The sight is jarring and seems completely out of context. It’s akin to, I don’t know, seeing an elephant walking down a city street. That unexpected, at least to me.
This is how I saw what I saw, leading me to break this story at Crosscut.com: Click Here.
On Monday, May 4, I’d taken a drive to Mount Rainier National Park. Just the previous Friday, the park had lifted requirements to carry snow chains on its most popular, western road from Longmire to Paradise. That only meant the road was clear; the trails up at Paradise, beyond the Henry M. Jackson Visitor Center, still are under three feet of snow.
I know it was three feet because I stopped by a group of high-school students, all atop snowshoes, as a park ranger was measuring the distance to the ground. He used an avalanche probe, and explained its usual use (to search for people buried under snow).
That was after I’d trudged over to the bridge over Edith Creek, just before it tumbles over Myrtle Falls. Beyond the bridge, another ranger had told me I’d probably need snowshoes, like the high-school kids. I’d packed my microspikes, so I had enough traction to reach the bridge itself, which was the only part of the trail that was clear.
NOTE: Clicking on a photo will launch a full-sized gallery.
Below that bridge is the only place anyone knows where you can photograph cascading water with Mount Rainier in the background. I took a nice image in the fall and had a big print made, which now adorns my living room. As I was taking that particular photo, I’d heard a ruckus behind me and whirled around to see a young boy fall off the bridge and into some of the large rocks in Edith Creek. His father bolted over like a rocket, and the boy was conscious, wailing and apparently OK.
Excuse me if I’m starting to believe there’s something about that bridge and me.
I captured some wintry images of the creek and mountain (again, it was t-shirt weather in May), as well as some timelapse, which you can view after this story. As I was packing up, a park ranger approached. By then, there were four young men (from Argentina, I later learned) sunning themselves on the bridge.
The ranger was packing a firearm, so I knew he was an enforcement ranger, which unfortunately are required in national parks these days. When he leaned over to address me, my heart sank. I thought I was in trouble for being off the trail.
“When you’re finished, I need to take some pictures for evidence,” the ranger said. “Take your time.”
“Evidence?” I replied. “Evidence of what?”
“The graffiti,” the ranger said, gesturing.
The ranger took my backpack for me as I scrambled up. I looked over and my heart sank again.
Maybe I’m naïve, but graffiti is the last thing I expect to see in a national park. The parks, after all, are nature’s masterpieces. They don’t need enhancing.
Many argue that graffiti is art. I live in one of the most tagged-up areas of Seattle. I’ve done stories in South Central Los Angeles, went to grad school near Harlem in New York. I get where those people are coming from.
I don’t get, however, those who equate graffiti in national parks to, say, the Makah petroglyphs you find in the Wedding Rocks along the Ozette Loop Trail in Olympic National Park. These are forms of communication and storytelling from times when humans believed they didn’t have other means of recording history. Humans have choices today and choosing to deface lands protected to preserve their pristine nature is crossing a line.
The Los Angeles Times editorial board calls it “desecration.”
The L.A.Times weighed in because graffiti is an emerging scourge in national parks in the West. In the Times’ backyard, a prominent case recently was resolved involving well-known graffiti artist Andre Saraiva. The Frenchman tagged a rock in Joshua Tree National Park, about three hours east of L.A., and bragged about it on Instagram. When confronted in print by the popular L.A.-based blog, Modern Hiker, Saraiva initially tried to claim the rock was in his backyard, but blog founder Casey Schreiner and his readers used geotags and EXIF data to confirm the location in Joshua Tree.
A former TV writer and producer, Schreiner said in a phone conversation that he’s not a journalist, per se. However, before Saraiva came along, Schreiner also expertly pieced together the most renowned case of graffiti in national parks. Last fall, it was Casey Nocket, 22, of Highland, N.Y., whom the National Park Service tied to vandalism in Yosemite, Death Valley and Joshua Tree in California; Crater Lake in Oregon; Zion and Canyonlands in Utah; and Rocky Mountain National Park and Colorado National Monument in Colorado.
Nocket has not been charged, and NPS spokesperson Jeffrey G. Olson said her case “is still open and under investigation.” The NPS seems to have the goods on Nocket and Modern Hiker’s Schreiner says about “10 percent” of the comments and emails he receives daily wonder why the case hasn’t been resolved. I would think the NPS wants to make an example of Nocket and pursue felony charges against her, meaning they need all their graffiti in a row.
In that vein, Schreiner pointed out that, until recently, the evidence in places like Crater Lake National Park had been buried in feet of snow.
The snow situation was, in a way, the undoing of the vandals at Mount Rainier National Park. They were observed in the act by other park visitors, according to park spokesperson Kathy Steichen. They couldn’t travel so quickly in the snow, making it easier for rangers to hunt them down and issue citations. The bridge is not covered by snow, making it simple for the ranger I saw to document the evidence.
That morning near the mountain had otherwise been a near-religious experience. Everything was beautifully snow-covered, silent and tranquil. At times, it felt like I was the only human being on the planet. It’s an almost indescribable feeling, really – about as alternatively indescribable as viewing graffiti in Paradise.