Thomas Doty – Storyteller
Me and the Desert Rangers
In the early 1980s, I was befriended by the Desert Rangers. They were a motley menagerie of wise elders with various college degrees who shared an interest in quality literature, Old Time Indian stories, rock writings, a love of obscure literary journals, and vintage wine served with yummy campfire-cooked grub. After dinner, stories were told with flare, and Mark Twain was quoted with drama and precision, and often. Most of the Rangers were writers though the only thing they ever published was a desert cookbook, illustrated with drawings and poems and desert quips, and updated quarterly.
When camped in the sagebrush-and-juniper backcountry, these fellows had an inner radar that alerted them when danger was nearby. They sensed drunk hunters who were ready to shoot at anything -- especially liberal desert rats -- or a hungry midnight poacher with a light footfall, or a gang of black-hooded pot diggers armed with pistols and shovels. These last scoundrels were especially dangerous. With hardly a sound and working by moonlight, they unearthed one Indian burial after another, tossing the bones and pocketing the artifacts to sell later on the black market. The Desert Rangers called them "grave grubbers."
Danger in the desert was serious business and was best avoided by our gathering of book-loving, epicurean old geezers. When it was whispered, in serious Ranger lingo, that it was, "time to un-ass this place before we get rim-rocked," that was the signal to douse the fire, disappear into the shadows, and stay invisible until danger passed us by. Usually one of the Rangers quietly called the local law on his CB radio, reporting that there was a Yahoo in the neighborhood doing bad stuff. Yahoo was a Gulliver's Travels reference to a "brute in human form" -- not to the semi-brutish search engine and news service -- though some folks missed that. A Desert Ranger revels in having the last laugh, even when he is the only one laughing.
These days, most of the Rangers have un-assed the desert for the last time, their ashes scattered across the hinterlands. And I'm not so young myself! But I still hang out with Scratchy -- we all had nicknames -- and we cook campfire meals, tell stories and decipher rock writings. Sometimes we quote Twain, but mostly we reminisce about those no longer with us. Like our old buddies, when the time seems right, we'll quietly slip into the shadows.
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Afterword: Around the fire the Rangers often referred to each other as "tough and dusty desert rats." But as they got older -- "reduced to mush and milk" -- there was a lot of late-night whining on the topic of aging and how they had all softened into the worst critters imaginable: desert gerbils! But one thing never changed. When speaking to anyone else, they were always Desert Rangers and those words were emblazoned on their caps and on the cover of their cookbook. About that same time, a young woman I knew who was a real National Park ranger, loved to be called Desert Mouse. With quiet strength and determination, she wore her nickname well!
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The photo shows two Desert Rangers at the Silver Lake Dolmen in the mid 1980s. Scratchy is on the right.