drive out to the lava tubes near Cedar Breaks.
In the residential area of the park, rangers who couldn't afford to pay rent on their cabin during the shutdown were packing their trucks and moving out. I said goodbye to a few whose season was being cut short and wouldn't be back until next year. On the way out of the park we passed crowds of backpackers leaving the park on foot after being stranded when the buses didn't start up again that morning, leaving them to walk to the next town six miles down the road. The law enforcement rangers had already set up a barricade beside the park entrance sign. Tourists were still driving up to the barricade to get their pictures taken in front of the Bryce Canyon sign. Tour buses were lingering at the rest stop while their drivers tried to decide how to salvage their tours and the tourists, restless, resorted to posing for pictures in front of anything in sight; gas stations, road signs, other tour buses.

The National Forest back roads were not closed and we made it up to Mammoth Cave. The lava tube is a low, wide tunnel that was opened when lava intruded into the earth here. The outer layer of the finger of lava solidified while the molten inner core retreated; leaving a tunnel just big enough for a human to crawl through and plenty spacious for families of bats. The ceiling alternately opens up then closes down on the floor of once jagged rocks that have been worn smooth by the passage of boots and blue jeans. A fire that appears to burn at the far end of the tunnel is revealed to be the sunlight passing through the yellowed leaves of a grove of aspens growing around the exit. 
The fields behind the tunnels are filled with broken pieces of black rock from the lava flow that covered this area some 100,000 years ago. After climbing up a rubble pile, we reach another stand of blazing yellow aspen. A fire has passed through this area and charred trunks of trees still stand; some supported only by the thin core of the tree left from the burn. Finally through some aspen where the yellow has begun to blush red we find the edge of the plateau and can see a dirt road below passing by a dry pond. Above that are the remains of a forest consumed by the greedy beetles; in the distance are the red cliffs of the Claron formation and the shuttered canyon.

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