At 100 Years Old, The National Park System Has Never Been More Important
We’ve got kids all across this country who never see a park … we have to change that. Because the beauty of the National Park system is it belongs to everybody.” – President Obama
Obama recently took the family on a trip to Yosemite. Under towering waterfalls he spoke of the challenges facing the world due to global warming, changes made obvious by receding glaciers in our great parks like Yosemite (though I would posit they’re even more visible in places like Glacier National Park, whose eponymous glaciers are shrinking at alarming rates). It makes sense that of all the parks he would choose this one to deliver a speech on the Centennial. After all, it’s still the only place a US President has ever disappeared.
It’s 1903. President Teddy Roosevelt was camping in the Yosemite with early conservationist and executive member of the world naturalist all-time HOF, John Muir. One day, after no doubt some giggling like schoolboys and furtive whispers, the two managed to escape Teddy’s escorts and security and set off for a couple day adventure. Roosevelt emerged with a fervent commitment to preserving such natural national treasures and Yosemite was made a National Park.
Teddy Roosevelt, Old Bull Moose himself, leader of the Rough Riders and explorer of rivers, a man who took a bullet to the chest before a campaign speech and stuck around to deliver the 45-minute oratory, set aside 5 National Parks. Of course the idea was nothing new; in 1872 Ulysses S. Grant designated Yellowstone the first National Park in his Act of Dedication. Exactly 100 years ago this August, Woodrow Wilson created the National Park Service.
To celebrate the NPS has mounted an unprecedented campaign, complete with hashtag #findyourpark. Halfway through the centennial summer, record crowds have flocked to our nation’s parks. With the dangers of global warming threatening to melt glaciers, kill species and turn open areas into tinder boxes, certainly for many this may be the last time they can see the parks the way Teddy and Ulysses and Woody meant for us to see them. Add the threat from homegrown terrorists mounting growing movements to take lands back from the US government and put them in the hands of the states and likely from there private hands and we have to wonder how long we’ll be able to visit public federal lands and gaze in awe. While other issues such as the BLM movement, the evolution of law enforcement, the war on terror and the frightful rise of Trump’s message of bigotry and exclusion have dominated the headlines, the Parks may yield the best hope for our future. And at the same time provide a stark painting of how far we’ve come from our place as part of the natural world; that is, from our very humanity.
National Park as Escape
It’s been a rotten couple weeks. Facederbating has risen to a fever pitch, with one side shrieking that Black Lives Matter is a terrorist organization that can only exist at the expense of all other lives; meanwhile the other side stares slack-jawed as close to half of America, mostly comprising the ones we didn’t know even still existed, embraces a bigoted blowhard with no substance and a so-so professional record and yet at the same time buys the bigoted pachyderm party line propaganda that our progressive hope is the most corrupt leader since Caligula when all evidence points in the opposite direction.
Having spent a good portion of last Friday arguing with two party-line conservatives about the fact that black people might have something to fear from police, and also debating the difference between veterans dying for a cause they signed up to sacrifice their lives for and citizens dying because an itchy trigger is holding a government-issued Glock, I was wasted mentally, emotionally, physically. All hope for the future of mankind was gone. I slept dreamless until 215 AM when I woke to start my day. I thought about the Brides of Trump, bile rising like a geyser as I heated the breakfast burrito I made the night before and put on my gear, double-checked my pack and rumbled off into the dark of early morning (or late night, depending on your outlook).
In the pre-dawn chill I vaguely remembered my frustration at the party-line propaganda they were spewing, at the fury burning up these two strange women of unknown age from Virginia at my disrespect for authority (never mind their hatred of Federal authority, local authority is a God). By the time the sun was up, illuminating the valley floor a couple thousand feet below me, I wondered why somebody would be so angry at the words of a stranger on a site used during non-election-years for posting party pictures and sarcastic memes of Kardashians and silly pet videos. By the time we were ducking from the high winds at the upper saddle of the Grand Teton, nothing existed outside that small landing of rock and the ice filling the chimneys we’d be climbing. Standing atop the summit, I drank in the endless horizon. The view of eternity almost made me forget that humanity had destroyed much of this natural beauty far beyond where the sky ends. I breathed deep a silence never found anywhere where cars drive and people walk and carouse and scream and harass; so essentially nearly everywhere else. All of the hours spent Facederbating with concrete-skulled bigots and of the accompanying boiling hatred back on earth had been left behind somewhere around the Briggs slab. Now, 13,770 feet up and despite the fact that I was laden down with climbing gear and food and water, was bundled against windchill taking it down to high single digits, was exhausted and knew that I had to go back the 10 miles and 7,000 vertical feet I had just come up, I felt lighter, freer, more at peace than I had in my mortal earthbound life in a long time.
