The Great Stampede

by Bruce Patterson, January 27, 2011

The whole country was scandalized. And the more the National Network focused its hungry eyes and teething puppy tenacity on the sequence of events and the personalities involved — within 48 hours they’d chewed that rawhide strap into the texture of a waterlogged washcloth and they weren’t even getting started yet — the more scandalized everybody became. One of the High Sierra’s most pristine, popular and biologically diverse sub-alpine meadows — forty acres of the Divine Sublime — had been trampled by trespassing zealots into a foul-smelling mud hole due to the gross negligence of the National Park Service, and somebody had to pay. When during Senate hearings, after he’d been raked over the coals, flipped and then raked over some more, the head of the NPS protested that, after decades of being forced to do more with less, two men, a girl and a boy were all of the armed forces they could muster on such short notice, but that immediately they’d begun assembling, orientating, organizing, equipping and training a rescue force made up of volunteer firemen, laid off school teachers, moonlighting prison guards and Eagle Scouts, so many boos and hisses showered down from the gallery that, too flustered and humiliated to proceed, the poor boy exited the chamber, his head bowed and his prepared notes crumpled in his claw-like hand.

Overnight there grew up the largest ad hoc coalition of environmental groups seen in this country since the early 1970s, and they demanded his head. They needn’t have bothered, though, seeing how the subsequent stampede of pilgrims up into the high country had resulted in thousands of broken twigs and bushes, spooked wildlife, caved-in burrows, liddle-biddy bird’s nests and ephemeral wildflowers smashed flat underfoot, dislodged boulders and the bark knocked off trees — not to mention them defecating and then washing their butts in the creeks and rivulets (“Hide your eyes, little Jimmy!”) — worked the environmentalists into even more of a lather. Fearing for his life, the head of the NPS not only resigned but packed his car and sped away to Canada to beg for political asylum. Then, under intense pressure from the US State Department, the next midnight he was hooded and chained, driven back to the border and handed over to a platoon of the armored representatives of the appropriate agency.

Seven weeks later when the Department of Homeland Security released its initial preliminary report pegging the number of people who had participated in the stampede at 2,366, the four first-responder Park Rangers and the crowd of left-behinds who’d witnessed the event all swore it had to have been at least twice that number. And the official casualty count: 14 dead, 142 injured and 303 missing, stoked the suspicion that something was stinking somewhere and it weren’t cheese. Like with the daily war casualties on the eastern, northern and southern fronts, many suspected that the victims of this tragedy were getting swept under the rug. Certainly the eyewitnesses were being ignored.

A whole slew of conspiracy theories appeared on the Worldwide Web, but I’ll leave the details of them to your imagination. While the National Network dubbed the environmental and humanitarian catastrophe “The Stampede up 3-D Peak,” the survivors and their sympathizers, the families, friends and neighbors of the dead and presumed dead and, most especially, the 414 woeful left-behinds that had been too young or old, too sick, lame or lazy to join in the stampede and so were being severely traumatized by their inescapable feelings of unworthiness and abandonment — struggled to find a better way to define what had happened in such a way as to do honor the memory of those who’d so boldly gone into Harm’s Way. “The Rush to Enlightenment,” “What Price Salvation?” “A Peak Too Far,” “The Needy and the Brave,” “Tragedy in Heaven’s Attic,” “Big Sky, Long, Gory Tumble” and “The Mystery of the Cliff Climbers” were some of the titles of the docudrama scripts that flooded into the Hollywood studios. Although my personal favorite was: “2,366 (?) Who Dared.”

The dust had hardly settled or, perhaps more properly, the mud hadn’t dried, before 22 Senior Southern Senators, backed by 52 more Senators representing the Border States, introduced legislation to abolish the National Park Service, privatize its operations and auction off its portfolio of properties to the highest bidders. Except for the Confederate Battlefield sites; those would revert to the States providing that they posted at their entrances the Ten Commandment in chiseled Southern granite. The legislation passed the House and Senate by voice vote and, that afternoon and by unanimous proclamation, the Virginia state legislature weighed in by passing a resolution promising that the monument they’d erect at Manassas — a 50 foot-tall granite sculpture of Stonewall Jackson astride his galloping steed with a sword in one hand and the Ten Commandment in the other — would be second to none. Although folks in Mississippi and South Carolina, to mention just two interested parties, weren’t so sure about that.

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