Monday, October 3, 2011

Petty Bureaucrats

In one episode of the animated Comedy Central series South Park, Eric Cartman's delusions of grandeur morph into the misconception that he's a highway patrol officer. As he peddles his Big Wheel down the Colorado highway in mirrored sunglasses, he demands that everyone he encounters "Respect Mah Authori-tah!"

The idea of how easily a tiny bit of power snowballs into petty authority run amok was driven home to me recently during a Saturday hike with my friend Carol. It was a beautiful Indian Summer afternoon, and we had arranged to do a seven-mile loop on Mt. Tamalpais in Marin County, just north of the Golden Gate Bridge. As the trail we were on led higher up the mountain, we crossed into land owned or managed by the Water District Authority, one of those shadowy agencies that governs -- what ...forests? Alpine lakes? I'm really not sure. But as we walked along a fire road with spectacular views of Richardson Bay and the towers of San Francisco in the distance, Carol suddenly realized that she had left the dog's leash in the car -- and dogs are required to be on leashes on all Water District fire roads.

"That's alright," I reassured her, "we're not likely to run into any rangers up here."

Which meant that immediately a large white truck containing two Water District "rangers" came around the bend and stopped where we stood. A fat man with white hair and a brown uniform of some kind got out and immediately asked Carol for her information. Inexplicably, she gave her real address but not her correct last name or date of birth (I later told her that if you're going to lie about your birthdate, use it as an opportunity to shave a few years off your age, not add them).

The ranger said he'd check her name against a list, and if she'd been warned before, she'd receive a $200 fine. He also told us that we needed to return the way we'd come, but since we'd still be walking on the fire road for a distance he would give us a rope to use for the dog.

"Well, since I'll have a leash, can't we just keep going in this direction until we connect with the trail?" Carol asked, quite reasonably.

The man shook his head. "Oh no. Because then there would be no consequences for your actions," he said solemnly.

"So this is a morality lesson, then," I said, amazed that an elderly man in a cheap brown uniform in the middle of a forest had taken it upon himself to issue a life lesson to two middle-aged adults. He looked at us like he was considering some additional punishment but got back in his truck with his fellow "ranger" and drove off the way we'd come.

That's when it struck me that we didn't have to obey him, and could continue the loop we'd planned. Pulling the dog along by the makeshift leash, we scurried up the road until we got to our trail and made our way down the mountain.

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