We spent most of the day driving West from Zion National Park over a sparse, arid desert with canyons chiseled deep into the sandstone by perennial streams and powerful rivers. From lush cottonwoods of Zion to the harsh sands of the desert, we then ascended into a dense alpine forest, pockmarked by sections of burnt out pines, the remnants of wildfires decades ago. The sky became overcast and the air grew colder and windier as we drove higher and higher into the forest. We see signs for the Grand Canyon National Park.
After a brief stop at Jacob Lake, we continue on and presently arrive to the ranger station marking the boundary of the park. Before long, we come upon the metallic campgrounds- RVs lined up under towering pines. Shortly after, we come to the hotels and restaurants, such as the famous Grand Canyon lodge- built on the very edge of the canyon itself. We spent a few hours on the North Rim- posing for photos as a group on Bright Angel point, then poking around the visitor center and the surrounding trails. Later, we ate at the very precipice of the canyon, served by smiling, kindly servers in starched white shirts and bowties.
The purpose of National Parks is to preserve areas of wilderness, and to protect them. To this end, the Park Service bulldozes the forest to make way for roads, hotels, and other niceties of civilization. It seems curious that the further we drove into the Grand Canyon National Park- the more civilization (the polar opposite of wilderness) we found. To provide for the enjoyment of the tourists, food, lodging and souvenirs are sold at exorbitant prices- a necessary cost considering the view that is included with dinner. Location, location, location. An anathema of real estate, considering that the very agency set up to protect this place- considered sacred by the Hopi- is profiting from it.
Almost half a century ago, Edward Abbey warned against the development of National Parks. Working at Arches National Monument, he saw the surveyors come in- staking out where the road would be built (he pulled up their stakes). Years later, after the road had been built, he noted the dismal conditions it brought with it- how far that new reality had become removed by progress from the wilderness. Keep the wilderness wild, he said. No new roads. No automobiles in the parks. Let the park rangers be park rangers instead of countermen and women “quietly going nuts answering the same three questions: 1) Where’s the john? 2) How long does it take to see this place? 3) Where is the coke machine?.”
He urged tourists to climb out of their “metal sarcophaguses” so that we could actually see and experience the wildness- something that he argued is incompatible with traveling in a motor vehicle. “There is no compelling why tourists need to drive their automobiles to the brink of the Grand Canyon,” he argued. Civilization and the progress it brings on paved roads are indeed incompatible with the wilderness. The Grand Canyon “experience” is not centered on the wilderness, but on cultural artifacts such as group photos or self portraits on Bright Angel point, and dayhikes. Hikes have taken on a cultural meaning. They are no longer a means by which we can commune with the wilderness, but a means by which we can accomplish an arduous piece of trail to add to our repertories of conversation pieces.
When the thunder sounds and the rains come- the dayhikers scurry for the shelter of the lodges and restaurants or for their metallic shells on wheels. Maybe one day an earthquake will shake the whole mess into the canyon (when no one is there), making a great improvement to the area. Perhaps then, cleansed of the trappings of civilization, we will see the canyon as holy, just as the Hopi do.