We watched the steady stream of tourists snake its way toward Spruce Tree House, the only Anasazi cliff dwelling at Mesa Verde in southern Colorado where the federal agency allows visitors to guide themselves.
It had been
single file since leaving the museum, so we heaved a collective
sigh. Petroglyph Trail, which runs one and a half miles through the
trees along the base of a cliff, took us out of the mainstream. As
we moved along we savored the quiet, knowing how brief our
isolation would be in a national park that attracts 500,000
visitors. Sure enough, coming around the first bend in the trail,
we encountered two red-faced preteens.
I stood aside and
asked, "How were the petroglyphs?"
One of the young girls
stopped to face me with an unaccountable mixture of adolescent
angst and disgust in her eyes. "We never got there, and, like,
it’s over five miles!" Another 500 yards up the trail a
middle-aged man made his way toward us. In the 95-degree heat his
face glowed pink, a fine contrast with his silver-gray beard. He
looked as if he might be wise.
"How were the
petroglyphs?" I repeated. He stopped to catch his breath.
"It’s got to be over three hours to reach them, somewhere
alongside marker number 24, and over the next rise is only Marker
7," he wheezed. "Years of experience on the Mojave Desert taught me
that I’d be a fool to hike all that way without water, so
I’m turning back."
After he left, my companions
stared at me. "I swear the map shows it’s only a mile and a
half to the petroglyphs, and a mile and a half back," my brother
said. We hiked nearly a mile without talking, passing through
caches of shade, stepping into brilliant patches of sunlight where
we stopped to stare into a sagebrush canyon below us that radiated
I expected to encounter more hikers, but we met no
one. A half-million visitors a year, and today it appeared as if
only six of us managed to step off the asphalt, and only three of
the six wanted to reach the end of trail, just to see the writing
on the wall. Wonderful.
I know it’s selfish,
egotistical, narcissistic, arrogant and supercilious of me to
believe this, but we need more places in our national parks
designed not to prohibit but to seriously discourage most people.
We need to plant more poison ivy, more poison oak. Import
mosquitoes. Post warnings about wolves and mountain lions.
We need more risks, fewer snack shops and absolutely no
souvenirs made in foreign countries. We need maps without the
notation, "You are here."
Then my Catholic upbringing
started a fire down in the soles of my boots, and I felt guilty. It
must be wrong to wish that Americans had more difficulty
participating in the experience of our national parks. And it must
be unsympathetic to add another pound of worry onto the backs of
the overweight, or to take away one breath from those toting their
oxygen tanks. Was I advocating exclusive access to the national
parks for the young and the fit?
Well…yes and no.
Yes to the notion that not all backcountry should accommodate the
masses. No to the notion that visitors’ IDs should be checked
at the gate. Yes to the reality that those who can anticipate and
endure the rigors of a primitive trail are the only ones who have
business being there. There’s something about democracy and
freedom that has to leave risk in place.
If the National
Park Service had Nepal in its jurisdiction, ought there to be a
ramp in place to the top of Mount Everest?
wrestling with these ideas as we arrived at Marker 20, and I knew
that despite the heat and the rocky terrain, we were close to
gazing at the petroglyphs. We were lucky, like those who first
scratched their symbols on the rock over 800 years ago. Lucky to be
alive and to see this glimpse of a people’s universe.
A week later, I learned from a friend that we were
supposed to register with a ranger before hiking down the trail. I
thought of sending my brother a stern summons to appear before a
wilderness court, but he would plead, like me, that we saw no signs
and even more to the point, that we left no trace. Which is more
than we could say for the people who lived there 800 years ago, who
wrote their messages on rock walls.