Speaking of America: 'An optimist who wears body armor'

After a tumultuous year, a reporter took a cross-country journey to sample Americans' views of their country. Today, a policeman who traded chasing crooks for thieving bears. Part 2 of 5 in the Monitor's 'Speaking of America' series.

Doug Struck
Robert Lewis, a National Park Service Ranger, chatted while off-duty at Kings Canyon National Park in California. Mr. Lewis used to be a policeman in San Francisco but after he and his wife had a baby, he gave up night shift in the Tenderloin District for night skies.

Robert Lewis describes himself as “an optimist who wears body armor.” He has seen the need for both.

Mr. Lewis is a National Park Service ranger. He is in the protection division, so he does wear a Kevlar vest. Until recently, he was a policeman in San Francisco, often patrolling the grimy underbelly of the urban circus, what he calls “the bottom of the bottom.”

When his wife had a baby, he decided that “working the 3 a.m. shift patrolling the Tenderloin district was probably not what I wanted to do with a daughter.”

Now his workplace is a stunning breadth of forest, reaching from titanic sequoias to a folded carpet of Sierra Nevada Mountains that fades blue at the horizon.

His experience – from the city to the forest – offers a view of the human condition that Lewis ponders, sometimes with curiosity, sometimes with amusement. It is a valuable perspective in this sampling of views in a reporting trip across America.

Take crooks, for example.

“In San Francisco, you’d go to an auto burglary. There’s glass broken, stuff from inside the car is missing. You follow the trail of detritus into the weeds, and there’s some guy rooting through the backpack. Here, you go to a broken window. There’s a bag missing from inside the car. You follow the trail of detritus into the woods, and there’s a bear rooting through the backpack. It’s the same thing!”

Lewis laughs. “Humans are animals.”

He chats sitting at a picnic table at a campground with a majestic view in this park just south of California’s more famous Yosemite National Park. He is off-duty; he’s scrupulous about that.

Lewis worked at Yosemite and a half-dozen other national parks and wilderness areas, ranging from the Virgin Islands to Glacier National Park, before joining the San Francisco Police Department. On the city force, he saw scenes “as bad as anywhere in the world. Broken bones that healed crooked, abscesses, living in their own feces and vomit, there’s no hope they would ever get out of it.”

But he saw good, too: “It always struck me to see people go out of their way, risk their life, to help.… Just regular citizens risking their lives helping somebody they don’t even know.”

As a policeman, he dealt with the economic disparity of the country. He recalls rousting a homeless encampment in the shrubs next to the home of a wealthy man who did not even know they were there.

“If you are at the bottom, you have an awareness of the top,” he says. “But if you are at the top, you don’t know whose heads you are standing on.”

Even in the sylvan national parks, homeless people come to camp. The dishwashers and cleaners have to work a week in the Wuksachi Lodge to earn what guests pay to stay for one night.

“Poverty is a relative condition,” Lewis says. “There’s always going to be somebody at the bottom and always someone at the top.”

Lewis found urban police work an education. “It was super interesting. I learned a ton.”

But his heart beats most comfortably under a flannel shirt. He named his daughter Eleanor, after Lake Eleanor in Yosemite, which he explored on an earlier parks service assignment patrolling the back country on horse and muleback for six days at a time – “one of the best jobs I ever had.”

The sheer beauty of this country’s expanse is a benefit of the job. “Last night, there was a guy who broke his leg in Tokopah Canyon in Lodgepole and I went to go help carry him out of there. On the way back, I stopped at Halstead Meadow. The sky was just …” He pauses, hunting for words rich enough. “There’s no lights … It is so beautiful there.”

He grins like a kid amazed at his own luck.

“Beautiful … beautiful. Who gets to do that? These rich guys who have those yachts in the Virgin Islands, there’s no amount of money they can pay to have the kinds of experiences that I have had. That’s worth something. I may never have a house in Zurich, but I’ve had a lot of good things. I’m luckier than I deserve to be.”

Part 1: A young woman comes to L.A. to follow her dream – helping the homeless

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