There’s a freedom in nature, and when we exert ourselves to explore places beyond our comfort zone, we get a glimpse of our very humanity, our evolution from part of the natural world to master of most of it. We get humbled by these grand mountains, rivers, vistas, escarpments, monoliths, cliffs that were here long before mankind was even a thought and will be here long after all the cities and nations and iPhones crumble to dust. And as life speeds up and we become more connected and millennials clamber over each other to see who can gentrify the next blighted urban corner so they can take public transportation everywhere to work, as we talk about saving the environment but plug in more toys (causing a greater need for energy creation which is still mostly coal-burning) and dream of taking private jets everywhere, as we get so crushed by the online news cycle that we can hardly breathe from one police shooting to the next shooting of police to the next racist statement uttered as an inalienable fact by some high-ranking GOP politico, as we find ourselves drowning in the hate of anonymous online battles and see those battle lines being drawn ever thicker, the only way I can see us ever returning to some semblance of civility and unity with a clear future is by taking a collective step back, a collective breath, a collective reappraisal from beyond the lines of civilization, and figuring out how we can save ourselves from ourselves, together.
As we march towards more and more inhumane treatment of each other, the only way to find our humanity is seemingly by going to some of the last places on earth that are still wild, like once we had been. And luckily for us, some of our greatest presidents had enough prescience to ensure that some lands stay wild forever. All we have to do is visit them.
How The Parks Help Us Become Better People
It’s tough to unplug when you live in a city, despite the countless benefits. You gotta go far enough away that cell reception is seriously hindered or gone altogether. Even more, if you’re going for a hike you can’t keep looking at your phone if you’re trying to get anywhere; if you’re out surfing or SUPing, there’s absolutely no way you can access your phone. And if you’re going camping in a National Park, you can’t leave your phone on or it’ll die. I put my phone in airport mode on Park adventures to save the batteries both for picture taking and for the possible emergency in which I may have to search for signals to give the old Search and Rescue a ring.
Strengthen Your Body
The gym is one of the greatest 21st-century inventions, a large building that allows us to tone our muscles and burn off fat regardless of how urban and devoid of space our lives may be. But gyms get stale. And that 45-minute workout is good, but nothing beats long hikes and climbs (and of course climbing runs)(just ask running superman Kilian Jornet) for physical health. As a 32-year-old gym rat and urbanite I wore ankle and knee braces if I moved faster than a quick walk or lifted more than a heavy backpack. Since moving to the Tetons taking the mountains on as my extra-marital affair, I’ve lost a good 10-15 pounds, my joint problems are gone and I’m in the best shape of my life at 35. As land development booms and wealthy people pick up larger swaths of wilderness and turn them into neighborhoods, increasingly the only place you will be able to get out for long exercise in nature will be our National lands. With the National PArks, of course, as the poster children for such programs.
Fix Your Head
Hiking’s positive effects on your mind are countless. A couple big ones (as outlined by outdoor powerhouse Teton Gravity Research) include reducing anxiety, boosting creativity and lowers stress and fights depression. Basically, getting out in nature is better than all those Xanax and anti-depressants and other pills people seem to take like candy to survive in today’s world.
Sure, you can explore bars and restaurants; hell, I spent years tromping around L.A. in search of the next Vietnamese-Irish fusion restaurant and seeking out drinking joints made to look like an Amsterdam whorehouse from 1884. But no amount of exposed airducts and absinthe-infused cocktails in bars that require you to enter through a secret door disguised as a cabinet can keep you from the eventual realization that you’ve tried them all out. Exploration is the only thing that separates us from animals, really. Animals spend their days working hard to provide food for themselves and their families; they too work hard to build shelters and try to keep them up. They have territories and rarely leave them, content to spend everyday making the rounds in search of provisions. Some animals can even use tools and most animals can adapt. No, the only thing animals never do is explore for the sake of exploration. That’s uniquely human.
Yellowstone is 5 times the size of the state of Rhode Island. Few places on earth offer as much of an opportunity for exploration; and certainly fewer places offer so many opportunities for near-endless exploration from such easily-accessed trailheads. Get in your car, drive a few days and you can be starting on a quest back in time to see our nation before we settled it. A couple hours on foot can show you wild lands no different from how they looked hundreds, hell thousands of years ago; at least 100 years ago and even that’s a goddamn marvel in today’s “raze it and rebuild it bigger and better” culture.
Of course there is another side to all of this. With such access you invite visitors from everywhere to leave their staid suburban-urban lives and step back into a time before fast food and the ability to Google map from everywhere; step back into a time where there are very real natural threats to your life. And it presents a stark vision of how foreign the idea of wilderness is to many people today. A vision of how far we’ve come from our own humanity and how increasingly unfit we would become should we ever find ourselves back into time before electricity and running water and building-code-regulated reinforced walls.
