Oh, Ranger!
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"The Long, Long Trail A-Winding—"

Hello, hiker, how does it go?
     How far to camp—a mile or so?

Just a little way farther,
Just around the next corner,
Just this big hump and another,
Just a mile or two more.

How far is a mile, I'd like to know,
     When you're hitting the trail on a tramp?
Oh, a mile is as far as you've yet to go
     Till you've hoofed it on into camp.

—Rhymes of the Rangers

"RANGER, what's the best time to hit the trail?"

The Old-Timer reflected, recalling many seasons in the mountains.

"Well, it all depends," he surmised, finally. "June's when the trails thaw in these parts. June's when the mountain flowers poke their heads through the snow. Some would say June's the time to hit the trail. But then there's July when the trails are drier and the woods are in full leaf and the snow's all melted except on the north slopes of the peaks. On the other hand, by August the bugs are gone and camping is more comfortable. For myself, I like to hit the trail about September, when the season's over, and there's a touch of autumn in the air. You can take your choice."

"What kind of a mountaineer are you?" he asked, as if by afterthought.

"Oh, fair to middling, but nothing wonderful."

"Not what I meant," insisted the Old-Timer. "How do you classify yourself? Club mountaineer, free-lance mountain climber, nature lover, trail rider, or just a plain ordinary hiker?


"It makes a difference in what you're trying to do in the mountains," explained the ranger, "and that has something to do with when you'd best hit the trail. F'r instance . . ."

He went on to explain that club mountaineers come in organized groups, pitch their tents near some mountain on which they have designs, and camp for a long enough time to give every one in the party a chance to climb the highest peaks in the region. The organized climbs must be made when climbing is best, for safety's sake, generally in the middle of the summer, which is about the only time a large party can reach the tips of the highest mountains.

Free-lance mountain climbers are hardy souls who make it a hobby to climb every high mountain they can reach, often under the most difficult circumstances, sometimes in the dead of winter. They seldom bother with camps. They operate singly or in twos and threes. Since they are experienced mountaineers and know enough to come well equipped, the free-lances are as a rule well able to take care of themselves. They hit the trail any time of year and think nothing of blazing new routes up the peaks, even in the dead of winter.


Nature lovers don't care much what is up on top of the mountain. The trail lures them not because it leads to the earth's high spots but because it winds through woods and meadows and dells and across carpets of flowers. The nature lovers are looking for butterflies and animals and wild things that blossom of their own free will. They meander over the trails at leisure, fluttering about some ranger naturalist like so many disciples about an apostle. The flower lovers are on the trails as long as Dame Nature holds open house in the great out-of-doors.

Trail riders are a breed to themselves. The old hands at the sport love the smell of the saddle, and the tenderfoot is thrilled by the adventure of it all. One would think that a narrow ledge, flanked by a high granite wall on the one side and a hundred-foot drop on the other, would be the last place in the world to learn to ride. But the trail ponies know their stuff, and if the trail rider but gives his mount the rein he will follow the guide's horse to the end of the trail. Trail-riding is great sport, and the time of year makes not much difference—in fact, they trail-ride the snowdrifts in some of the parks.

The plain and lowly hiker, with his camera in his hand and perspiration on his brow, outnumbers all the aforementioned gentry of the trails. The hikers are the ordinary folks, weary of the sight of old brick walls, longing for a look at the wilderness, hoofing it along the winding path for no other reason than that they enjoy it. All the hiker asks is a well-marked trail, leading somewhere at the end of the day. All the luggage he wants is an extra pair of socks, a big bite of lunch, and a camera with which to shoot the stag that stares pop-eyed from the azaleas. The national park trails are the complete answer to the urge to hike, for on them the hiker can leave cares behind and be sure of a meal and a bed at the end of the day for almost as little as it costs to stay at home.

(From the Stanford University Press edition)

"You can rate yourself, brother, and take your choice," concluded the Old-Timer. "I reckon the time for you city fellers to hit the trail is any time you can get away from four walls and a roof."

No one who has tasted the freedom of the trail will argue about that.

Every so often someone bewails what the automobile is doing to the American's ability to walk. Nevertheless, it is enabling millions of people to reach the thousands of miles of trails in the national parks or the national forests. Some lingering spark from the days when our ancestors were trail-blazing flares up in each of us once or twice or thrice a year, and there burns the longing for the winding trail that leads now over mountain passes, now through fragrant forests, now by rushing waters or past ramparts of rock. Then, though a million at a time take to the trail, so great is the wilderness, the multitude can be swallowed without disturbing its serenity.

