This is my first visit to the iconic national parks – bodily, anyway, this is the first time my eyes have viewed the vistas, my nose sniffed at the spicy/sweet air, and my skin warmed under the local sun. In my mind, though, I’ve been to these places over and over through the words of writers like Edward Abbey, Terry Tempest Williams and John Muir. Like most stories transferred from the two-dimensional book to a visually-rich, sensory overloaded medium (in most cases, movies, in this case, real life), I am left disappointed.
Edward Abbey wrote of Arches National Park – then, Arches National Monument when he worked there for three summers in the 1960s – that motorized tourists tended to stay away “because of the unpaved entrance road, the unflushable toilets in the campgrounds, and the fact that most of them have never heard of Arches National Monument.” As Abbey noted, all of this must change – and it did change. Even while Abbey worked there, a road survey crew came through to build the main roads that we drove on in July 2018. Abbey spends the remainder of the chapter “Polemic: Industrial Tourism and the National Parks” being, of course, polemical and more than a bit unrealistic. Arguing that roads should be eliminated from all national parks, Abbey anticipates what his opponents might say: most interestingly of which is what of children and the elderly who wish to see the parks? Abbey responds to his straw-man that children can wait a few years to see them when they are older and can walk/bike ride/horseback ride to the sites, and the elderly and infirm missed their chances – sorry, too bad (Abbey, Desert Solitaire, “Polemic: Industrial Tourism”). Such callousness is thankfully, not the guiding mission of access to the parks today.
Abbey is a bit like your raving drunk Uncle at holiday dinners in this chapter – even bemoaning that today’s youths won’t know how to “comfort a girl during a thunderstorm” in addition to lacking practical skills like scale a rock, survive a blizzard and cook a porcupine. Like drunk Uncle, though, his ravings come from a place of personal experience that intersects truth and ideology. The roads in the parks do cause significant problems: congestion, environmental degradation, automobile accidents, increased litter, wildlife destruction, and so on. Without the roads, though, the American people don’t see their “national treasures” and forget why their taxes should pay for them in the first place. Ironically, it took me traveling to Arches to “see” all this and understand. And so, my first “view” of Arches was drastically different than what I believed it would be after reading Abbey. I thought that there would be a “right” and “wrong” way to understand Arches and the national parks – I would decide either on roads or no roads, black or white. After visiting the parks and seeing how limited access would be to those who are sensitive to heat such as children and people with varying levels of physical ability, as well as how truly deadly it would be for someone like me to try and access Arches National Park in the summer’s torturous heat, I see no black or white answer, no “moral high-road” of eliminating all pavement and blacktop in the parks. Instead, my perspective is more blurred than ever – a gray area. This is what polemics tend to produce – not a “one or the other,” but an understanding of the gray area in the middle. Truthfully, I am glad there are roads in Arches National Park, and if one seeks adventure, there are still wilderness areas for remote camping, backpacking and playing at survival. But like Abbey, I am concerned about the over-development of the parks. This became especially clear to me after visiting Yosemite National Park – the worst, most-beautiful place I’ve ever been.
I had also seen Yosemite National Park through someone else’s eyes before visiting. The most famous of all environmentalists, John Muir painted what I now see is an impossibly romantic picture of the mountains, valleys and streams that make up Yosemite. Indeed, Muir’s writings and views on Yosemite truly reflect ideas about nature, rather than many actualities. To Muir, Yosemite was a wilderness space, a cathedral to nature. In fact, Yosemite was not as wild as Muir would have us believe, as even he well knew when he hired Indian guides to take him around the Sierras (Muir, My First Summer, Chapter 5). Yosemite, as well as much of the Sierra Mountains, had been managed by California Indians for many years during the summer and fall – a place where they collected acorns, used fire to control game, and cut paths through the valleys and mountains (Righter, The Battle over Hetch Hetchy, 14.) Even having read about Muir’s mistaken belief in the untouched wilderness of Yosemite, I still took him at his word as he described El Capitan, Tuolumne Meadows and Mariposa Grove. This is of course unfair to Muir as at least 140 years separate his descriptions of Yosemite and my viewings of them.
Still, though, 140 years is not that long. And in that time, Yosemite has so transformed that I find it in shocking contrast to the Muir-inspired-vision in my mind’s eye. Echoing Edward Abbey in my complaints, the thing that shocked me most in Yosemite were the roads: namely the two-lane, one-way roads in and out of Yosemite Village. Let me repeat… there is a two-lane road in Yosemite! Evidence of how we are loving the parks to death. And why do we need a Yosemite Village? But then the question can certainly extend to myself: why do I need to visit Yosemite? If a lot fewer of us visited the park, would the two-lane one-way road be removed? Would the river stemming from Yosemite Village still be clogged with red inner tubes carrying people down the river? Would there be as many forest fires caused by careless campers? When we visited in July 2018 the park was ablaze from the Ferguson Fire – a truly shocking thing for us North-easterners to behold as the smoke was so bad it blocked views of El Capitan from only a few hundred feet away and rained ash down on us as we walked along the blacktop paths surrounding the two-lane, one-way road out of Yosemite Village. To be fair, we did enjoy the swimming in Tuolumne Lake, but even the views there were obstructed by smoke. And four-lane roadways are a part of many of the more popular parks – Yellowstone’s Old Faithful would be a congested mess if not for the four lane road leading to the visitor center.
Perhaps here is where one writer, Terry Tempest Williams, prepared me for what I might see, but I desperately wished her to be wrong. Williams describes her reaction to a forest fire she experienced in Glacier National Park in 2003. Williams and her family were much closer to the fire than we were at Yosemite, even having been taken for dead by the authorities at one point. Her words came back to me, though, as I looked over the ledge of a bridge towards the billowing smoke and a yellow haze coming from the south of the park: “Our family stayed up all night and, from the porch of the Granite Park Chalet, we watched the fires burn. The intensity of our focus must have been tied to a delusional belief that if we just kept our eyes on the flames, we could keep them at bay. This kind of magical thinking soothed us…” (Williams, The Hour of Land, 340). Like Williams, I had a hard time tearing my eyes away from the smoke, hoping that if I watched, if I willed, if I prayed, if I promised, the fires would end.
And while Williams gets it right, I still have to see for myself. We’re headed up to Glacier next despite her tales of near-death fire. Isn’t that what nature writers do, though? Convince us that we must save these places so that we can enjoy them. And so, we do save them, and we go and enjoy them. But perhaps we are enjoying them to death. The greatest paradox of the parks: these lands are preserved for their beauty and uniqueness so they can be seen and enjoyed. But when we all visit them, some of us less prepared for a wilderness experience than others, or perhaps not really looking for a wilderness experience but rather a scenic cruise on Yellowstone Lake or a horseback ride on mild, broken and branded horses through the Tetons, we might be taxing these precious places too much. I know this – but still I go with my fifth-wheel camper and marvel when a bison runs down the road alongside my parked diesel truck in Yellowstone and a chipmunk in Lake Tahoe Basin National Forest darts across the paved path. I visit the parks and therefore I’m part of this uncomfortable paradox, made even more apparent as I reconcile my expectations of the parks formed by the writings of my favorite naturalists with the reality of what I see.
For Further Reading
John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra
Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire
Terry Tempest Williams, The Hour of Land