It was the law of the sea they said. Civilization ends at the waterline. Beyond that we all enter the food chain, and not always right at the top.” – Hunter S. Thompson
I have a front row seat to the madness that descends on National Parks. Living in the Tetons, every year I get to watch the explosion of hordes rolling up in their RVs (or just flying in and renting beefy SUVS) for the double-bang that is Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone, America’s first park and maybe second only to the Grand Canyon for being a bucket-list US nature experience.
There are always jokes among about how tourists really don’t respect the wilderness that exists up here. But this summer has been full of stupidity for the record books. And up here, stupidity doesn’t mean you get your wallet picked or pick up property damage. Up here, when people get stupid, something usually dies. Here’s a list of just a few incidents:
- On opening day of YNP, 4/20, a woman was photoed petting a bison. These animals, about the size of a Volkswagen and even more temperamental has been known to maul people who get within a few feet of it.
- The next big incident? May 9, some idiots put a baby bison in the back of their car because they thought it was too cold. Because they didn’t realize that these animals live here year round? BTW, the calf had to be killed because wild animals don’t accept animals back usually because they have human stink on them so the calf was put down.
- Then there were those lifestyle clothing bros (May 17th) who walked off the boardwalks into fragile geothermal grounds, bragged about it on social media, and are now hiding from American justice back in Canada while scientists prey they didn’t kill too much of the delicate and beautiful bacteria that gives Grand Prismatic its iconic colors.
- A women got too close to an elk, probably trying to ride it, get a “Frozen” moment. Of course the sumbitch charged (and likely nearly killed) her.
- A father and son got too close to a geyser and slipped, suffering burns at the beginning of June.
- Then a few days later the 23-year-old adventurer walked off a boardwalk and fell into one of the hot springs, dying what was no doubt a painful scalding death.
- And a week later the Chinese national who went off the boardwalk to grab some of the deadly acidic firewater for medicinal purposes.
This was just the start of the summer. And it speaks to the disconnect people have with the harsh nature of the wild that these were all violations not only of park rules but showed great disrespect and misunderstanding of the impact we can have on the delicate stasis of the natural world (and of the deadly forces it can push back with if not respected).
Other parks have similar problems. Great Smoky Mountains is the most-visited National Park, with over 10 million visitors last year and on pace for more this summer. With budget cuts and these high numbers, people are overloading the toilets and the dumpsters are overflowing. Because we can’t seem to go anywhere without leaving a trail of discarded wrappers for our favorite snacks and prefer to buy countless bottles of water instead of refilling a Nalgene, the trash is overflowing and that’s more than just a “too much litter in Central Park” issue. It means bears get used to eating people food. And then take a bite out of people.
I’ve heard countless stories that speak to the disconnect between our modern techno-concrete world and the wild. A friend who used to operate a ferry across Jenny Lake in Grand Teton once had a man who wanted his money back after he got off on the other side of the lake and discovered there were rocks in the trail — he hadn’t been told there would be rocks.
A wrangler from a dude ranch just between Cody and the east entrance to Yellowstone told us how they had a guest who asked where the Park people put all the animals at night. Another client, in the middle of a horse ride deep in the Absarokas, asked where the bathroom is in the cirque where they took a break (answer: behind a tree). A rafting operator who took a Google group on the Snake River said they were all glued to their iPads instead of the majestic scenery surrounding them (probably Googling pictures of the exact spot). Then there was the time I was jogging through the park and saw a few visitors getting close enough to a bear cub to snap some amazing pictures (I did hear one of them say, “I wonder where the mom is?” as I hurried by)(though I’m guesing after “Revenant” everybody’s a bit more wary of bear attacks). And such disconnect with free and wild nature leads to situations like this, in which naturazzi frightened an animal literally to the point that it died.
This isn’t to say that people shouldn’t visit the Parks, nor is it to make fun of tourists. Far from it. This is to point out that people have become used to museums where the velvet ropes are to keep you from moving the clay caveman; not gates that keep people from being boiled to death. Have become used to graded and paved roads and to everything worth seeing and visiting being set up for easy experience with minimal exertion. It’s to point out that we’re so used to everything being under our illusion of control that we don’t realize wild animals that can kill you roam. And that the beauty of wilderness is that it’s so rugged and unyielding.
But most importantly, it’s to point out that the result of our never-ending quest to become greater masters of our universe, to worship at the throne of technology and development, has created a deep disconnect with our place in the circle of life.
