Any experienced summer traveler through the West might have pointed to my wife and me as classic examples of clueless tourism: "See what you get when you travel without an itinerary? When you think camping has something to do with owning a tent?" I can hear them stifling their snickers, trying to sound sympathetic but finding no compassion.
into three campgrounds run by the U.S. Forest Service and found no
place to stay for the night. Although many sites were still
unoccupied, each had a white sticker clipped to its driveway post
declaring that plans had been made, credit card numbers accepted.
It was our own fault: We’d left home at the
ridiculously late hour of 8 a.m., driven for eight hours through an
inspirational landscape (where we’d succumbed to the
temptation of stopping to look at the scenery) and worst of all,
we’d neglected to call ahead to guarantee a camping
We deserved what we didn’t get.
Then we just got lucky. One loop of the Redstone
Campground in Colorado’s White River National Forest had
witnessed a modern-day miracle: Rangers received a cancellation
— something that hadn’t happened in the last six
months, according to our campground host.
Site number 11
ended up being the one tucked a little too near the privy, but we
took it, paid $18 for one night and joked that a 15' X 15' gravel
pad might have what it takes to rock us to sleep.
lamp strapped to my head, I read a little from John Muir’s
diaries while someone’s gasoline generator rattled the aspen
leaves for nearly an hour. Then I closed my book and listened to
the evening serenade of another camper’s boombox featuring a
country singer whose heartache should have stayed back on the
The burnt umber sunset had long ago vanished
behind the horizon, but when the security lights for the toilet
came on, I answered the call and did what nature required of me. I
thought about John Muir, who wrote in 1895: "You know that I have
not lagged behind in the work of exploring our grand wildernesses,
and in calling everybody to come and enjoy the thousand blessings
they have to offer."
Well, John, they’re all here,
every one of them from what I can tell, and I think it’s
about time somebody withdrew your invitation. I guess camping will
never again be what it was in your day — a primitive
excursion away from the security and sameness of our homes and into
At the beginning of the 20th century, Muir
perceived our public lands as places of "spiritual power" where the
soul could be recharged by the earth’s "divine beauty." John
Muir might be discouraged to see how tourism has been exploited for
profit by the very agencies charged with protecting it at the
beginning of the 21st century.
But wilderness consumers
have changed, too. Muir’s idea that by seeking wilderness
people could purge themselves of the "sediments of society" has
lost its appeal. More and more, it seems, campers flock to our
national forests carting the trappings of our society with them.
Out of 40 reserved sites along the Crystal River, I counted only
five that contained tents. The rest could be called "wireless
homes," functioning just like the places left behind.
big rigs sometimes haul cars and pull in with ovens, refrigerators,
satellite TVs, stereos, showers, hot water heaters, air
conditioners and furnaces. Muir believed that "thousands of tired,
nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that
going to the mountains is going home." Thanks to our federal
agencies that manage the outdoors for us, we have built way
stations in the woods that translate Muir’s belief literally.
Eventually, the posted rules for our campground’s
curfew took effect and things quieted down. I got up to stroll
around our loop and saw more than a dozen fire rings kindled on
this warm summer night. At first, I was struck by the absurdity of
the scene, because the last thing anyone needed was a crackling
But when I wandered farther away from the society
of campers, off the loop and along a path through the moonlit
trees, I glanced up at the sky. I noticed there, too, all those
stars, still burning.