The Wild Inside
IF I COULD reveal one particular thing about my way of thinking it would be this: I was a fourteen-year-old boy when that feral, panic-filled night ruined my ability to see the glass as half full. It’s still hard to talk about, but in terms of self-definition, nothing comes close to that crucial three-hour span of hellish time when the emotional freedom that comes from trusting the foundation one stands on would wither like a late-fall leaf. Up until then, my mom, Mary Systead, with her hazel eyes and dimples, a hospital pharmacist and a lover of self-help and pop-psychology books, had always ridden me about being a positive thinker, telling me that I had a bad habit of seeing the glass as half empty and that if I didn’t learn to overcome it, it would have a bad effect on my life. At the time, I had no idea what she was talking about. And later, I couldn’t imagine what could be more negative than what ended up happening: losing my dad and lying in the hospital for weeks like a heavy bag of sand, listening to the orderlies telling me how lucky I was not to have died.
But that desolate late-summer night all those years ago at Oldman Lake, the stuff of great sensationalism and freaky campfire stories, isn’t what’s interesting to me now. What is notable is my knack for glimpsing the dark intersection of good and evil in people and seeing how it can be traced back to that fateful period. Because, although this can be taken as positive thinking itself—and I’ll admit that traces of it creep
in—my critical nature has made me fairly decent at what I do, which is working as a special agent—we call it Series Eighteen-Eleven—for the Department of the Interior’s National Park Service.
Most people think of me as a glorified ranger because nobody ever imagines that crime occurs in the nation’s parks. But it does: drug manufacturing, cultivation and trafficking, illegal game trading, theft, arson, archeological vandalism, senseless violence, and, of course, homicide. Not to mention that the woods happen to be a great place to dump bodies. The United States has fifty-eight national parks with about eighty million acres of unpaved, unpopulated land. I and two guys from the department are trained to undertake homicide investigations and are stationed in the western region, which means our offices are in Denver so that we can cover numerous sites: Yosemite, Yellowstone, the Grand Tetons, Bryce Canyon, Glacier, Joshua Tree, Mesa Verde, Death Valley, the Great Sand Dunes, the Olympic Peninsula. . . .
Mostly, we work solo on cases, even homicides, since we have so much help from Park Police—they’re Series Double-O-Eight-Three. Sometimes, being assisted by Park Police is helpful, but sometimes it’s a pain in the ass since we’re not in the habit of working together and we often clash in the way we go about the little things. It’s the nuances, like knowing when to stay quiet, when to offer a small compliment, when to put on the unimpressed, bored look or to take the lead or to follow.
The other thing that can be traced to that night is my obsession with the grizzly. Ursus arctos horribilis. The grizzly was listed in 1975 as a threatened species in the lower forty-eight after being trapped and hunted to near extermination in the last century. One would think I’d be terrified of them, and here’s the deal: I am. In fact, I became a policeman after college, because even though I double-majored in criminology and forestry, I felt this fairly significant panic at the base of my sternum at the thought of being alone in the woods.
There’s a catch for me, though: when I read or know about one of
them getting shot by a hunter (always accidentally they claim) or getting euthanized for becoming too dependent on human garbage, I’m conflicted. I can’t tell if I’m pleased, sad, or pissed off. It’s as if each time one of these specimens, with their scooped, broad noses, cinnamon and silver-tipped coarse hair, eyes like amethysts, and the infamous hump protruding like a warning, is killed, either another piece of my father dies with them or he is given a small slice of justice. Over the years, I’ve become more and more intrigued, as if they’ve taken on some godly status. I’ve studied them from afar—reading everything I could get my hands on: mostly journals and published graduate theses on behavior, habitat use, and demography. After all, knowledge is power, and power helps alleviate fear.
So one could say that for a detective-slash-quasi-grizzly aficionado, I was heading into a perfect storm with this next case. And I could say this about the case as well: my torn recipe for positive thinking, with its already unpatchable shreds, would turn to jagged teeth, biting me even deeper than I thought possible.