Many visitors emerging from the tree-lined canopy that snakes along the Merced River and leads to Yosemite National Park have a common reaction. Face to face with the monstrous granite mountain known as El Capitan and the opening vista of the valley floor, they suddenly feel very small.
Indeed, this wondrous valley, carved deep by an ice age, has humbled humans for over 100 years. But endanger them?
"It's totally incongruous. It just doesn't fit," says park historian Jim Snyder, shaking his head in dumb disbelief at the grisly crime scene his beloved park has once again become in recent days.
An area handyman has been charged with the murder of Yosemite employee Joie Armstrong and is a prime suspect in the murder of three other females that visited the park earlier this year. The alleged killer, Cary Stayner, has reportedly confessed to all four murders.
While the FBI tries to nail down its case against Mr. Stayner and determine the extent of his alleged criminal activity, the National Park Service is left to reassure a nervous public even as they struggle internally to make sense of the senseless.
Park-system officials have a hard time finding a comparable tragedy and believe the extraordinary events that have engulfed Yosemite will jolt the public into recognition that parks are no longer the social oases many would like them to be.
"You're not escaping society when you come to the parks. Understand that parks are a microcosm of society," says Elaine Sevy at the National Park Service.
Yet, neither are parks becoming heightened crime zones. In fact, says Ms. Sevy, the national parks have seen a dramatic drop in crime since 1990, even as attendance has soared.
The numbers of assaults, robberies, and rapes at the national parks last year were all less than half their totals in 1990. Homicides have also dropped by more than half in the past eight years.
Still, parks are the homes of increasingly risky behavior, evidenced by the rapidly rising number of search-and-rescue missions. They are also settings for tensions found at home. Crowds, traffic, and noise have pitched their tents in the middle of some of the nation's most majestic parklands.
Few parks embody the conflicts of modern-day wilderness management better than Yosemite, the nation's first federally designated wilderness area and its third most popular park destination.
Park as a 'pressure cooker'
Yosemite's majestic appearances notwithstanding, "it's a pressure cooker," says Mr. Snyder. Within a day's drive of close to 30 million people and rubbing up against the growing foothill towns to the west, this park is constantly on knife's edge, balancing preservation and recreation. "You might have a rock slide over here, a traffic problem over there, and a huge sewer backup there," he says.
But nothing in its past has prepared Yosemite for its current travail.
When Carole Sund of northern California brought her daughter, Julie, and visiting Argentine exchange student, Silvina Pelosso, to the park early this year, they were just three of the 107,999 visitors to brave the winter conditions of February. When their bodies were found a month later outside the park, the FBI focused on a band of ex-convicts in the Central Valley.
When Ms. Armstrong was found murdered last week and Stayner, who lived just outside the park, was arrested, the mood changed dramatically.
Of the Sund tragedy, Yosemite spokesman Scott Gediman says, "that happened in our neighborhood, but this latest murder happened in our house."
During the current high season, Yosemite employs about 2,000 people.
National park employees are often a nomadic group, shifting from one park to the next. But Yosemite, because of its size and demands, often inspires longer stays and a greater sense of family among workers.
Indeed, it was that closeness that triggered Stayner's arrest when someone noticed and recognized his truck near Armstrong's residence last week.
It's also that closeness that park officials expect to pull the Yosemite community through this crisis. Peer counselors from other parks have been flown in to talk to the park's workers. Scott Brown, from Zion National Park, is the counseling team leader.
While acknowledging the difficulty many employees are having coping with such a horrendous act in a community of unlocked doors, he's upbeat: "Park staff don't go down easy. They're resilient."
These tragedies already seem set to have an impact on law enforcement. The FBI for weeks suggested to the public that while it hadn't charged anyone with the Sunds and Pelosso murders, it had the apparent perpetrators behind bars on other violations.
The FBI itself has given voice to the same question many others are asking: How could the agency have been so wrong and overlooked Stayner, whom they had questioned earlier?
While those questions vex many, Yosemite is focused on regrouping and moving ahead.
Park attendance still booming
Rockslides that claimed lives in 1996 and 1998 and flooding that wiped out an entire campground in 1997 have all played a role in softening recent park attendance. The park still routinely sells out, but getting accommodations is not as hard as it once was.
The Yosemite Lodge this week was sold out, even as its lounge area was littered with newspaper headlines proclaiming a confession from the "Yosemite killer."
Asked if he hesitated before coming, frequent visitor Russ Shryock of Sacramento said "not at all." "I still like Yosemite because you can easily get away and isolate yourself."
Whether it's picnics amid the valley's Dogwoods and Black Oaks or vigorous hikes into the high cliffs now spewing several lush waterfalls, solitude and renewal still seem to be what many seek in Yosemite.
Snyder, the historian who has cleared trails and diagnosed rock falls in Yosemite for three decades, is a man practiced in watching the seasons. He's sure he can count on Yosemite for one thing.
"This place is always changing, it's always new," he says.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society