When does a deer become an elk? And other questions…

  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 brightly.

"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 answer.

"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 Tuesday.

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.

‘m 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.

"We 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.

"Because it’s beautiful," I point out.

"But isn’t there a road that goes up Cascade Canyon?"

"No, sir."

"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 respect.

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.

"Do I have to leave my car to see the natural bridges?" I’m asked.

"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?" – I’m heartened.

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 trip.

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.

Jen Jackson, 23, is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). She grew up in Medford, Oregon, but is currently talking to tourists at Jenny Lake Lodge inside Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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