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Visiting vs Experiencing

There are three categories of National Park tourists.

The first is the worst: the tourist. The tourist blunders in with their fancy RV, stumbles off some cruise ship, or barrels in on a pair of Harleys. They make a bunch of noise in the visitor’s center, take a high-speed trip through the scenic drive, perhaps (at best) reading 2-3 roadside signs before giving up and barreling off to some picnic area to uncork a bottle of wine, unscrew a bottle of cheap whiskey, or unpack a fistful of juice pops before nearly burning down a campground via an over-butaned charcoal grill.

The second is the polar opposite: the wildlander. These are the folks who truly revel in the hard-core activities: spending days backpacking or river rafting across varied terrains; performing a multi-hour rock traversals up the cliff face; or otherwise reveling in the true wonders of the park: the wilderness. I have full respect for these intrepid travelers, but because I like traveling alone, it would be incredibly dangerous for me. Plus I’m an immense coward.

So I nestle inside the middle group.

Mountains A La Mode

Parks are to be experienced. If you’re in Acadia, you bike the carriage trails. If you go to Key Biscayne, you snorkel the reefs. And if you go to Kenai Fjord, you hike the glaciers* and you kayak the fjords. That’s the Middle Group: find activities that let you experience the park in the few days you have to spend, and enjoy the sh*t out of them.

*Well, you don’t hike *on* the glaciers, that’s dangerous AF. You hike *to* the glaciers. Play safe, everyone.

The kayaking I did at Kenai was one of the best times I ever spent in a park, and I’ve been to well over 200 of them. First, it was a gorgeous day. The sky was so blue, the wind was light, the air was the perfect temperature. Second, the people were fantastic. I typically avoid commercialized park tours, they tend to be too expensive and too lame, but these tour operators were awesome. They were friendly, and helpful, and gave good information, but also knew how to shut up so folks could just enjoy sitting on the water and watch the puffins dive.

Beautiful Day

My fellow kayakers were really cool, too. There were seven of us in all, three couples and myself, and we didn’t know each other (well, hopefully the people in the couples knew each other, but hey, who am I to judge). But everyone was so chill and so interesting and so much fun to be around. It was just us and the puffins and the eagles and the sea lions: the perfect trip.

After the kayaking, we went back to Fox Island. There was supposed to just be some standard lunch, but instead there was some special end-of-season event going on, so we got the full grilled salmon treatment. I rarely remember what I ate on my trips, but that was so memorable. It was all fresh and cooked to perfection and there was no spoiling that day. I was even on-point with my photography that day (a super-rarity).

Photogenic Jay

After lunch, we hopped on a cruise boat for the standard, tourist trip through the fjords. That was … lame, but also hysterical. It’s kinda hard to get excited about tufted puffins or sea lions from 20′ up the side of a boat, when a couple of hours ago you were paddling right alongside them. So the group of us sat in the middle of the deck and chatted for the duration.

My trip to Alaska was, by far, the highlight of all my park trips. I need to go back, visit the panhandle, Aniakchak, and more. It’s a big state with a lot of parks, and I only hit the few with the most … tourists.

Tourists Marvel at the Wonders of Bird Shit Rock

[The photos on this post are mine and copyrighted thusly].


Links:

Kenai Fjords National Park

Google Maps

Fox Island Kayaking

My Kenai Fjords Photos

One of the first history books I read for my own enjoyment was A. J. Langguth’s 1988 work, Patriots: The Men Who Started the American Revolution. I enjoyed that book immensely, Langguth does a good job narrating the sequence of events leading up to American independence after the Battle of Yorktown, and how the Founding Fathers shaped those events.

Langguth’s style is to dedicate each chapter to an individual as they affected events. Patriots, for example, starts off with a chapter devoted to James Otis, the Boston lawyer who spoke against bogus British practices in 1761. It then rolls from statesman to statesman, as Langguth relates the iconic tales of American rebellion. It’s a good book, I recommend it to anyone wanting to learn about the Revolution beyond a high-school level.

That format works for a book about individuals, like Patriots. Driven West, however, isn’t that kind of book. It’s trying to tell the story of a great travesty: the uprooting of thousands of native peoples from their homelands in the Deep South, and their deadly relocation to the parched scrublands of Oklahoma. This is not a story about personalities, it’s a story of betrayal and trauma and sadness and death. Sadly, Mr. Langguth didn’t shift gears to a style that would suit this type of material.

