The Mt. Rainier shooting, national parks, and sacred space

Yesterday, on New Years Day 2012, Park Ranger Margaret Anderson was shot and killed in Mt. Rainier National Park during a routine traffic stop, by a man headed to the wilderness to hide after having shot four people in Seattle at a New Years Eve party the night before. Which makes one wonder why, if he was trying to hide, he chose one of the few parts of the thousands of square miles of wilderness in this part of the world that is as well patrolled and protected as Mt. Rainier is to hide in, but that’s another question altogether.

For me, as I suspect it is for many other people, the question right now is, how safe should we feel in a national park?

It’s not that we don’t expect danger in national parks. Heck, I know of at least two books on the subject — Death in Yellowstone, and Off the Wall: Death in Yosemite. We expect natural danger, like wildlife and cliffs and boiling springs. But we do not expect to need to be wary of our fellow man there, especially since this is the first time something like this has happened at Mt. Rainier in its entire history.

I find myself in the odd position of suddenly understanding why people resent the knowledge that the public library is not a safe place to leave one’s children alone for an hour or two. As a reference librarian for sixteen years, I was often confronted with parents who refused to believe that the public library is not the safest place to let their children roam unescorted. It isn’t, unfortunately. Anyone can enter the library, from flashers to kidnappers. Things can and do happen there, admittedly not often, that should not from any rational point of view, no matter what the library staff does to try to keep them from happening.

But libraries are sacred. Therefore they must be safe. I often watched people struggle to figure out a way to make that argument even as they sadly realized they could not.

And that’s how I feel about national parks. Yes, I expect to have to be careful when I visit them, to not overestimate my abilities, to watch my step, to stay a safe distance from grizzly bears and geysers and the edges of cliffs. To carry an emergency kit. To not drive in weather conditions my car and I cannot handle.

But I do not expect to need to protect myself from deranged gunmen at Mt. Rainier or, for that matter, in any other national park. 

Perhaps that makes me naïve. Perhaps that makes me like those parents who want to feel safe dropping their children off at the library for an hour or two while the parent goes shopping or to a dentist’s appointment.  But while I don’t think this is going to change my habit of visiting Mt. Rainier or other national parks on my own, or of taking short solo hikes as I’ve been doing for decades, I do think it will make me even more careful when I do so, and maybe that’s a good thing.

National parks are sacred. Only the kind of people who appreciate our natural wonders, who want to see them and share them with others, who want to learn about nature and science and history, to explore and climb and wander, visit our national parks. Right?

Yesterday, a great many of us learned that this is not the case. And now, like it or not, I understand why those parents resented me disillusioning them about libraries. Because I feel exactly the same way.

ETA:  The body of the shooter was found today (1.2.12) in deep snow not far from the site of the shooting.  He was wearing jeans, a t-shirt, and one shoe.  He apparently died from exposure.