At what point did moose become marvels, bears become monsters and a 300-yard walk get to be strenuous? When did the human eye need a digital camera to properly experience the unimaginable proportions of the West?
While working for
the Park Service at Natural Bridges National Monument in southern
Utah, and now for a concessionaire at Grand Teton National Park in
Wyoming, I’ve encountered surprisingly odd questions from
visitors. Some recent exchanges:
"What’s that white
stuff in the mountains?"
"It’s snow," I say
"It can’t be. Not in August!
"When was Kachina Natural Bridge built?"
"It was naturally
formed by water over the course of thousands of years," I
"Oh. Can you drive across it?"
What’s worse than ignorant questions? No questions at all.
Most people don’t take the time to inquire about the
landscapes they drive through. They experience the West through the
viewfinder of a camera or peering out the window of a vehicle, with
a half-hour to spare before the next stop on the itinerary. There
is little attempt to connect with elemental majesty, only what
seems to be a ravenous need to see everything before
Even though seeing an elk, black bear, wolf or
bald eagle is first on most to-do lists of tourists, I’ve
noticed that few visitors to the parks venture farther from roads
than scenic turnouts. While you and I know that national parks are
not petting zoos and that animals do not keep rigid schedules, such
knowledge is not the norm among tourists.
desperate to see a moose. Where do I go?" I’m asked.
"Well, ma’am, your best bet is to hike up-canyon several
miles, but I can’t guarantee anything," I say.
really don’t have time to hike. What road on the way to
Yellowstone has wildlife?"
Encounters such as this can be
maddening. As an avid outdoors person, I want to share my love of
exploring canyons and mountain trails. But when I try to encourage
trips off the beaten path, most visitors seem appalled at my lack
of bear or cougar fears, my desire to camp out alone and my
obsession with adding mileage to my boots.
"Why would you
want to hike that far?" a puzzled man asks.
it’s beautiful," I point out.
"But isn’t there
a road that goes up Cascade Canyon?"
"Humph. Must not be that special, then."
As a matter of
fact, it is special. The most extraordinary places are not
accessible by roads. These places ask more of seekers than a sturdy
sport-utility vehicle and 15 extra minutes. They demand
Few tourists make room on their itinerary for
such things. Amusement parks don’t usually inspire awe, so
why should national parks ? But the Tetons are not comparable to
Disneyland’s version of the Matterhorn. Enjoyment takes time.
It usually requires sweat and discomfort and maybe a little risk,
not to mention a decision to forego a car or tour bus.
I have to leave my car to see the natural bridges?" I’m
"Yes, but the overlooks are only a 300-yard walk
from the road," I reassure a middle-aged couple.
"I’m afraid we’re a bit tired for that today."
Occasionally, during a day of questions -- "Can I get heatstroke
while driving in the desert?" "Do the marmots carry rabies?"
Where’s the bathroom and shower in the backcountry?" –
A hiker emerges, fresh off a five-day
trek. A child asks me to identify wildflowers. A couple describes
the mountains as their "church."
This is what carries me
through the inane comments, the ever-filming camcorders, the
fanny-packs and the people in a giant hurry to just go, go, go.
These are the people who see the West as more than a road
Even if most tourists refuse to immerse themselves
in wild and unpredictable beauty, I’m still hopeful that a
glimmer sneaks through. And if some curiosity is stirred, a passion
stoked or a misconception ended, then my efforts to muster patience
in the face of really ignorant questions are not in vain.
But if I’m again asked at what elevation a deer becomes an
elk, I’ll take a deep breath before I respond.