Disconnect to Reconnect
But disconnect can mean something else, something good. Today we’re more connected than we’ve been in the history of the universe, with more knowledge at our fingertips than a platoon of 1950s encyclopedia salesmen. And it has never been easier to never leave your house. You can stream movies; socialize through social media or Skype; plenty of jobs allow for tele-commuting. Most cities have services that’ll deliver from practically any restaurant and that’s on top of all the spots that always delivered anyway. You don’t notice as slowly one tether after another hooks into you until it’s 3 in the morning and you’re going back and forth between Facederbating and bingeing YouTube, with maybe a 30 minute break to leisurely walk around the block or go Pokemon hunting, and you wonder why you can’t sleep though you’re so tired, why you feel so bored yet you’re nearly incapable of leaving your personal, well-rutted game trails and regular routines in search of something new.
By the time I was picking my way back down the glacial Moraines towards Lupine Meadows, the conversation I’d been having earlier popped back into my head. I realized that I didn’t know these women I’d been angrily writing to and they didn’t know me. We likely didn’t even see each other as human; just words represented by postage-stamp-sized pictures we’d chosen to represent ourselves to the world. Perhaps that’s why Facebook is sprayed with so much vitriol, why everybody seems so damn angry. Back in my car as the sun was setting I found an inner peace I hadn’t felt in a long time.
Not to say that suddenly I thought the world was great, that there weren’t still huge problems with racism and sexism, with authority versus lawlessness, that we didn’t have an upcoming presidential election that promises to be the ugliest of all time. But I had been able to step away and think clearly. I’d felt the majesty of cuts from hard stone all over my body and dirt and sweat in my pores and the deep ache of muscles pushed beyond their limit. My face was “marred by dust and sweat and blood” as Old Bull Moose once put it; I’d “spent myself in a worthy cause.” And I hadn’t looked at my phone once except to text my wife I was safe and take some pictures.
Mankind will continue doing great things in technology and in shaping and building and connecting our settlements. It’s our newest evolution, the techno-cultural one and possibly when I’m older nanobots will be able to cure my cancer. But with every bit of technological innovation, every move to make ourselves more comfortable and insulate ourselves from the chaos from whence we came, every new way of extracting valuable minerals and fuels from the ground, we sacrifice a bit of our organic selves. We already have virtual friends, digital socialization, and avatar-represented debates. This will only get worse with every subsequent generation. Until suddenly our self-centric vision could convince us that the quest to stop climate change and save our natural world could seem unimportant next to our own quest to become greater and greater.
What our last great wild places do is ensure we will always have a place to go disconnect from the madness of modern society and reconnect with ourselves. To remind ourselves that we’re flesh and blood, not statistics and blog headlines, not profiles and that our personalities can’t be fleshed out 170 characters at a time.
And as we march towards greater human achievement, there’s one ancillary benefit. We will never be able to create anything as majestic as the Tetons; to dig a trench as wide and long as the Grand Canyon; to carve sandstone like in Arches or to build perfect monoliths like El Capitan and Half Dome in Yosemite. You can’t help but feel very small staring up the vast glaciated flanks of Mt. Rainier, and Volcanoes are more powerful than nukes, and much more impressive in their lower eruptions. Hell, you can drive through a fallen log that had begun growing before Jesus was born and had only fallen in the last century. Such natural miracles help to keep our overinflated egos in check.
Because only when we remember that we emerged from the life of frightened ape in the wild to our modern pedestal can we rediscover the fact that our past could only be traveled together and to survive our uncertain climatological and technological future will need all of us working as one. Only when we can check our egos and breathe in secluded silence will we ever be able to overcome the madness and the hatred engulfing the world.
Thus the reason that Barack Obama protected more land than any president before him. And just another reason to fear Trump — as he refuses to acknowledge global warming and pledges to turn Federal lands back to the states (one of the few areas where he will be in full lockstep with the GOP establishment), he could very well be the orange weight to push the scales past the tipping point of ecological sustainability.
The National Parks and National Forests and Reserves and Preserves and Wildernesses not only give us the opportunity to renew and revisit the very essence of our human condition, an introspective/retrospective reconnection with our roots so poorly lacking today; they ensure our children and grandchildren and grandchildren’s grandchildren can do the same. In that way the National Parks are one of the greatest gifts we can give to the future of the world. And the in that way the National Park service and Federal lands should be given a place atop the debates and anti-Trump protests this fall.
You still have a few weeks until the official Centennial (August 16th) and you have about 2 months before parks start shuttering for the winter offseason. With an upcoming political slugfest on the horizon and the near-guarantee of frayed nerves and strained family and friend relationships by December, no better time than now to go get lost in one of our nation’s many unmatched, irreplaceable and inimitable natural gems for a few days. Nothing like an adventure to recharge the batteries and no better place than one of our National Parks. While you’re at it, remember what this fight against climate-change deniers and its real estate developer spearhead is all about; namely, the future.
The National Parks are ours to give; though we must remember one tough concept for Americans: We will never own them; we’re just custodians. Cue the humility. And only from that death of overbloated U.S. egos can grow our ability to work together once again.