He dedicates chapters to the titular 7th President, a man synonymous with native oppression. He dedicates chapters to Henry Clay, who opposed Indian relocation throughout most of his career; to Major Ridge, a key Cherokee negotiator; to Sequoyah, the creator of the written Cherokee alphabet; and a few others. It’s not like the cast list is any less stellar than during any other event in history, it’s just misplaced for the topic at hand.

The story of the Trail of Tears isn’t a tale of presidents and congressmen and chieftains. It’s a story about the 60,000 people who were uprooted from their homes; of the estimated 10,000 who lost their lives as a result; and of the decades and decades of oppression of the native peoples that followed. Focusing on individual personalities throughout this book cuts the philosophical and emotional core out of the story. Langguth spends barely a third of a chapter on the marches themselves, or of the trauma faced by thousands of faceless refugees as they lost their homes. I think the book suffers from this lack of attention. This is not a cry for schmaltzy heart-string tugging, this is a statement that a good writer needs to find a narrative style that suits the core of the story. A personality-driven story works for the Revolution, it doesn’t work for the Trail of Tears.

The book still contains a lot of value. There are many tidbits of this episode that Americans don’t know. Langguth covers tribal ownership of slaves, a travesty on top of a tragedy. He covers the massive inter- and intra-tribal infighting, up to and including murder, that occurred throughout the era. He covers all the back room shenanigans and profiteering that undercut any last smidgeon of decency in the whole wretched affair. And he covers the often-forgotten stories of Cherokee support for the Confederacy in the Civil War. All of these are useful, insightful additions to the book, and worthy of discussion.

Driven West provides thorough coverage of a sordid era of the nation’s history. Sadly, it misses the proper, emotive link to the true heart of the tale.

Enchantment Under the Sun

I stumbled into my first trip to the desert. I was in southern California on business, and decided to stay an extra couple of days. After work was done, I took the four-hour drive east on I-10, through the San Fernando Valley and San Bernardino (traffic was surprisingly light), and past hundreds of hypnotizing wind turbines, each of which seemingly beckons you to drive off the shoulder and take a nap (hopefully in that order).

I had not planned to visit the park, it was almost a spot decision. I managed to throw my hiking shoes and day pack into my luggage, so I wasn’t totally unprepared, but I did not do any meticulous planning nor any research into sites to see. Fortunately, it didn’t matter: Joshua Tree is a beautiful park, a perfect way to start touring desert terrains, and is basically an open book. There are no “secret spots”, they’re all out there, easy to find. I fell in love with it almost immediately, touring the Cholla Cactus Garden, driving up to the Keys View vista, and making the trek out to the Lost Palms Oasis. Joshua Tree NP a beautiful place to visit: if you find yourself in Southern California, it’s definitely worth a day trip, even if all you do is a drive through.

At least, I’m hoping it’s still worth a day trip. I was heartbroken to hear the park suffered extensive damage by dirtbag vandals during the 2019 government shutdown. Then there’s the possibility that Joshua trees are going to be extinct before too long. Like everything else that’s beautiful in this country, it’s in danger because we can’t act like responsible adults.

Iconic Place, Iconic Art

The Joshua trees themselves are surreal. There are some stellar photographs of the park out there on the web, it’s remarkably photogenic. Sunsets in particular are fantastic, probably because of Southern California air pollution. I didn’t have a camera when I toured there, but I did buy the photograph shown above from the visitor’s center. I couldn’t find the artist on-line anywhere to give proper credit, and it’s so similar to stock images, I may have been duped. It doesn’t matter: it’s a great photo and I love having it on my wall.

I’m not the only one who found the place to be so fascinating. The most obvious example of art inspired by the park is the 1987 album by U2. Interviews with the band confirm that the harshness, blankness, and mystery of the desert provided inspiration for songs on that album, one that would propel them into megastardom. It’s a great album from a great band with a great motif.

The Joshua Tree wasn’t the only work inspired by the park. The cover of the Eagles debut album contains a photo of Joshua Tree. The delightfully twisted film Seven Psychopaths was partly filmed there. John Lennon recorded The Joshua Tree Tapes nearby. Jim Morrison apparently did acid trips with friends either in J.P. or in the nearby Mojave Desert. That story may be apocryphal, but if you want to read a sadly bizarre true story, read about the funeral of Graham Parsons. Plus hey, you can get some cornball wedding photographs taken there!

It’s so obvious, upon visiting, why deserts are so enchanting and inspiring. The desolation, the parched landscape, and the unbroken vistas makes one think about the vastness of it all. The presence of life, even in such harsh settings, reminds you that damned near anything is possible. Or it may be the heat making you a tad loopy. Either way, it’s a great place to sit and think and get inspired (just bring enough water and remember where you parked).

