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Jean Muenchrath, Estes Park, CO
Sheep Lakes
A Royal Encounter: Back in 1994, my supervisor at Rocky Mountain National Park called me into his office. “We have an important job for you,” he said, “You will serve as the personal guide to the Emperor and Empress of Japan on their up-coming visit.” Almost every detail of the Emperor’s visit was calculated. Security was paramount. First, the Secret Service visited Rocky. They timed the drive along our pre-planned route and investigated every adjacent building, trail and overlook. Shortly afterwards, teams of Japanese officials arrived to find the perfect place for royalty to merge with nature’s majesty. Next we had a rehearsal lunch at the Stanley Hotel in nearby Estes Park. Restaurant staff served us shrimp. Minutes later a crude scene unfolded in the dining room of this elegant historic inn. Rocky’s rangers tore the scales off large lifeless shrimp to get to the meat inside. In the process, shards of scales were unintentionally flung about the white tablecloths. On the spot, the restaurant manager decided he would serve a different appetizer. This would save rangers and foreign dignitaries from embarrassment. On the morning of June 20, 1994 I stood at the Sheep Lakes parking lot surrounded by Secret Service and Park Service officials. Reporters and photographers hungry for the perfect shot were held at bay behind a rope at the adjacent information kiosk. Everyone seemed anxious. When the royal motorcade appeared, I realized that the more subtle protocols of hosting a foreign dignitary had not been fully revealed to me. As Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko stepped out of the car, I wondered if I should shake hands or bow. I did both. After introductions, I walked the couple to the meadow’s edge. Behind us was a backdrop of steep, snow-covered mountains. Below us was a small lake where bighorn sheep come to eat the shoreline mud for their minerals. It was the perfect setting for me to give a personalized interpretive talk on wild sheep. Our next destination was Moraine Park Museum. Overcome with eagerness, I mistakenly tried to enter the car first when our Secret Service driver opened the door of a white Cadillac. As the agent yanked me backwards, my face turned cherry-red. Then the Empress slid into the back seat, followed by myself and the Emperor. The atmosphere of our scenic tour became easy-going once we were traveling behind closed doors. Later we gathered inside the museum’s glass-enclosed viewing room. I was horrified when we were served iced tea in grotesque, colorful crystal glasses – perhaps hot green tea might have been more appealing to our Asian guests. As the Emperor and his wife listened to the Superintendent’s welcome speech and my interpretive presentation, the sky turned from cobalt to platinum. Just before our departure, clouds burst into a torrent of rain. Security personnel became nervous as we scurried outside to our cars. The royal couple was hidden under a nearly continuous canopy of black umbrellas while an explosion of thunder pierced the atmosphere. Once our entourage was on its way, the Emperor and Empress shared with me how much they loved the mountains and how sad they were that their lives rarely allowed them the opportunity to visit wild places. This really touched me. It might also have colored my judgment for what unfolded next. In a sweet, soft-spoken voice, the Empress said, “I want to see Sheep Lakes just like the sheep do. I want to go down to the water.” Now I was in a dilemma. The lakes are officially closed to the public to protect the bighorn sheep. We would be passing the overlook in just a few moments. Revisiting Sheep Lakes was not on our official agenda and the parking lot was now packed with visitors. With a smile on my face, I nodded at her while pondering what I should do. Then I taped on the glass dividing the back seat from the front one. The Secret Service agent in the front passenger seat turned around to look at me. “Pull over at Sheep Lakes,” I instructed him. He mumbled something into his lapel pin before we pulled into the parking lot. Next the Empress flung the car door open and ran down the hillside. Since this was an unplanned detour, I was worried about the security staff overreacting. I ran behind the Empress. Trailing behind me was a mass of reporters toting their cameras along with freaked-out Secret Service staff. I quickly searched for something to say so that the armed guards could catch up to us. When I reached her, I blurted out, “Take it slow, high altitude can be dangerous!” She took my advice and slowed down. Behind us, onlookers stood at the edge of the parking lot wondering what was going on. Who were all these people trespassing a wildlife closure and getting caught on film? After our fiasco at Sheep lakes the royal couple dined with several dozen park rangers at the Stanley Hotel. I sat between the Emperor and the Park Superintendent. Without thinking, the Superintendent reached over and grabbed the bread off the Emperor’s plate. Then he realized he had mistaken the Emperor’s bread plate for his own. While holding the half-eaten bread, he apologized to the Emperor in his own loveable way, “Well, what do you expect from an Iowa farm boy?” Emperor Akihito immediately put him at ease with a story from his North American tour. “Don’t worry,” he said, “Just a few days ago we were having dinner at the White House with President Clinton and he accidently grabbed my wine glass and drank out of it.” We all laughed together about the pomp and circumstance that goes into hosting normal everyday people who happen to be in high positions. Any remaining pretenses evaporated into the jovial atmosphere.

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