Ode to the Common Man, if He Would Only Stay out of View

Categories: Schutze

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Uh-Oh. Hippie Liberal Elitism Alert. If you are a hippie liberal like me, do not, repeat, DO NOT read the story in today's New York Times about National Park Service plans for curbing visitation to Yosemite National Park. Reading of this story may cause serious damage to your democratic convictions and theoretical belief in the common man.

The famous "wilderness park" associated with pioneering environmentalist John Muir is now home to bike rental agencies, horse liveries, rafting companies, an ice rink and multiple swimming pools, all of which have served to make the park welcoming and easily accessible to millions of visitors per year. The problem is that a wilderness area accessible to millions of visitors is an oxymoron.

Smokey.jpg
sfgate.com
Just another day in the wilderness, American-style.
What Yosemite has become, in fact, is a kind of extended mixed-use amusement park, and that's probably not what John Muir had in mind. It is not what I have in mind, either, when I think of wilderness. But I don't want to think about it or read too much about it, because I'm afraid I might lose my libtard card.

The National Park Service has a new plan to cut back on most of the more rinky-dink uses and activities at Yosemite in order to reduce visitation -- get this -- to only 19,000 people per day. So then it would be just you, maybe some friends or family, out there all alone in the pristine wilderness with the other 18,995 people.

This isn't a theoretical problem for me. It's very real, and it's very everywhere. Too many prime natural venues in this country are turning into outdoor Casbahs teeming with way too much, well, too much ... how to put it ... outdoor democracy.

I took a hike with some fellow buzzards my age a few years ago from the rim of the Grand Canyon down to the floor in one day, camped overnight, hiked back up and out the next. Because we were buzzards, we were worried about dying, so we devoted a great deal of effort to planning and getting in shape for it. We actually worry about dying when we go to the mall, but, you know, all of that expeditionary preparation made it more fun and was a good excuse to buy new pocket multi-tools.

But once we actually got out there on the trail, oh man, was it ever not what we had prepared for. Far from the lonely expedition we had expected, this was more like getting stuck behind a bad wreck on the freeway. The people jamming the trail from top to bottom looked less like outdoor adventurers than multitudes of lame and halt walking on their knees to Lourdes. The real danger wasn't falling off a ridge or dying of thirst. It was getting crushed under a sudden avalanche of whoopsy-daisies in flip-flops.

In fact at a certain point part of the way down we came upon park service personnel in Smokey uniforms stationed along the trail, turning some people back because they could tell by looking at them that they weren't going to make it. Some of the turn-backs argued with the Smokies. The one overheard Park Service argument that seemed to get traction was, "OK, sir, I cannot stop you from going ahead, but since you have been warned, if you do need a helicopter extraction later, it will cost you $15,000." Then it was flip-flop flip-flop back up the trail.

This whole business of wilderness and access to wilderness is especially tough for us Yanks, not so much for the Canadians. They're a democracy, too, but they seem to be a lot less boisterous about it. The other area where I have seen this dilemma played out is on two sides of the U.S./Canadian border where you have the American Boundary Waters Canoe Area on one side of the line in Minnesota and Quetico Provincial Park in Ontario on the other, about a million acres each.

Both parks cover the same kind of topography -- thousands of lakes cut by glaciers only 13,000 years ago, realm of the water Indians and the fur trade into the 19th century, very beautiful, sort of hard to get around in because you have to carry your boats and stuff between lakes. Both countries require reservations to get in. Part of the difference is that the American reservations are easy to get and the Canadian ones much tougher.

But there are other key distinctions. The Canadians allow 26,000 people a year into their million acres, only 18,000 a year in the interior of the park. Admission is timed and staged, so that as few as eight people are allowed each day to enter sub-areas of the park that consist of tens of thousands of acres.

The Americans allow 250,000 people into their side every year -- 10 times more, on a fairly free-for-all basis, with some use of outboard motors allowed. On the American side, there are permanent campsites with portable toilets. The trails where you have to carry your canoe from lake to lake are clearly marked.

On the Canadian side, no outboards, no portable toilets, no trail signs and tough luck if you get lost, which you can. I don't know anybody who has died out there, but I know people who know people who have.

What difference does it make to the experience? Well, on the American side, you are almost always in view or earshot of other people. On the Canadian side, you can paddle for days and never see, hear or catch a hint of another human being.

