There’s many, many perks to having a government vehicle at my disposal. I don’t have to pay for gas. The wear and tear of going up and down mountains isn’t on my nearing-retirement Pontiac. I get to park in special parking spots. I could go on for awhile, but I think the most interesting result of driving around a vehicle with a big National Park Service logo on it is that I get treated as if I actually am a park employee.
I get a lot of waves, when I’m waiting to turn, people often stop without having to so I can go, and, unsurprisingly I guess, I get ask a lot of questions.
Where is the visitor center? Why are those trees dead? Was that a wolf or a coyote? Where is the visitor center? How many bears are in the park? What are you filming? Where is the visitor center?
I usually wear pretty standard clothes for someone who needs to go on hikes almost every day, so I look an ordinary civilian. Yet, without fail, as soon as I get between those government plates, I instantly become a wealth of knowledge about all things Great Smoky Mountains. I become (not)Ranger Mike.
The first time it happened, I was caught off guard and thought it was kind of funny. I was parked at an overlook, getting some shots of mountains when a woman walked up to me and asked, “How come all those pine trees are dying?”
I know what I should say in a situation like that. Rather than misinform someone, I should apologize and admit that I’m not an actual park employee and don’t have the slightest idea. However, in that single moment, I’ve been targeted as someone who is believed to be a park ranger and who obviously knows all there is to know about nature. It’s a powerful feeling, and, frankly, I can’t bring myself to give it up.
I stumble over words, give generic descriptions of things I heard once, and struggle to let out something that might pass as helpful information. The thing is, I’ve found that in most situations like this, the person who’s asking me the question already knows the answer, or at least they think they do.
I say something dull like, “Well, the park has a lot of problems with invasive species…” and they respond with, “Well, yeah, because I’ve experienced this” or “I know that from back home” or “Yes, I figured that’s what it was.”
It’s the strangest cycle. People come to park staff and propose a question they already think they know the answer to, just to get some false sense of power when their beliefs are confirmed by someone with a title. Yet, when they ask (not)Ranger Mike if the elk population is on the rise or why the rocks look like there’s mold on them, they’re getting their answer from some schmuck who doesn’t know what they’re talking about and their affirmation means nothing. To make it even more screwed up, even after realizing this, I still get a sense of power, too, even though I’m not providing any worthwhile service.
It doesn’t even stop there. Sometimes, I go out of my way to have an interaction with someone who I know will think I have more authority than I really do. One day as I was driving around Cades Cove, I witnessed a girl in the truck in front of me dumping out the remaining juice from her fruit cup. The park has a strict no littering and no feeding the animals policy, and everyone knows that. And this girl, who was probably about twelve, knew that they were being followed by a NPS vehicle.
She looked up at me while she was dumping out the juice, and I decided to disappointedly shake my head at her. The look on her face almost made me feel sad. She stopped immediately, but that didn’t stop me. The truck soon pulled off the road and parked, and as I passed by I stopped to push the issue further.
“I know it’s just juice,” I said, trying to act authoritative yet comforting, “but any amount of human food is bad. Because if animals become attracted to human food, they’ll eventually be drawn to humans.” The whole family apologized to me. I said it wasn’t a big deal and that I hoped they had a great day. I’d like to say that I only did that out of a concern for the preservation of the park, but it was the government vehicle that gave me the boldness to open my mouth.
It’s not always negative, though. Today, I lost count of the number of little kids who shouted from the back seat of the family minivan, “Are there any bears out today!?” Now, since I am not a biologist, nor am I psychically in tune with the feeding patterns of the brown bears in the Smokies, I obviously have no idea. Yet, being (not)Ranger Mike, I feel a responsibility to get these kids excited about their visit to the park. So every time, I try my best to smile and say something like, “Well, we see them all the time. You never know with wild animals, but I bet you’ll see something out there!” Odds are they actually will see something, and I feel that if I got them up on the edge of their seat instead of faces down in their Nintendo DS’s, I’ve done a good job, not my job, but still a good job.
(not)Ranger Mike, clocking out for the night.