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 heat.
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?
I was 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.