John Muir, go home

  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.

We’d pulled 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 reservation.

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.

With my 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 ranch.

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 the unknown.

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.

The 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 fire.

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.

David Feela is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a teacher who lives and writes in Cortez, Colorado.

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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