I'll shake that ranger's hand
IT was in fifth grade. In my competitive way, I refused to let that girl beat me out in arithmetic. There were lots of ways of dealing with that problem, but I took the easy one: I stole the teacher's answer book. Of course the dramatic improvement in my grades was a dead giveaway, so I spent an agonizing hour with my mother and the teacher 'fessing up and deciding what my penance would be. You'd think that would have been enough for a lifetime, but no. Some people are slow learners. As one demonstration of that assertion, consider what happened on a burro pack trip my family and I took in Matterhorn Canyon, in the northern part of Yosemite National Park. The trip members, from my five-year-old daughter on up, walked from one campsite to the next, while the burros carried the packs. At the end of one day's hiking the trail opened out into a beautiful bowl surrounded by high glacial peaks. On one side was a small rise, a perfect place to pitch our tent. As I went up the rise I saw small flakes of obsidian on the ground and with only a few minutes' searching I had found a perfect ``bird point'' (a tiny arrowhead used for hunting birds) made of black volcanic glass. I dropped it in my pack pocket, later to include it in my mineral collection and use it in my college teaching.
The denouement of that story is intertwined with events on a backpacking trip that took place a couple of years later. This trip was in southeastern Utah, in the area of Slickhorn and Grand Gulch. These shallow but extensive canyons are the sites of the very early pit dwellings of the Anasazi peoples. The walls of the canyons are often lined with beautiful pictographs and petroglyphs. The pit dwellings and cave sites look as if abandoned just recently; they are littered with tiny irregular ears of corn, potsherds, woven raffia, bones, and many other artifacts.
For reasons I cannot at this time fathom, my acquisitive instincts overcame my good sense and I stashed away quite a few of the artifacts in my pack.
When I got home to the East and realized what I had done, I packed up all of those little objects and sent them back to the trip leader. I asked him to take them with him on his next trip into the canyons and put them back. And he did just that.
It was only this winter that the bird point surfaced again. I was asked to lead a merit-badge course on geology for the scouts in our church troop. And while showing some obsidian from Mexico and Guatemala, I also produced the point. When one of the boys asked where it came from, I almost choked on the words ``It came from Yosemite National Park.'' What an example I was providing! Quite obviously I could never again think of the Scout oath without thinking of that bird point.
Well, most lessons seem to be self-taught. I recalled sending back those other artifacts, so I wrote a letter to the chief ranger at Yosemite, enclosed the arrowhead, told him what had happened, and said that I would appreciate it if he would either put the point in the park collection, or, better yet, on a trip up Matterhorn Canyon, take it along and put it back where it had been dropped by the Indian who had made it.
What a diplomat and gentleman Charles Wendt, the chief ranger at Yosemite, is! What an answer he sent to me! I felt truly honored to have taken that bird point! He thanked me for keeping it safe in my collection for 14 years, recognizing that it had had real sentimental value, since it had been found while I was sharing a special experience with my family. He complimented me on my honesty in returning it. And he closed with a statement of his reinforced belief in the general honesty of the American people and an offer to shake my hand should I ever be in the park again!
As a matter of fact, I did feel honest, cleansed in some special way. And I would be honored to shake Charles Wendt's hand. To take nothing but memories and leave nothing but footprints is obviously good advice.