Wednesday, August 27, 2008

National Parks: Real and Imagined

Nevada Barr is a mystery writer. What sets her 14 novels apart is that each one is set in a different national park in the US. As of 2006, there were 58 officially-designated National Parks in the United States and its dependent areas so she has a long way to go. She herself is a former park ranger. So it seemed a natural when I was planning a recent return visit to Yosemite National Park that I pick up a copy of her High Country.

Four Yosemite park workers have disappeared, all on the same day; and it is the task of Anna Pigeon, a National Park Service ranger disguised in this case as a waitress at the Ahwahnee Hotel, to track them down. Anna is the principal character in each of the 14 novels. I haven’t spent much time in the park in the winter but I don’t imagine that the granite and trees change much – and Barr’s descriptions of the geography and topography of the park ring true. I did have a moment of doubt when she described Mendocino County as “outside of San Francisco.” Yes, that’s correct; but it’s also “outside of” Los Angeles. I guess I think of “outside” as somehow being adjacent to or at least closer than Mendocino is to SF. I would have been more comfortable with “north of”. It just made me wonder how familiar Barr really is with the region she describes. Then I read on her website that she was raised in the Sierras!

It’s hard to say much about a mystery story without giving away some of the suspense. There are some very amusing passages as Anna, approaching fifty, describes living in the employee dorm with her two twenty-something roommates whose ideas of neatness and order (and lack thereof) are just what you might expect.

The second half of the book is set around Lower Merced Pass Lake and along Illilouette Creek Trail. When I finished the book I thought what fun it would be next summer to visit that area. But then I went back and re-read the initial description: twelve miles from the Mono Meadows Trailhead with a total elevation gain of two thousand feet. Staying at the Ahwahnee Hotel with another Anna Pigeon novel sounds a lot better.

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