“Yellowstone Ranger,” a memoir by former park ranger Jerry Mernin, has all of the ingredients of a boring book. It’s a book by and about a man who was by no means a professional writer and who spent most of his career out of the public eye. It is long and episodic, and the humans it mentions are among the least interesting critters in the whole book.
But if Mernin set out to write a boring book, he failed miserably. Instead, he wrote a book that should appeal to just about everybody who loves bear stories and to anybody who has ever dreamed that being a park ranger must be the best job in the world. In short, the book should appeal to just about everybody on the planet.
If people are born, not trained, to take up certain careers, then Mernin was born to be a ranger. His father was a distinguished ranger for the National Park Service at Yosemite National Park. Mernin got his start doing seasonal work at Yosemite, then abandoned law school to become a fulltime ranger.
He spent brief stints at Bryce Canyon and the Grand Canyon before he was assigned to Yellowstone National Park in 1964. He worked there until he was forced to retire in 1996, then stayed on as a volunteer as long as his health permitted. In his later years, he battled asthma, a broken shoulder, prostate cancer and Parkinson’s disease before dying of a stroke in 2011.
Fortunately, he was well into writing his memoir before his death at age 79. He joined the Gypsy Rhythm Writers Group, which met regularly at the Bozeman Public Library. To refresh his memory, he reviewed old incident reports, interviewed former colleagues and typed for hours, eventually, according to his wife, Cindy, pecking out chapters letter by letter as his Parkinson’s disease advanced.
After Mernin’s death, Gary Brown, a friend and colleague, spent two years weaving the scattered chapters into a whole. Journalist Marjane Ambler edited the final manuscript.
The result is a paean to the national parks, the people who work in them and the creatures that live in them.
Mernin worked in Yellowstone during the years when it was slowly being transformed from an amusement park where bears begged for treats on roadsides, ambled through campgrounds and foraged in garbage dumps. Mernin spent much of his career tranquilizing, relocating and occasionally shooting bears.
So if you want bear stories, he’s got bear stories. Once, a tranquilized bear began waking up on a boat halfway across Lake Yellowstone, instantly reversing all those notions about going slow through no-wake zones. Another time, a bear that had just injured a fisherman charged Mernin across a swamp. From a distance of about five yards, he stopped the bear cold with three shots from his .44 pistol.
The stories range from the tragic—bears that killed campers and had to be killed themselves—to the offbeat, like the bear that stood nose to nose in a campground with a Chihuahua-sized dog that was tied to a tent and awed into silence.
In some of the creepiest stories, the bear scarcely makes an appearance at all. Once, creeping after dark into a pine thicket, Mernin had to hold his breath to distinguish his own breathing from that of the unseen grizzly just a few feet away. Another time, the cabin he was sharing with his new bride was repeatedly buffeted in the night by a grizzly sow seeking forage for her cubs.
There are other kinds of stories, too, many of them about tenderfoot mistakes Mernin made as he learned the ways of the backcountry in Yellowstone—nights when he had to bivouac in the open because he took a wrong turn or spent hours trying to properly balance a load.
For this reader’s money, the scariest story in the whole book is when he took a wrong turn on horseback and realized his mistake only when the trail became so rough and narrow that all he could see beneath his stirrup was empty air leading to a creek thousands of feet below. He carefully dismounted and cautiously turned the horse around.
This is all fascinating story telling, leavened by a wry sense of humor, and one might wish that Mernin also had taken a more critical approach. He describes, for example, disagreements between the Park Service and Frank and John Craighead, the indomitable bear researchers, but takes no stand and doesn’t really give us enough information to judge the matter for ourselves.
He glosses over most of Yellowstone’s other pressing issues. Of its many years of bungled bear policy, he says only that it is now difficult to recapture the mindset of those long-ago years.
Instead, Mernin devotes several chapters to describing the horses and mules he worked with, including Max, a horse that could “pass wind so loudly that he was often startled by the sound of his own farts” and Irwin, a horse so strong and athletic that “One observer said Irwin must have had muscles in his shit.”
The reader gets the sense that after all those years patrolling the backcountry of Yellowstone, Mernin felt more at home with the animals than with the people and their bureaucratic morasses.
And that’s OK. The book’s lasting achievement is that if you have consoled yourself in your adult life by imagining that rangers don’t really have it so good, then your bubble is about to be punctured. Those guys in the flat-brimmed hats really do have the best job in the world, and they deserve both our respect and our envy.
Details: “Yellowstone Ranger,” by Jerry Mernin. Riverbend Publishing, Helena. Paperback, 367 pages. $22.95.