Dec. 6 – After abandoning the stranded travelers from god-knows-where in the Lost Mine Trail parking lot and setting out on our selfish little quest, we arrive at Panther Junction Visitors Center a few minutes before 5.
We’re in luck. They’re open till 6.
We pass through the door and run straight into Bob Hamilton, our helpful ranger du jour. They’re all helpful rangers, it seems. Park rangers are like librarians. You can’t find one who won’t go out of his or her way to help you.
They are universally charming, knowledgeable and decent. Their reliable presence only enhances the timeless wonder of national parks, regardless of what Ken Burns says.
If I weren’t such a loser, maybe I’d be a park ranger.
We ask Bob for a junior-ranger booklet. He says he’s not going to give us one. He says it’s gonna cost us.
It costs us $2, to be precise.
While Max and Becky go to work on satisfying the requirements for junior ranger badge No. 2, I chat up Bob. Since the park abuts the Rio Grande for 245 miles and derives its name from the big river’s dramatic northward turn, I pepper him with the usual questions about traffic and trouble on the border. Naturally, I mention our recent visit to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Arizona.
“That can be a dangerous park,” he says after a pause.
This surprises me. The rangers there said no such thing.
Perhaps he thought it’s what I wanted to hear.
He agrees, upon further questioning, that it’s not all that dangerous. What about here?
“I’ve got friends back home who say, ‘You’re down there on the border. Aren’t you terrified?’ I say of course not. I say, ‘Remember when we were kids and we used to go into the city of Philadelphia at night? There were neighborhoods we wouldn’t think of going into. There still are.’ This is relaxing. It’s peaceful.”
Bob Hamilton 65, is a retired biology teacher and high school principal from Carlisle, Pa. He works six months a year in Big Bend and five more in Yellowstone.
I ask him where he was principal. He says York. I ask what school. He says Dover.
My eyes must’ve been wide as dinner plates. My insides roiled with barely contained glee.
My unexpressed response: No shit!
What I say: “The infamous Dover High School?”
Small world, no matter where you are. It’d only be smaller if Lauri Lebo were here. Lauri really should be here, I thought.
Lauri, one of this journal’s greatest friends, published a wonderful book back in 2008 about the Dover School District’s misbegotten dance with creationism. In 2004, the religious loons who’d seized control of the Dover school board voted to change the biology curriculum and require that Intelligent Design be presented as a scientific alternative to evolution.
Then they proceeded to engage in an absurd series of lies and distortions about their true intentions. One of the biggest lies concerned Intelligent Design itself. Instead of science, it turned out to be a hastily woven fig leaf for creationism.
A group of Dover parents filed a lawsuit, and the case went to trial in the fall of 2005. The trial uncovered the wholesale duplicity, by turns comical and chilling, of the Dover zealots.
Hamilton, who retired as principal of Dover High School in 2002, stood on the ground floor of Dover’s Intelligent Design era. He saw the storm brewing.
“Don’t quote me on this, but I knew that board was going to get us in trouble,” he said.
There was no doubt I was going to quote him on this. I think he realized this. I hope so, anyway.
“There are great kids in the community,” he says. “The kids in the community in no way reflect the ideas coming out of that school board. None of those people had any connection to the kids.”
According to Hamilton, then-school board president Donald “Daddy” Bonsell used to haunt his office and harangue him on behalf of the burgeoning wingnut conspiracy. Bonsell badgered Hamilton to do his part to get Intelligent Design into the Dover curriculum.
“He came in one day, and finally I told him, ‘OK, I’ll put Intelligent Design into the curriculum … if you start a petition and get all the local ministers in the community to sign it saying they’ll allow the teaching of evolution in Sunday school,’” Hamilton says.
No longer on the board when the fateful vote went down, Daddy Bonsell nonetheless figured prominently in the bumbling ID narrative. Funds to purchase 60 copies of the ID reference book, “Of Pandas and People,” were raised in the church of board member Bill Buckingham and then funneled through Bonsell in clandestine fashion.
During the trial, this fact was conveniently ignored by Bonsell’s son. Alan Bonsell, who had followed in Daddy’s footsteps as Dover school board president and became one of the prime movers of the whole tragi-comedy, denied any knowledge of the money’s provenance during his testimony. In other words, he lied.
The “Pandas” book itself was a source of unintentional hilarity. Early drafts included uncloaked references to creationism. After the U.S. Supreme Court shot down the teaching of creationism in public schools in 1987, subsequent drafts replaced “creationists” with “design proponents.” Thanks to the beneficent god of carelessness, one of the substitutions in a 1987 draft failed to removed the “c” at the beginning and “ists” at the end of creationists, thus leaving behind a wondrous and telling reference to “cdproponentsists.”
Hamilton, of course, would never be confused with a cdproponentsist.
“I told them it’s not personal, it’s the Constitution,” he said. “It’s the law. There’s no way around that, not if you know anything about the Constitution of the United States.”
Bob Hamilton abides in the realm of the even-handed, the scientific. He is beholden to no dogma or ideology. If he hasn’t seen conclusive evidence, he’ll do no more than venture an educated guess.
To wit, I ask him about the role climate change might play in the drought scorching much of Big Bend’s 800,000 acres. In February, he tells me, a mountain lion attacked a child in a parking area near a lodge. Only the quick reaction of the child’s father prevented tragedy.
“When it happened, it was described as a juvenile mountain lion,” he says. “When we found it, we saw it was a fully grown adult male that weighed 47 pounds. It was nothing but skin and bones.”
His thoughts on global warming?
“I’m pretty sure we’re accelerating it, thought I’m not sure it wouldn’t happen anyway,” he says. “The thing I’m worried about is the speed of the change. If the water temperature rises by 4 degrees Celsius, that could kill 200 species in Chesapeake Bay in a heartbeat. Species can adapt to change, but they can’t adapt that fast.”
Reason No. 951 why I love park rangers like Bob Hamilton: I have a question about the yucca. The question is, “what’s a yucca, anyway?”
Bob promptly opens the door and takes me on a brief interpretative tour of desert flora in the the visitors center’s front yard. He schools me on the difference between the lechuguilla and agave, the sotol and soap yucca. Turns out what I thought were lechuguilla all along I-10 in New Mexico are nothing of the kind. They are soap yucca.
When our conversation moves to the swelling U.S. border patrol and the never-ending war on drugs, Bob Hamilton remains the sober-minded pragmatist.
He doesn’t smoke pot. Never has, he says. Still, he can’t see what good can come from busting 60-year-old stoners in Terlingua and reserving them a spot in the mushrooming prison-industrial complex.
I confide a fear for the future of national parks. The emissaries of privatization seem bent on destroying the public sphere and selling it off piecemeal to their corporate sugar daddies. Nothing lies beyond their acquisitive grasp, not even national parks. They’ll con the rubes with the reliable horseshit about how private enterprise is always more efficient than the big, bad government, and one day you’ll pay $50 just to drive through JP Morgan Chase Big Bend National Park.
It’s not like he hasn’t noticed.
“They think private enterprise can do it better,” he says. “I’m not sure that’s a good way to go about things. Especially in national parks.”
By now, Max has done enough to earn his junior ranger badge from Big Bend. We’re all so proud. He even persuades us to plunk down $12 for a junior ranger hat. Hell, it’s cool, and it goes to a good cause.
We ask Ranger Bob to pose with Ranger Max, and he of course does so without complaint.
I thank him for his time, and his eminent good sense. I can’t leave without a parting shot at the Dover creationists.
“I’m a biologist,” he says with a mischievous grin. “I’m a heathen. Those people had no use for me.”