For 14 years, Jordan Fisher Smith worked as a park ranger on the American River in California's Sierra Nevada. That's 14 years of dust and sun, 14 years of taking detailed statements from drunken miners and filing endless reports, 14 years of patrolling the kind of country that attracts crazies and outlaws.
The latter is especially true in the case of Smith's particular post. The American River had, some years before he arrived, been approved for a large dam that would flood the entire valley. But for years, those plans languished in legislative deadlock, putting the project on hold. That the area would be wiped out in the future meant few people cared what happened in the present. Miners dug the valley up for gold, Hollywood stuntmen smashed their cars onto the valley floor and the government put little effort into manning the ranger station.
That, of course, makes for some good stories. And as the title of Nature Noir: A Park Ranger's Patrol in the Sierra suggests, many of them are imbued with mysterious, private-eye atmosphere as Smith recalls the strange characters he met and the crimes he tracked down. The depressed and the thrill-hungry are jumping off bridges. A sheriff's wife is murdered, her body never found.
Smith's writing lives up to that noir feel most of the time. In one chapter, "A Natural Death," he retraces the steps of a woman who left her car to go for a run through the woods, but who was hunted down and killed by a mountain lion. He builds the suspense adroitly, reporting the evidence as he comes across it, making the reader guess what happened to her.
But, as is too often the case throughout the book, he destroys the tension of his first-person narrative with shockingly dull historical perspective. Just when the drama reaches a crescendo, he segues to a line like this: "The legislative history of cougars in California reflects the change in attitudes toward predators with the growth of an environmental ethic in the 1960s and 1970s ..." But what happened to the cougar? You start skipping ahead.
Smith is smart to interweave the history and the drama of the territory he patrolled, but it seems that all those years of filing boring reports may have caught up with him.