So does that mean the people on the Canadian side are the heartier souls? Mmm. Not exactly. On the American side you have all of those stout Minnesotans with their 80-pound aluminum canoes and cast-iron cookware, making their own way as they have for generations. On the Canadian side I see a lot more vacationing ophthalmologists in REI togs with 40-pound Kevlar canoes and no cookware because they brought a cook with them, and that's his job.

See what I mean? When you choke down the visitation numbers and set it up so people have to apply for a permit a year in advance, you inevitably change the demographic from vacationing bus mechanics and reporters to ophthalmologists and their butlers.

My own solution? I heartily and absolutely endorse the American solution, because it is a celebration of the common man and a rejection of elitism, snobbishness and hired cooks. But I prefer to quietly and discreetly do my own canoeing on the Canadian side, because I don't want to run into the common man when I'm canoeing. If I want to run into the common man, I can go to Walmart. (Oops. There goes my card right there.)

See what I mean? Just don't read the article. I think it's a problem that cannot be solved. OK, gotta get over to the yacht club now to burnish some cleats. Talk to you tomorrow.

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39 comments
ruddski
ruddski

"They loaded all their A.D.D. people on ships and sent them here."

And then, the sun set on the empire.

Tim.Covington
Tim.Covington

Jim, I completely understand and agree with you, However, from what I understand and have experienced, in most US National Parks (with a few exceptions like your trip to the the bottom of the Grand Canyon) you can travel about a mile or two from the roads and not see a soul. 

I remember when I worked in Yellowstone National Park, on most of the hiking trails I rarely met anyone after going 4 miles, and most of those people were park employees (either direct or through the concessions companies). 

For those of us longing for solitude in nature, I think the key is to choose destinations that are not as popular as Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, the Boundary Waters, and Yellowstone National Park. There are plenty of beautiful parks (state and national), forests, grasslands, and wildlife areas out there to explore that you do not see massive crowds visiting.

wcvemail
wcvemail

Regulating the unregulated wilderness - yeah, the voices in my head debate this, with great irony, between the libertarian-principled American and the usually sympathetic camper and photographer.

If it will curtail the sort of development that led to the smog-producing, traffic-congested, free-market-overbuilt TN towns of Sevierville and Pigeon Forge, gateways to the Smoky Mts, then I'm all for it. The contrast between the tourist-suck atmosphere on the TN side and the literally cleaner air of the Georgia side is overwhelming.

Ice rink at the Grand Canyon? Really?

casiepierce
casiepierce

There's another international boundary analogy on the southern end of the US- Big Bend National Park and it's Mexican counterpart, the Sierra Maderas. If you think the Chisos are majestic, it's nothing but a scrubby little clump of rocks compared to the 200 or so miles south of the Rio Grande.There, visitors are tightly restricted like they are in Canada. You will not see a stray beer can on the trails in Mexico like I do every time I go to Big Bend. And not see or hear another soul, save for, well, your private chef, of course.

ThePosterFormerlyKnownasPaul
ThePosterFormerlyKnownasPaul topcommenter

Since California is home to some 38 million people, does the crowding at Yosemite come as a surprise?


Besides 18,000 visitors a day works out to just under 7 million visitors a year.

Montemalone
Montemalone topcommenter

So now Dallas City Council will be limiting the number of canoers on the Trinity? Or just start charging admission?

glenn03a
glenn03a

Just got back from Scotland, home of the "right to roam" policy.

ruddski
ruddski

Just s small quibble - the term "wilderness" has specific meaning, and the only wilderness in the US is in Maine and possibly the boundary waters of Minnessota. No national park has wilderness.

becoolerifyoudid
becoolerifyoudid

If you prefer uninhabited wilderness with a touch of danger, you could always check out White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico.

Myrna.Minkoff-Katz
Myrna.Minkoff-Katz topcommenter

Let it stay the  amusement park it's become.  Serious nature folks will seek out remote places that are beautiful and pristine anyway, and there are plenty of those in the US and Canada.

bill.holston1
bill.holston1

@casiepierce It depends on where you go in Big Bend Casie. If you hike out in the Sierra Quemada or the Caballos Muertos you are not likely to see anyone. We hiked the Smokey Creek Drainage a few years back and saw no one. We did one trip into the Sierra del Carmen's. It's beautiful wild country. I agree with Tim if you are prepared to hike a mile or two you will usually leave crowds behind. 

