When Dave Van Cleve stands alone amid the bare hills of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, he’s aware of the heritage of the Kumeyaay and Cahuilla Indians. They were doing just fine on these 600,000 acres while most of our ancestors were trying to give a wide berth to Caesar’s rowdies, long before his salad’s debut.
Actually, he’s not alone. Van Cleve is surrounded by myriad animals and plants that have charms hidden from those who think it’s, well, just a desert.
Van Cleve worked for the state parks system for almost 32 years, capping his career as superintendent of Anza-Borrego for 14 years until retiring in 2004. He then worked for the Nature Conservancy for nine years. He still lives in the backcountry of rural Ramona.
The burly, jovial 64-year-old is a vocal cheerleader for the thousand-square-mile park, extolling its bighorn sheep, rare plants such as the elephant tree and ocotillo, and even various crawlers and slitherers that advise watching your step. He grudgingly respects the destructive wild burros in the neighborhood, which are as hard to get rid of as bathroom mold.
So, it gets a little hot. But we knew that going in.
In unsmiling mode, Van Cleve is also a voice against the urban encroachment threats to what some shiny-shoe politicians consider a “wasteland.” He fears they all want a piece of his sandy paradise — from ugly power lines, to landfills, to solar and wind farms, to paths for off-road hobbyists whose machines sound like insects on bullhorns.
“I serve on the advisory committee of the Save the Redwoods League, and I tease the others that Anza-Borrego has plants that are both older (creosote) and taller (mesquite, from the root up) than their puny redwood trees.”
Van Cleve has a whimsical sense of humor and an eye for the bizarre that must have made dour bureaucrats in Sacramento reach for the Maalox. His ranger assignments through the years took him to parks up and down the state, and wherever he was stationed, weird things followed:
• When Van Cleve was stationed at Torrey Pines in the ’70s, the nudist, city-run Black’s Beach was next door, and he would have to shoo the jaybirds off the adjacent state beach. One day, a naked woman rushed up to ask how she could become a ranger.
“Well,” he said, staring fixedly at her forehead, “first, you have to wear clothes.”
Her true motive, it became apparent, was to ask him for a date.
“That definitely could be arranged,” he said.
He picked her up on the appointed night, and they were hardly out of the driveway when she told him she had to be home by 11 p.m.
“Why?” he asked.
“Because my husband gets home at 11:30.”
Screech! And a quick swerve into the first driveway. Later, he wondered what the baby-sitter charged for 10 minutes.
Weirdness bloomed to full flower when women on the beach would parade in front of him, but when they wanted to get dressed, he was asked to turn his back. (He had great peripheral vision.)
• Patrolling a park near Santa Cruz, he spotted a suspected camp-robber discarding a beer bottle in the bushes. Ah-ha! Van Cleve was quick to nail him for littering, a simple misdemeanor. But when the guy was booked, he made a bad choice and slugged a deputy, whereupon he was given six months to ponder that decision.
Van Cleve wonders what the hardened felons in jail said when the guy told them he had been arrested for littering in a state park. He speculates: “You know what they say happens to child molesters and park litterers in jail.”
• In 1987, the decision was made to remove about 150 feral cattle from Anza-Borrego because they were spreading disease to the bighorn sheep. The simple thing, he says, would have been to shoot them, but the cattlemen’s association objected for some reason — not that they’ve never presided over the demise of a bovine. The park service ended up netting the animals from a helicopter at a cost of about $500 per head.
The cattle were wild and mean, even the cows, he says, and when they were deposited in the corral, the rangers had to remove the net and the blindfold, and then, “run like hell for the fence.”
When the beasts were sent to a cattle auction, they were so lean and scrawny that no one bid on them, and they had to be destroyed anyway.
• To campers who would violate obviously posted rules, Van Cleve would say, “Is it the ‘N’ or the ‘O’? What part of ‘NO’ do you not understand?”
• When in training, an instructor lectured that “command presence” should be achieved by a ranger, “even in his underwear.” Much later on the job, he was camped out at Mount San Jacinto State Park when some unruly guys without a permit set up camp late at night. Van Cleve got out of his sleeping bag in his skivvies, marched over with a flashlight and ordered them out. They docilely obeyed.
At that moment, he knew the instructor would have been proud.
• Van Cleve invited then-state Sen. Denise Ducheny, D-San Diego, to a remote part of Anza-Borrego to see firsthand the damage done by wild burros. Her aide disregarded driving instructions and instead used MapQuest, which got them hopelessly lost.
The senator was eventually found and rescued, and Van Cleve says, “Best of all, it was her staff that screwed up. I hope the aide was a relative.”
• When chastising a group of guys for breaking park rules, Van Cleve was ticketing the main miscreant when one of the others questioned the fairness of citing only one man.
“Great point, Einstein,” Van Cleve agreed. “Let’s see IDs for all of you,” he said as he reopened his ticket pad.
• Patrolling with a partner, they noticed “two bare cheeks rising rhythmically in the air.” While the citation was being written, the woman complained, “Are you really going to arrest us for being in love?” His partner just nodded and kept writing. Later, Van Cleve says he wondered if they were let off easy. “What if they were also litterers?”
Van Cleve has self-published a book on his career, “Have a Nice Day Job,” available on Amazon.
With budget cutbacks buffeting state park staffs like a Santa Ana sweeping out of the east, rangers need all the humor they can muster. The next time you see a man or woman in a Smokey Bear hat with a big smile, perhaps they just love the work, or maybe you are more amusing than you realize.
Fred Dickey’s home page is freddickey.net
His email is firstname.lastname@example.org