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Monday, January 2, 2012

The Mt. Rainier shooting, national parks, and sacred space

Yesterday, on New Years Day 2012, Park Ranger Margaret Anderson was shot and killed in Mt. Rainier National Park during a routine traffic stop, by a man headed to the wilderness to hide after having shot four people in Seattle at a New Years Eve party the night before. Which makes one wonder why, if he was trying to hide, he chose one of the few parts of the thousands of square miles of wilderness in this part of the world that is as well patrolled and protected as Mt. Rainier is to hide in, but that's another question altogether.

For me, as I suspect it is for many other people, the question right now is, how safe should we feel in a national park?

It's not that we don't expect danger in national parks. Heck, I know of at least two books on the subject -- Death in Yellowstone, and Off the Wall: Death in Yosemite. We expect natural danger, like wildlife and cliffs and boiling springs. But we do not expect to need to be wary of our fellow man there, especially since this is the first time something like this has happened at Mt. Rainier in its entire history.

I find myself in the odd position of suddenly understanding why people resent the knowledge that the public library is not a safe place to leave one's children alone for an hour or two. As a reference librarian for sixteen years, I was often confronted with parents who refused to believe that the public library is not the safest place to let their children roam unescorted. It isn't, unfortunately. Anyone can enter the library, from flashers to kidnappers. Things can and do happen there, admittedly not often, that should not from any rational point of view, no matter what the library staff does to try to keep them from happening.

But libraries are sacred. Therefore they must be safe. I often watched people struggle to figure out a way to make that argument even as they sadly realized they could not.

And that's how I feel about national parks. Yes, I expect to have to be careful when I visit them, to not overestimate my abilities, to watch my step, to stay a safe distance from grizzly bears and geysers and the edges of cliffs. To carry an emergency kit. To not drive in weather conditions my car and I cannot handle.

But I do not expect to need to protect myself from deranged gunmen at Mt. Rainier or, for that matter, in any other national park. 

Perhaps that makes me naïve. Perhaps that makes me like those parents who want to feel safe dropping their children off at the library for an hour or two while the parent goes shopping or to a dentist's appointment.  But while I don't think this is going to change my habit of visiting Mt. Rainier or other national parks on my own, or of taking short solo hikes as I've been doing for decades, I do think it will make me even more careful when I do so, and maybe that's a good thing.

National parks are sacred. Only the kind of people who appreciate our natural wonders, who want to see them and share them with others, who want to learn about nature and science and history, to explore and climb and wander, visit our national parks. Right?

Yesterday, a great many of us learned that this is not the case. And now, like it or not, I understand why those parents resented me disillusioning them about libraries. Because I feel exactly the same way.

ETA:  The body of the shooter was found today (1.2.12) in deep snow not far from the site of the shooting.  He was wearing jeans, a t-shirt, and one shoe.  He apparently died from exposure.


  1. I realize that detective fiction is not documentary evidence (or Oxford would have almost nobody left alive), but the first thing I thought of when I heard the news was the books by Nevada Barr. I checked her web page to see whether she has a reaction, but there is no recent entry

  2. I have read most of her books, and enjoyed them for their settings (she's gotten a bit gory for me lately, and I have a limited interest in the Natchez Trace to begin with), but yes, that was a thought, too. I was always comfortable with her books because they were fiction.

    I know there have been murders in national parks before -- I remember reading about the killings that took place in Yosemite a few years ago, for one thing. But Mt. Rainier is in my backyard, and I am rather possessive about it [wry g], so this hit me a bit harder than such an event would have elsewhere, I'm afraid.

  3. Agh, what a blow!

    I was a little sidetracked in para. 3, though, by "even though" ("we do not expect to need to be wary...even though this is the first time..."). The fact that it hasn't happened before is exactly part of why we do not expect it and do not expect to need to fear it -- not something that would lead us to expect to fear it.

  4. That kind of thing really shakes your world, making you feel unsafe in a place that should be safe. It reminds me of how Miles thought Piotr's death shook Aral, having one of the foundations of his world suddenly gone. [Except that was at least kind of expected, whereas this is totally out of left field.]

    [note: this is filkferengi, having even more difficulty posting here than the 3-screen usual. I can't figure out how to get to the captcha lately.]

  5. Yes, it does.

    And the trouble people are having posting here is pushing me ever closer to moving to Wordpress. If only I could figure out how to transfer my entries [sigh].

  6. Well, it may not have happened in Mt.Ranier before, but there were three (or more?) murders by that nut job in Yellowstone. I agree with you though; having been in many national parks, I prepare myself for the dangers of weather, wildlife, and accidental injury. But I've never thought to protect myself from another person. What should I do? Carry a gun? Pepper spray? I'm too old and stiff to run faster than a wack job can shoot... Guess I'll try to go with at least one other person, although I like my wilderness experience to be solo. As in, ALONE with the wilderness. And that's getting harder and harder to come by. And also btw, I too thought first of Nevada Barr! I'll buy her newest when it's out in paperback (or my sister buys it and lends it to me. She sells enough that me not buying one won't hurt her!)

  7. Yes, I enjoy my wilderness experiences alone, too, at least part of the time. I guess I'll just be alert (although I've always done that), and hope for the best. There are, after all, at least as many nutjobs strolling around my city as there are at Mt. Rainier, unfortunately.

    Murders in Yellowstone? There were several in Yosemite a few years ago, but I don't recall hearing of any in Yellowstone.