National Geographic : 1985 Jan
W ITH A LITTLE FROWN of pain the old ranger hung up his new hat and put on his old one-a hat made famous by Smokey Bear. Its leather band was cracking with age, and its silver National Park Service insignia, the cone of the giant sequoia, was tarnished. At age 81 Carl Sharsmith doesn't want to retire either himself or his beloved old hat. He was back at his tent quarters after a long afternoon with tourists. His nose was flaked white and red with sunburn; his eyes were watery, partly from age but also from disappointment at hearing again an old question after a half century of summers in California's Yosemite National Park. Carl's narrow shoulders and slight figure seemed not much more than a thin, bent sigh. The slump of his body he'd acquired from hunching over the handlebars of his bicycle and the steering wheel of his 1936 Ford. That, plus decades of scrubbing his shirts over a wooden washboard; Carl dis dains those automatic washing machines. A lady tourist had hit him with a question where it hurt: "I've only got an hour to spend at Yosemite," she declared. "What should I do? Where should I go?" The old naturalist-interpreter-ranger fi nally found the voice to reply: "Ah, lady. Only an hour." He repeated it slowly. "I suppose if I had only an hour to spend at Yosemite, I'd just walk over there by the river and sit down and cry." TANDING OUTSIDE his tent, Carl showed me his ancient green convert ible. It has more than 200,000 miles, a rumble seat, and a canvas top "replaced only once." Seasonal ranger Sharsmith has commuted all these years from another job, professor of botany at San Jose State Uni versity. He's the most popular naturalist in one of the world's best-loved national parks. It's a park where snow-fed mountain streams plunge over the brink of some of the world's highest waterfalls and, transform ing themselves into diaphanous wedding veils, drift hundreds of feet down near vertical walls into Yosemite Valley. The valley, sculptured by ancient invasions of ice, is an enormous unroofed cathedral, at its apse a soaring granite altar called Half Dome. Here to worship, with their palettes and cameras, their pens and inspirations, are congregated the painters and photogra phers and poets; with their coils of rope and visions of ascent, the aspiring climbers; and with their eyes turned upward, the crowds of tourists, stunned and standing in atti tudes of awe. Beyond the valley rim rises the high coun try, where giant domes of once molten granite bubble up into the blue sky, great white mushroom mountains trying to chal lenge their counterpart forms, the cumulus clouds. The park is a fantasia of geology and an exhibition in geography-a world of nearly 1,200 square miles carved by rivers, chiseled by glaciers, shrouded by forests, and shaken by storms and earthquakes into a wonderland of dangerous wilderness. It is also the inspiration for all the national parks in the world. In the midst of the Civil War, before most people even heard of Yel lowstone, Abraham Lincoln signed a bill to protect Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Big Trees. Yosemite's closest friend in its early days was pioneer conservationist John Muir. He worked for years to have it protected and ul timately declared a national park; it was, in 1890. On his solitary expeditions, carrying perhaps only a few crusts of bread and a notebook, he explored its every corner. In Doyen ofTuolumne Meadows, Dr. Carl Sharsmith,amusing himself with "my old squeeze-box" (facing page), has led old andyoung to experience naturefirsthandsince becoming a ranger-naturalisthere in 1931. The botany professorpoints out wildflower cycles and,for fun, dons a mustache of ricegrass. Yosemite-Forever?