The legions of stay-at-homes who know the trail but vicariously, some because of apprehensions of the rigors of the wilderness, some because it is too much work, others because of queer notions of the dangers involved, have some weird ideas about the trails. To answer a few of the questions that are asked of the rangers:

Nope, you don't meet wild Indians in the Western woods any more. You may see some tame ones working on the trails, but they won't molest you.

Yes, you might meet a bear. Just give him a chance and he will amble into the woods. No, you needn't fear wolves, or mountain lions.

Altitude? Yes, it affects some people. Those with weak hearts should avoid trails that lead into the higher mountains.


Yes, carry a compass, if you wish, but in the high western mountains you don't need it as much as in the eastern woods, because in the Rockies or the Sierra or the Cascades you can always see some high peak for a landmark. Yes, sir, the trails are well blazed, with a capital I carefully cut on trees, and small piles of rocks, known as ducts or cairns, and junctions are marked, but it's a fact that some hikers can't read or won't, and some of them do get lost.

Yes, ma'am, women can do it. Thousands of them do hit the national park trails without male escorts. In fact, more women are seen on the park trails than men.

No, you don't need a guide to hike the park trails, but sometimes it adds to the fun to join a party under the leadership of a ranger naturalist, who conducts hiking expeditions without charge in the national parks.

Guns are out, Dude. No shooting, except with a camera. In fact, guns are forbidden, in the parks.

Shoes? They're the most important item of your costume. When you hit the trail, the shoes do the hitting all the way. Cheap, poorly made shoes are no economy. Good shoes, with strong soles, are essential. High ones are preferable, large enough so that you can wear two pairs of socks, silk or cotton next to the feet, wool next the shoes.

Clothes? Well, something tough and warm. Khaki knickers stand the gaff. Women as well as men wear them. A light raincoat is useful in occasional showers. A warm woolen sweater is needed for the cool mountain evenings, when the campfire warms only one side of you at a time.

Yes, bring a knapsack, one that rides comfortably on the back. It will hold the raincoat, sweater, the extra pair of socks, the flashlight, the toothbrush, and the lunch. The hands should carry nothing, unless a walking stick.

A camera? By all means. Preferably a small one that straps on the belt or hangs from the shoulder. Bring plenty of films.

A first-aid kit of the Boy Scout type is useful. You probably will never use it, but if you need it at all you need it much.

No, speed isn't the thing on the trail. The race is to the tortoise, with the slow but steady "poison oaker" stride. They seem to be just barely moving along, but they keep going while the speed-burners have to rest.

Trouble? Forget it, unless trouble troubles you. Then have someone call up the rangers on the nearest trail telephone and they will arrange a "drag out."

The "drag out" is the emergency service maintained day and night by the national park rangers for hikers in distress. Maybe night falls on a hiker who neglected to bring a flashlight. Maybe he loses his nerve on a steep down stretch of Yosemite's spectacular Ledge Trail. Maybe she has missed the trail and is lost. Maybe it's a sprained ankle, or a more serious accident. Maybe it's morning, noon, or past midnight—a ranger is always on duty at headquarters to make the "drag out" if need be. Most of them are unnecessary, but the rangers must always respond to the call for help for the sake of one in ten who actually needs it.

(From the Stanford University Press edition)

One day the "drag out" call came to headquarters in Sequoia National Park.

"Fat man stuck in cave," said the voice on the telephone. "Send a ranger—better send two or three rangers."


Arriving at the cave, the rangers found a hiker of great avoirdupois who had left his discretion at home and who had tried to push his way between two great boulders into a cave much visited by hikers in that park. The boulders weighed many tons and could not be budged. Other hikers had pressed their weight against the broad expanse of the fat man's trousers and had tried to push him into the cave, with no luck. Then they tried to pull him out, but failed equally dismally. Two courses lay before the rangers. They could dynamite the rocks and loosen the fat man, but that would destroy a scenic asset and it might injure the prisoner. They could allow him to fast until he reduced sufficiently to be released. The latter course was adopted. It took three days to make that "drag out."

In Yosemite the call for help came from a trail rider. The rangers hurried up the trail and found that a San Francisco sports writer had been riding a mule, when the animal shied at something and jumped, scraping the rider's head on an overhanging boulder. He was scalped as neatly as if a redskin had done it, except that no self-respecting Indian would waste time scalping a bald-headed man like this sports writer. He was a pitiful figure, and was rushed to the hospital, where his scalp was sewn back on his head by the surgeon in attendance. His scalp healed, and shortly thereafter his hair began to grow. Today he boasts the finest locks of any sports writer in San Francisco, which may not be saying much; but anybody wishing to take this cure for baldness may have that man's name on application.


Oh, Ranger!
©1928, 1929, 1934, 1972, Horace M. Albright and Frank J. Taylor
albright-taylor/chap8.htm — 06-Sep-2004