Monday, August 15, 2011

American Exceptionalism, National Parks

This weekend we went to Yosemite. I was a little worried I'd regret having made such a big deal about wanting to go; a Saturday in August isn't exactly the ideal time to beat the crowds and commune with nature. The sensible thing would probably have been to go someplace less popular, except we'd already gone up into the mountains to a couple of places that didn't really match my expectations, and I needed reassurance that my expectations were based on actual memories of just how distinctive the Sierras are.

I'm pretty much completely reassured at this point. There are mountains, and there are mountains, and for me mountains are not complete without house-sized boulders that are still sitting in the exact same place they tumbled down to a decade ago, or a century, or a milenium. They aren't complete unless the vegetation is growing out of solid granite, or gnarled by the wind and elevation. The perfect tree will be both, and also very possibly dead and charred by fire, but still standing decades later. A few years ago, I took a trip with some friends through Switzerland. The bit of the Alps that I got to see was very pretty, but it never felt like mountains. The trees there grew as easily as blades of grass, and with all of the same uniformity. I don't really want to get into the false dichotomy of liking one but not the other, but I never knew how much I loved the dust and granite and gnarly trees until I knew there were places that didn't have them.

In the end, I didn't really even mind the crowds. There's something wonderfully democratic about sharing a beautiful place with essentially the whole planet. Edward Abbey is free to roll over in his grave, but it turns out I'm ok with importing the cosmopolitan bustle of a big city to the foot of Bridalveil Falls. I love the history of the park as well, although I could probably stand to understand it better. It always makes me proud to be an American when I see a place that was created by the Progressive movement or the WPA.  Even when they didn't exactly anticipate modern ideas about conservation and environmental protection, these were people who did something incredible and they did it for ordinary people. I guess it would be cool to be the first person to come over the ridge and see the whole valley in all of its pristine perfection, but it turns out I kind of like people...and so I'm not going to wish away the ones that are there with me and or the ones that have been there before me.

Also I highly recommend the Artist Point trail. After a few hundred yards we were out of eyesight or earshot of any of the crowds, and might as well have been the first people stepping over the ridge to look out over the valley, which is pretty cool.

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