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From the mean streets to the national parks

Shelton Johnson, the world’s best-known park ranger, is reconnecting African Americans with the great outdoors

Shelton Johnson as Elizy Bowman. Credit: Glenn Nelson/TrailPosse

This story originally appeared in High Country News.

Shelton Johnson is the Michael Jordan among people of color engaged in the outdoors. He is the community’s most accomplished champion of nature and its biggest crossover conservation celebrity. He is the most recognizable – on many levels cherished – ambassador to national parks. While Betty Reid Soskin, also African-American and the oldest park ranger at 94, may be equally beloved (she was even invited to help light the White House Christmas tree last year), she’s not as ubiquitous a presence as Johnson.

It’s almost easier to list what Johnson is not than what he is, which includes: thespian, orator, musician, novelist, playwright, star of screens big and small, connoisseur of culture, and nerd of the highest order. Listen to the audio version of his novel Gloryland(Sierra Club Books), catch his performance as Elizy Boman in his one-man play, Yosemite Through the Eyes of a Buffalo Soldier, and you will hear his voice in song. On top of all that, he not only survived the mean streets of his native Detroit, he twice was in such proximity to agitated grizzly bears to have taken measure of the fangs that should have ripped him to pieces.

And, oh yeah: If any average American can identify a National Park ranger, it doubtless would be Shelton Johnson. It’s not because of the 10 major awards he’s won for his commendable service in the agency, the last of which was the Superior Service Award from the Interior Department in 2015. Nor is it because he’s appeared in two Rose Parades, including this year’s.

People know Shelton Johnson because he was the consensus breakout star of the Ken Burns documentary, National Parks: America’s Best Idea, viewed by more than 34 million people during its first run on PBS in 2009.

Some know Johnson because he summoned the biggest megaphone possible for diversity: He got Oprah Winfrey to camp overnight at Yosemite National Park in 2010, which turned into two episodes on her talk show that were the highest rated of all time.

high-country-newsFor years, Johnson has funneled all that visibility, talent and experience into the role of a lifetime – “spokesperson for the dead,” as he puts it. Which means keeping alive the story of the Buffalo Soldiers, a story he believes has the power to coax dislocated communities of color back to Yosemite and other national parks. Buffalo Soldiers, the all-black Army regiments who served as precursors to park rangers at the turn of the 20th century, represent a historic, spiritual and cultural link between African-Americans and national parks, where they are the system’s most underrepresented racial group.

“I want to use the Buffalo Soldiers to get African-Americans to embrace their heritage of America’s best idea,” Johnson says.

Pop quiz: The sesquicentennial (150th anniversary) of the formation of the Buffalo Soldiers is July 28, 2016. Raise your hand if any calendar you own marks the occasion.

Exactly.

Shelton Johnson began his national parks career at Yellowstone National Park, where a visitor once asked him: “How does a brother from Detroit wind up here?”

Johnson had replied, “It’s called an application,” but “application,” alone is the more apt explanation. He’d applied himself on so many levels.

His father enlisted in the Army, then the Air Force, so Johnson had been to California, England, Germany, Kansas City and back to Detroit by the time he was 6. He soon added destinations such as the wilderness and iconic public lands like Yellowstone, as well as planets far away and events past and future. He’d booked them all in his imagination. Reading was a means of escaping the inner city. Music was another way.

When Johnson years later loosed his torrents of silver-tongued insights before Ken Burns’ cameras, he’d been driven to overcome past public endeavors undermined by crises of self-confidence. One in particular haunts him; it likely sabotaged a career in music that others had presaged for him. He regrets it more for the way he tanked. Johnson attended Cass Technical High, a Detroit college-preparatory school renowned for its contributions to arts and entertainment. Its alumni include the likes of Diana Ross and Lily Tomlin, and jazz notables such as pianist Geri Allen and keyboard player Greg Phillinganes. A classically trained clarinetist, Johnson auditioned for the Cass Tech jazz ensemble, playing Herbie Hancock’s Maiden Voyage, but not the way he and his classmates knew he could. At one point, a friend onstage told Johnson something he already knew: “Shelton, you’re choking.”

“I was good,” Johnson says, “but I was not confident that I was as good as I thought I was.”

Years later, Johnson seized upon the Burns interview as an opportunity for redemption. He’d been asked to a film session at the Officer’s Club at the Presidio in San Francisco, ostensibly to contribute about the Buffalo Soldiers, who garrisoned at the Presidio between summers at Yosemite. Johnson sensed that more was at stake for him and adopted the mantra, “failure is not an option.” He nailed his answer to the first question from Burns, and knew it. The interview – and the magic – continued.