Bottom line: 5 stars out of 5. Plan to see it if you’re ever in southern California. Like nearly everything else, see it before it’s gone.

Smaller than Larger than Life

Visiting John Muir’s house is a bit of a shock to National Park travelers. Nearly every western park you visit has mention of John Muir: how he explored it, how he mapped it, how he lobbied for its entry into the National Park or Forest Service. Over and over again, you’ll see his weather-worn visage, like this:

800px-john_muir_cane

Clearly this was a larger-than-life figure, a man who walked the earth, one of the few who saw wonders and marvels in their natural state, long before the paved roads leading to well-marked vistas. He was clearly a man of the backwoods, in an era when that really meant something.

Then you go to his home in Martinez, California, and you see this.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Um, what?

Well, turns out that John Muir was (surprise surprise) a human being.

John Muir basically grew old. At 42, after some convincing by his friends, he found he could no longer tromp through the wilderness as he once had. John Muir, like most men, wanted a family. He married Louisa Strentzel, settled down, and fathered two daughters. John Muir then wanted to provide for that family. He proved to be a successful orchardist and businessman, apparently earning enough in five years to provide for his family for the rest of his lifetime (even in the 1880s, that was a remarkable feat). Finally, John Muir needed a place to write and to organize. From his headquarters, he lobbied for the creation of the National Park Service; organized the founding of the Sierra Club; fought the establishment of the Hetch Hetchy reservoir; and published multiple magazine articles and books.

Far too often, folks look at historical figures as being larger than life: omnipotent and perfect individuals, single-minded, focused, driven to their one and only goal. But reality is actually quite different than all of that. John Muir put all his environmental travels on hold and became … a husband, a father, a farmer and businessman. And, apparently, a thumping good one. He lived in a very nice house, in fairly decent comfort, and enjoyed his life. He was not, as his grizzled visage would suggest, purely a “man of the woods”. He was a real human being, appropriate for his time.

Every great person in history, regardless of the pedestals we put them on, was really just a person.

John Muir and Cancel Culture

I recently read Nature Writings, a collection of John Muir’s essays. Muir waxes rhapsodic about everything, from the length of pine needles to the detritus comprising glacial moraines. This is a man who loved the natural world, spending significant amounts of time in the wild lands, sketching flowers and mountaintops and creek beds. His devotion became conservationist zealotry, and his efforts resulted in protecting thousands of square miles from scarring development.

And, apparently, he was also friends with some unsavory characters, including at least one avowed eugenicist. He also said some lousy things about native tribes, slaves, and freedmen. The organization he helped found, the Sierra Club, had a decidedly upper-class, whites-only mentality. The group has enough of a tarnished past, the current directors released a statement at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests last summer. Conservative commentators across the country gleefully declared “John Muir is canceled!“, triumphant in the fact that the “the radical left” has as much ugliness in their past as they themselves do. Of course, this tarnishes yet another “noble tradition” of this country.

I’m not going to argue whether or not Muir was a solid racist. Frankly, I don’t think I’m qualified. I do think he disliked a lot of people, preferring to walk the woods and the mountains instead of towns and cities. Individuals such as Muir do that because they don’t like people in general. Still, the evidence against him is pretty strong, and the condemnation justified. None of that lessens his contributions to the country, to conservation, to the creation of the National Parks. It just means that he was a flawed man, that he shouldn’t be put up on a pedestal as any paragon of virtue, and that his unsavory opinions should be discussed alongside the magnitude of his accomplishments. Those who carry on his work today should strive to do better. Much better.

Fortunately, things are changing. Today’s environmentalists acknowledge that minority populations are at greater risk from environmental catastrophe, and are trying to help. They are also acknowledging that minority populations care deeply about the environment, breaking a long-held stereotype. And as was shown with the XL Pipeline controversy of the past few years, it’s now commonly known that Native reservations have it pretty bad, with some companies taking advantage of extreme poverty to build toxic waste dumps as “job creators”. It’s a shame these groups weren’t brought into the environmental and conservation movements from the very beginning, perhaps it would have gone a long way towards not only inclusion, but also improved living conditions and better health outcomes for those populations. But at least there is movement in the right direction.

It turns out that John Muir was not just a human being, but a flawed human being. It’s up to us to be better human beings. The mistake is not trying to improve on what was done prior. We can be better people than Muir was, while still trying to uphold the better side of his ideals.