ESTES PARK, Colorado — Markus and Manuela Grunau traveled 5,000 miles to be here. They live in Cologne, Germany. They flew from Germany to Chicago, and from Chicago to Denver, where they landed on Monday and rented a black Ford Escape. On the airplane they read German language newspapers. They drove through Golden to get to Estes Park because the roads through Boulder were flood-damaged and closed. They set up their tent in Moraine campground in the Rocky Mountain National Park.
Around 9 a.m. on Tuesday, after the federal government halted all but essential federal services, two National Park Service Rangers informed them they had 48-hours to leave the park.
“We made plans for this vacation I think 15 months ago,” Markus said. “We really like being in America. It’s such a pity.”
The rangers declined to talk to the Colorado Independent about the shutdown, but said “no recreating” was allowed on the drive out — no stopping to view the elk or hike on any trails. The park was closed, as were the roads through the park. For campers who stayed the night, it was a straight shot out. The 48-hour window was intended to allow backcountry hikers time to return from the wilderness and pack up.
The Grunaus planned to drive from Colorado to Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming and then on to Yellowstone, a two-and-a-half week trip. In the last year, they said they’ve visited the U.S. five times. They said they are Global Entry members, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection program that streamlines security clearance for pre-approved travelers—only recently available to German citizens.
“We’re looking for a bright light on the horizon,” Markus said. “We’ll try to get to some state parks, to make the best of it.”
Rocky Mountain National Park is generally packed this time of year, when the Aspens make gold streaks among the mountainside pines and herds of elk shuffle across the low-lying lake valleys to prepare to mate. Visitors who come to watch the elk know this time of year as “elktober.” But the torrential mid-September rains and floods closed the whole park and then parts of the park for the last couple of weeks. The Grunaus’ campground was all but dead, hosting a couple dozen hardy stragglers hoping the shutdown wouldn’t happen.
“Reopening the park after the floods has been very deliberate,” said Kyle Patterson, a park information officer. Last Thursday, 93 percent of the park was reopened, and by Sunday, nearly the whole park was open—“a cause of significant celebration.”
But because of the shutdown, by noon on Tuesday, most of the staffers buzzing around the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center were set to go home. A number were scheduled to work for the whole day, and only a few essential personnel were scheduled over the next few days. Most of the remaining staff in the Park after Thursday will be law-enforcement rangers.
Patterson said a majority of park’s 165 permanent employees will be furloughed, which means an immediate pay suspension. The supervisor was sending out letters on Tuesday. The roughly 200 seasonal employees have nearly reached the end of their stint, but they too would be furloughed.
“A big part of our mission got reversed—we’re now focused on protecting life and property,” Patterson said. “We consider the shutting down of the park an operation or incident.”
As for the backcountry hikers, Patterson said park officials knew what days the hikers were staying in and what days they were leaving because they all have to apply for permits. In the lead up to the shutdown, the park Service told any backcountry hikers applying about the possibility of closure. As a result, relatively few hikers remained in the backcountry on Tuesday—but rangers aren’t trekking down trails to try and find them, Patterson said.
“We’ll do what we’re told to do, but a lot of us are in the Park Service because we love the natural parks, and on a beautiful fall day like today, the fall colors are changing and the elk are in the fields,” Patterson said. “So you know we love to be out here in the mountains, and we love sharing this with the visitors.”
After the last shutdown, furloughed employees received back pay, but Patterson didn’t know yet what would happen after the shutdown this time around. Employees living in the Park Service housing near the visitors center were paying rent, so they won’t be kicked out — but they also won’t be getting paid.
Economic Impact, Flooding Damage
“I’d hate if [the roads through the park] were closed due to Republican stupidity,” said Jim Kellerman, who was camping the night of the shutdown. Kellerman is a self-described music therapist who has been on the road for the last three years. He plays music in more than 1000 senior community centers across the nation.
Kellerman was joined by Gisele Kelley, who flew from Cincinnati on Monday. Kelley said she works in a hospital and lives in the town and neighborhood where John Boehner lived and where he got his political start in the 1980s.
Kellerman and Kelley were planning on staying two more days in the park and then heading to Hot Sulphur Springs. Kellerman worried about getting to the Springs if the roads through the park were closed.