JimSX
JimSX topcommenter

@casiepierce

 I asked a neighbor who had visited England recently how an entire country like England can have good taste and be tidy. Even the gas stations. She said easy. They loaded all their A.D.D. people on ships and sent them here.

ceemac
ceemac

@ruddski  The term "Wilderness" has a specific legal meaning different from the way you are using it. There are Wilderness Areas all over the country. Off the top of my head I can think of the Shining Rock and Joyce Kilmer/Slick Rock Wilderness Areas in NC. I have not done a search to confirm but I think that parts of some National Parks have been designated as Wilderness Areas.

JimSX
JimSX topcommenter

@ruddski 

Not be over-sensitive or anything, Ruddksi, but if you were to re-read my item and make your finger go really slowly, you would see that the "boundary waters" as you call the area is the area I describe above specifically as not much of a wilderness any more. Your suggestion that there is nothing else in the country that qualifies for the term tells me you don't get out enough, but I don't blame you, because I know what a busy time middle school can be.

casiepierce
casiepierce

@bill.holston1 @casiepierce Yes, BBNP is huge, but as a member of the Friends group and property owner in Terlingua, I'm out there quite often and I know when the peak times are and when to go for solitude. One Christmas many many years ago, it must have been 11pm and we were in the Hot Springs and a bus load of unsupervised little kids showed up and jumped in, with all their clothes on. When we left and got back to our primitive spot at the Gravel Pit site nearest the river, there was some stranger who had pitched his tent not 40 feet away from us. Well, I just didn't feel like waking up to hearing some random stranger farting and starting his car so we rousted him out, drove to the Village and reported him. The next night there was a mix-up with the permits (because they have to open the annex bldg at Panther Junction to handle the crush of park visitors after Christmas Day) and we arrived- again- to find someone in our spot. But he was very cool and apologetic and promised not to start his motorcycle before we awoke. I'm all for peace, love and sharing, but I don't go out to a million-acre park to be butt-up against a stranger, I can do that in Dallas by simply going to the Wal Mart.

rzimmerman1
rzimmerman1

@JimSX @casiepierce 

Jim, you insensitive libtard. ADD is a real affliction and single parents in public and subsidized housing across this great nation teach their children to accurately fake the symptoms in order to qualify for additional disability payments before they are old enough to go to prison.

casiepierce
casiepierce

@JimSX @casiepierce No Jim, you crazy libtard, it's their high taxes so that everyone can have a job, even if it's sweeping the streets 24/7. SOCIALISM!!!

ruddski
ruddski

Jim, I was just a river guide for a couple if decades, keeping experts like yourself from hurting themselves ir the environment, and the true meaning of wilderness among dumbass guides like me is "untouched by man", and the Maine woods fit that description, as do "possibly" (that's a qualifier) portions of the Boundary Waters. In other words, if you visited a "true wilderness", then it's no lonerr a wilderness. City boys who rent kayaks and guides arent expected to go by that definition because they like to pose as men of the wilderness.

JimSX
JimSX topcommenter

@rzimmerman1 

When I was single I thought it was all the really good looking girls.

TheCredibleHulk
TheCredibleHulk topcommenter

@casiepierce @ruddski 

I think it's more like the physics thing where if you observe something, the mere observation of the thing in question alters said thingy.

Like, you can't be sure that the thing would be doing what you saw it do if you hadn't actually seen it doing it. . .

or something . . .

ruddski
ruddski

". So, if a Sasquatch poops in the woods, is it still a wilderness?"

Not if the sasquatch is human.

casiepierce
casiepierce

@ruddski Oh I get it, it's one of them "if a tree falls in the woods, does it make a sound" questions... So, if a Sasquatch poops in the woods, is it still a "wilderness"?

RTGolden1
RTGolden1 topcommenter

@ruddski Try getting out and about in Wyoming, Western Colorado, most of Utah, Nevada, Idaho and Montana.  Yes there is wilderness, and yes, it will be desolate and devoid of humans.  The boundary waters and Maine woods are touched by man, like any other place.  If they weren't, how would anybody know?

ruddski
ruddski

Not If someone is there to see the Sasquatch, now do the maths.

ruddski
ruddski

Next, we can discuss virgins.

ThePosterFormerlyKnownasPaul
ThePosterFormerlyKnownasPaul topcommenter

@ruddski 

" In other words, if you visited a "true wilderness", then it's no lonerr a wilderness."

Yes, that did confuse me just a little bit as to what your point was.

ruddski
ruddski

No, I wasn't saying that, but I can understand your confusion.

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