Johnson ended up being featured prominently in all six parts of the 12-hour film. He also opens and closes a corollary documentary, This is America, that focuses on the contributions of people of color to the national park system.

The Shelton Johnson who emerged from the experience – “the greatest of my life,” he says – is a riffmaster, the personification of opening a can of springy snakes. Head on a five-minute head trip with him and leave the maps at home. They won’t help. He might play two flutes at once, quote a science-fiction novel, cite Greek gods, and invoke economic theory, geology, or politics. I watched him turn a hello from a pair of young women from San Diego into a 10-minute conversation, mostly one-sided, about bear behavior and safety. He transformed meeting a ranger from Finland into a discussion of the great Finnish composer, Jean Sibelius.

Johnson delivered a speech in May that opened the World Ranger Congress in Estes Park, Colorado. He’d walked into the talk with a general outline, but went mostly where his gut and instincts led him. No surprise then that one of his heroes is John Coltrane, one of the all-time great jazz improvisers. Johnson admitted that he hadn’t slept well the night before the keynote, and that he still always gets nervous before major speaking engagements.

“I’m just no longer paralyzed by my nervousness,” Johnson says. “I use it as fuel to get me going.”

The speech in Estes Park elicited a prolonged standing ovation. Johnson signed copies of his novel Gloryland afterward in the lobby. He was supposed to be there maybe an hour, but stayed for three and a half. During that time, the Rocky Mountain Conservancy sold about 70 copies of his book, almost an entire inventory they’d considered optimistic. It’s instructive to note that for many of the purchasers, English was not their first language.

Johnson of course had intended a more domestic resonance with the tale of Elijah Yancy, the son of sharecroppers who journeys from Spartanburg, South Carolina, eventually ending up in Yosemite Valley, where he rides with the Buffalo Soldiers. Gloryland is sown liberally with details from Johnson’s own past – Spartanburg being his father’s hometown, for example, and Yancy the name of his maternal grandfather, a black Indian from Oklahoma.

In a way, the novel was a gift from the men – the dead men – whose company Johnson has chosen to keep. He accepted a mantle, he says, from African-American interpretive rangers Althea Roberson and Kenneth Noel, who preceded him at Yosemite, to keep the Buffalo Soldier story alive and nurture it to connect their community and the park.

The Buffalo Soldiers were assigned to defend Yosemite, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks from poachers and timber thieves in 1899, 1903, and 1904, well before the establishment of the National Park Service in 1916; they also patrolled in Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks. Their commanding officer, Charles Young, became the first African American superintendent of a national park, Sequoia.

One day while rummaging through the Yosemite archives for something that might add sparkle to his presentation, Johnson unearthed a forgotten treasure. It was a faded photograph from 1899 showing five black U.S. Army Infantry soldiers in the Yosemite backcountry.

Johnson told the Associated Press that the discovery was like “stumbling into your own family while traveling in a foreign country.”

Convinced there was even more to unearth, Johnson embarked on a years-long hunt that took him through various archives, libraries and military records. He found military records showing that many of the men who made up the four segregated black regiments of the U.S. Army were from the Jim Crow South. The black soldiers also were present in much larger numbers than originally thought. He found accountings of previously unrecognized Buffalo Soldier accomplishments – they built the first usable road into the Giant Forest of Sequoias and the first trail to the top of Mt. Whitney (the tallest peak in the contiguous U.S.) as well as constructed an arboretum in Yosemite National Park that may be the first marked nature trail in the park system.

Johnson believed he’d struck cultural gold.

“It’s important because many African-Americans don’t feel a cultural connection to national parks,” Johnson says. “They literally don’t think it’s a black thing. They think it’s something that European-Americans do. How can any person of color, any African-American, hear those particular historic facts and not feel a sense of connection and kinship and ownership of this place?

“It’s a great story and people don’t know about it. Why hasn’t Steven Spielberg called me? Why hasn’t Spike Lee called me? Why hasn’t Clint Eastwood called me? It’s not just an African-American story. It’s an African in the Americas story.”

Johnson is prepared to answer the artistic call. Rather than a park ranger who happened to write a novel, he is quite the opposite. He was in one of the most elite graduate fine arts programs in the country, at the University of Michigan. He was mentored by, among others, Maxine Hong Kingston, a preeminent Asian-American writer who helped him on the path to his novel, Gloryland. He also is the recipient of a Major Hoopwood Award, an honor that’s previously been conferred upon the likes of Arthur Miller and Joyce Carol Oates.

