The uniformed California park ranger was pleasant and polite. "That'll be $7," he calculated after noting my wife in the front seat beside me and my grandson Jude in the seat behind me.
"And it's a good thing you came today," the ranger added as he took my money. "The park'll be closing in September."
"Closing for the season?" I asked.
"No, I mean CLOSING," he said with emphasis. "The state's out of money. They're just closing the park. It's a shame. I guess they'll do some minimal maintenance. But it won't be open to the public. Same with a whole lot of state parks."
So Jack London State Park, a modest facility that was once the home of one of America's noted authors, will be barricaded a few days from now. The park is also-if you're driving from the south-one of the most accessible sites to explore California's giant redwood trees.
Déjà vu set in. My mind went back some 40 years to a similar experience in Zimbabwe. We had traveled some distance to see the famous Victoria Falls. But the best views of the falls, we were told, were closed to the public because the government didn't have the money to maintain such access.
Those, I understand, are hardly world-shattering announcements. But they do set a man to thinking: Just how many park closings-or their equivalents-does it take to move a nation down the ratings from the top of First World to the bottom of Third World status?
How many potholes on your street? City maintenance crews used to jump on them pretty fast. Now the bumpy gaps are three or maybe even four years old.
How many cycles of missed garbage collection? How many brown outs of the electrical grid? How many Minnesota-government-style shutdowns? How many riot-like demonstrations in the Wisconsin statehouse? How many cuts in Medicaid payments must your doctor or dentist endure before being driven from his or her practice?
As a nation tumbles down that cultural ladder, must it go by way of Europe? Do we need a series of features on the evening news, like those from Greece, highlighting how teachers and other government workers are taking to the streets at the barest mention of austerity measures? Or must we detour through London to see how spoiled students and other wards of the state react when they learn not all benefits are automatic?
This is, to be sure, a pretty simplistic, folksy, and pragmatic way of measuring a civilization's decline. We're not debating here which economic system is best, which political ideologies are closest to the truth, or which religions are most faithful. All we're doing is looking at the gritty results. A little bit like a team of archeologists, we're arriving at the scene and trying to put together the shattered shards of something that used to seem to work pretty well.
"Give me an example," I've asked a dozen friends in recent days, "of something that's working better for you than it did when you were much younger."
What's startled me is how hesitant they are in their responses. Phone service gets frequent mention. Medical prowess makes the list-but not the system that dispenses such skills. Interstate highways. Modern automobiles. Computers and related gizmos.
Conspicuously absent from virtually everybody's list is almost every government-related activity-with the interstate highway system as a notable exception. Postal service, weather and hurricane predicting, public education at every level, and agricultural programs-all these earn more sighs and even guffaws than kudos.
But isn't running a state park one thing the government has always done pretty well? Which makes the park ranger's comment especially poignant: "Good thing you came today. The park'll be closing in September."
On that scale from America to Zimbabwe, we've come a long way through the alphabet.