It’s not easy in the wake of the floods to get to Estes Park. Highway 36 is closed from Boulder. Like the Grunaus, Kellerman and Kelly traveled through Golden, and then along Peak-to-Peak Highway.
Peak-to-Peak was a flood-frayed ribbon. Especially north of Nederland, large sections of the road had been eaten away to dirt. Orange construction cones peaked out of feet-deep ruts along some the mountainside and near parts of crumbled road. Passersby pulled off the asphalt near Saint Malo Retreat Center to view the wrecked field in front of the center. Pot holes pocked the ascent on Highway 7 from Estes Park.
Rangers suggested taking Gold Hill Road. One backcountry ranger said all four-wheeled vehicles coming down the mountain are allowed travel. But as an officer put it, “it’ll make your teeth chatter.” The road is heavily trafficked because it is the most direct route into Boulder—but it’s also mostly dirt, and like many other roads in the state, obvious flooding damage is seen in the ruts paralleling the road. The traffic is especially concerning when the dirt road loses flat ground to a steep drop off on one side. The other side is a rivulet along the mountain face.
The flooding, the road damage, the park closure—local businesses have felt the impact of an unlucky season.
“It started with the bike race,” said Brenda Jo Weitz, manager at The Other Side Restaurant in Estes Park, referring to the USA Pro Challenge. The race closed many roads into Estes Park. “We were in the middle of the bike race, not the beginning or end. And then we had the floods, which they just recovered from. And now [the shutdown].”
But Weitz sees the community as a group of people unwilling to be disappointed. A woman walked into the restaurant wearing a Mountain Strong t-shirt.
“It’s like they’re trying to drown us. But it’s not our first rodeo.”
The last bugle heard by man
On the eve of the shutdown, an elk bull at the Sheep Lakes in Rocky Mountain National Park bugled eerie threats across the flat, high-grass valley. Other bulls listened to gauge his strength, Ranger Justine Booth explained. The bull was ready to fight. A family of four from Connecticut and a couple from New York watched him in the field.
“There are two things the elk want to do at this time of year—to mate and to fight,” Booth said.
She knows all about the elk who come fight on a predictable schedule in the meadow. She talked about the coming government shutdown with the uncertainties of a new experience.
When she isn’t at the park, Booth works at an animal shelter in Longmont.
“For me personally, I think my pay would just be cut off, but I have a job I could go back to.”
She said she worried what some of the other employees would do.
Seven-year-old Emit Anthony was full of questions and answers: How fast can a bull run? Are some bulls not attached to a herd? Are there some bulls that don’t have antlers? Bulls without antlers can’t fight, he said. Booth agreed. The smaller bulls don’t want to fight the bigger one because they know they’ll lose, he said. Booth agreed.
Suddenly a bull and a group of cows, known as a harem, appeared on the east end of the valley. Another herd appeared on the west. The Sheep Lakes filled magically with hundreds of elk, maybe eight bulls echoing their unworldly threats. A crowd of cars that had been leapfrogging and following the herds across the valley had gathered around where Booth was talking about elk. Thirty or so people wrapped in multicolored blankets looked down at plains. They watched through binoculars or cameras. The sun had ducked behind the mountains and the temperature dropped.
“Maybe we’ll get a big show tonight,” Booth said.
Melissa and Todd Anthony paid for a cottage for a week, so when the government shut down, they didn’t think they could get their money back. Three-year-old Greta pulled her blanket behind her like a cape and let it flutter as the wind took it flapping.
Booth suggested the Anthonys attempt to hike in a state rather than a national park. Melissa asked if the Arapaho Forest was a state park. Booth told her no, it would be shut, too.
Two bulls locked antlers in the middle of the grassy field, until one chased the other away. Emit was looking away and didn’t see it happen. It was 9:00 p.m. in D.C. Congress was three hours away from successfully shutting down the government and closing the national parks.
“The animals won’t care. We won’t be able to staff the visitor center, the roads will be closed, the trails will be closed, and the gates will be closed. The animals may like the break,” Booth said. Much of the crowd had dispersed.
Emit asked if the bulls only just want to fight. The winner of the fight got the spoils of the harem, Booth said.
“The point of sparring and the fight is not to fight to the death, but just to show off.”