After his first year of creative writing in the MFA program at Michigan, Johnson began contemplating quiet places where he could write during the summer. A roommate had a blank application for seasonal work at Yellowstone National Park. Johnson filled it out, was offered a job washing dishes at the Old Faithful Inn and accepted, figuring he needed “experiences” to feed the book he intended to write.

Instead, Johnson fell in love with Yellowstone, where he hiked and camped for the first time in his life, and didn’t return to the Michigan campus until much later to address a graduating class of English majors.

And that is how application, as well an application, took a brother from Detroit to the national parks.

Spend any time with Shelton Johnson at Yosemite National Park and his celebrity is clear. He’s been there for 23 of his 33 years in the National Park Service and towers at 6 feet 3 – and those contribute to his high profile. Just sit with him a few moments in a public space and this is what inevitably will happen:

Someone (whispering): “That’s him.”

Someone else (interrupting): “You’re a movie star. I saw you in the video.”

Johnson (shaking hands): “There’s a decided discrepancy in income between park ranger and movie star. I can tell you most definitively that I’m not a movie star.”

And the visitor will laugh, perhaps ask for a group selfie. But he or she also will be white – about 100 percent of the time. Over the course of the three days I got to hang with Johnson at Yosemite, I did not see him approached by a single person of color. Johnson says this is the norm.

Which means Johnson, despite his ample amplification, still largely is not being heard or heeded by the people he is trying hardest to reach. At Yosemite, blacks make up one percent or less of attendance, according to the most recent visitation studies, conducted by the University of Idaho in 2008 and 2009. Only 28 percent of all African-Americans had visited any national park during the two years previous to the Park Service’s last comprehensive study of visitation demographics, also conducted in 2009. Further, the ranks of the National Park Service are 83 percent white and Johnson virtually is a lone (African-American) ranger in his own park, the same as he was when he worked at Yellowstone. For most of the year, the only black person he sees on a daily basis is Olotumi Laizer, who is from Tanzania and works at the Yosemite Valley Visitor Center for the Yosemite Conservancy.

Though he’d expressed interest in learning more about the Buffalo Soldiers history, even President Obama came recently with his family to Yosemite and left without having discussed the subject with the man most closely identified with it. At one point during the weekend, Johnson stood with Obama at the top of Vernal Falls. He mentioned the Buffalo Soldiers to the President, but his words were drowned by the roar of the rushing water. He decided to let it be.

“He was standing above a beautiful waterfall with granite soaring around him – Grizzly Peak, Mt. Broderick, and Liberty Cap,” Johnson says of Obama. “The shine in the rock made the mountains buoyant, weightless as light. Obama’s family was close by, the wind was cool, the sun bright and warm. He was in that moment, fully in the here and now. I could see it in his eyes, in the posture of his body. He was in Yosemite and Yosemite was in him. Eternity was talking to him, and I was an interruption to that conversation, the buzzing of a bee lost in the thunder that is water falling back to the earth.

“You don’t stand between the President of the United States and all of creation, so I decided to let Yosemite do all of the talking and remain silent. Nothing I said in that moment would’ve meant anything, but what Yosemite was saying in that moment meant everything.”

The cost of keeping the Buffalo Soldiers alive has not been inconsequential for Shelton Johnson. He has resisted promotions so he could continue playing an active role in telling their story. That means, after all these years, his federal pay grade is an entry-level equivalent in a lot of other fields. “I facilitate astonishment,” Johnson says. “I didn’t join the Park Service for money; I get paid in gasps.”

That’s a nice sentiment, if it weren’t for all the years of cultural isolation to also account for.

An African-American family once drove up to Johnson’s station at the west entrance of Yellowstone, where he was the only black ranger.

Both were startled to see each other.

After regaining his composure, the father said, “You’re the last thing I expected to see at this gate.”

“Take a good look,” Johnson replied.

The family rolled in appearing a little apprehensive about a national park visit, but Johnson says their mood brightened after the exchange. He remembers most clearly the car driving away and the two children, a girl and a boy, waving at him with big smiles through the rear window. He is a peripatetic military brat who’d advanced to a peripatetic Park Service career. In between, he did three months in the Peace Corps in Liberia — “long enough to almost die,” he says, from a combination of malaria and dysentery. So his has been a lifetime of goodbyes, one of the most memorable of which came from the only family he’d seen at Yellowstone that looked like his. They’d been leaving him but heading into a national park. And were happy about it.

And, yes, Shelton Johnson believes, in a profound way, that he was glimpsing himself in those two black children. And that brings a smile to his face, too.

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