Ranger Maureen McLean relies on her overwhelmingly gregarious nature to help visitors enjoy wildflower season at Mount Rainier National Park in Washington. And the wildflowers depend on that good nature to survive being enjoyed by the visitors.
Ranger McLean heads the Meadow Rovers, a volunteer group that patrols the most crowded parts of the Paradise wildflower meadows during the peak bloom time of July and August. During these two months, more than half a million visitors trigger the traffic counters at the park’s entrances.
Some visitors steer to trailheads and hike out to backcountry solitude. But those who want to see flowers without walking far from the parking lot cluster along the paved trails near the Jackson Visitor Center. On a bright Sunday, the Visitor Center resembles Times Square, only it’s wildflowers instead of neon lights that dazzle the tourists.
McLean works uphill against the flow of people to start her afternoon patrol. Double-fisted trekking poles ease the pressure on her sore hip, and a ranger flat hat shades her closely cropped white hair. When the path levels out, she pauses to catch her breath, then joins the procession.
She congratulates returning mountaineers, whether they reached the summit or not. She praises the hiking ability of foot-dragging little kids. She distributes color brochures to help wildflower lovers distinguish the glacier lily from the avalanche lily. When a boy boasts, “We saw a beaver!” she corrects, “A marmot!”
McLean also does a lot of scolding.
“I know you want to take a pretty picture, but you need to do it with both your shoes on the pavement. There are flowers growing right where you are standing.”
A smart-aleck from the crowd hollers, “It’s just dirt.”
“It’s not just dirt,” she says. “It’s wildflowers growing. The flowers are cryyyyying.”
Farther up, a preteen girl holding a snowball chases her brother across a meadow shortcut. McLean pulls her aside. “What would your mom say if you walked in her flowerbed?”
At the intersection of Waterfall and Alta Vista trails, the ranger reflects, “I could stay here all day and go from one side to the other, telling people to keep on the path.”
If you love the outdoors for peace and solitude, you’ll hightail it to the backcountry. But if you spend some time with Ranger McLean, you can see the American ideal of forming a more perfect national park come to life before your eyes.
As with all our ideals, the actual history has been messy. Early visitors to Yellowstone Park threw coins into hot pools and used hatpins to scratch their initials into limestone deposits. Others packed logs into geyser openings, then waited to see them rocket out with the next eruption. This fun only stopped when the U.S. Cavalry arrived and the acting park superintendent stationed guards with six-shooters to supervise enjoyment of park attractions.
In Mount Rainier’s early years, rangers purposely habituated bears to humans so visitors could enjoy feeding them. A photo from the period shows a man sitting on a step, nose-to-nose with a black bear. The bear stretches his lips forward to tug a bit of bread from the smiling man’s teeth.
Nowadays, the “leave no trace” ethic limits visitors to a more cerebral, less sensual park experience. Online training guides for rangers say visitors should be encouraged to “form their own intellectual and emotional connections with the meanings of a resource,” without “resource immersion.”
In other words, no more bear kisses, and no joyful skipping through knee-deep wildflowers.
As a result, the paths of paradise can be frustrating to walk. When you can’t get as close to wildflowers as you want, it’s annoying. And it’s upsetting when you see other people kill them by getting too close to them.
But democratic ideals — like national parks and freedom of speech — always have messy conundrums at their heart. You may hate the way some people exercise their freedom of speech, but you’re probably glad we all share that freedom. You may be angered by people’s behavior in the parks, but you can be proud that the parks belong to everyone.
And you can be grateful for the rangers and volunteers who engage the conundrum with good will: When Ranger McLean sees a young man with a newly found walking stick, she asks, “What do you have there?”
“Just something from the side of the trail.”
“No, that’s a ‘leaverite,’” she says. She takes the stick and releases it in the meadow. “And we’ll leave it right here.”
Jourdan Arenson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column syndicate of High Country News. He writes about science and technology in Eugene, Oregon.