Family Vacations, Summer 1998
To breathe or not to breathe? I thought about it for a while and woke at dawn having decided, apparently, that it was OK to share the night with a harmlessly slurping black bear. I hadn't yet read John Muir. When I did, I found this: "The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness."
Later on that same trip we dropped down to see Muir's beloved Yosemite Valley, shared its photogenic splendors with a greater humanity and their many vehicles, steered together down pinched paths to gaze in amazement at skyscrapers of falling water. Thus did I learn early of the paradox in Congress's 1872 declaration (of the world's first national park at Yellowstone) that it be "set apart as a public park or pleasureing-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people."
Our parks actually do a pretty swell job with their impossible charge: to preserve nature while opening it up to the people. My kids have seen this dichotomy on our trips to Mesa Verde and Arches, the national parks closest to our home. In fact, they seemed to embrace the conundrum. At the museum near the Spruce Tree House cliff dwelling in Mesa Verde, they crammed against the glass with the horde of other kids to see the medicine bundle with the human thumb. They peered with the rest of our guided group into the circular stone mysteries of the kiva and marveled that for hundreds of years the inhabitants had only to hurl their garbage into the canyon below.
At Arches, the girls took instantly to the communal living at Devils Garden Campground: schlepping water, sharing restrooms, following the well-worn sand paths to our tents. They watched bemused as tourists rushed up to Delicate Arch, snapped their photos, and fled. They learned to step, like prancing elves, around the tufts of microbiotic soils, and knelt to console those crushed by thoughtless footsteps.
But the best by far, for all of us, was getting lost in the red sandstone fins of the Fiery Furnace. Not lost really, just far enough past the last sign to disappear from park radar. Squeeze through this crack, scramble up those giants' stair steps. Stop. Listen. The girls sat and made piles of white and red sand, grinding small stones to powder and casting them by pinches into the sun. My wife, Ellen, and I watched a line of shadow move down the walls and across our winter-warm rock. A raven answered me back.
To get into John Muir's space, you have do more than lean over the rail at the Grand Canyon's South Rim. You have to settle in a while, stay the night at the very least. On our way to visit relatives in California one summer, we eschewed the motel room in Ely, Nevada, and instead spent the night at the country's then-newest national park, Great Basin. We set up camp on a creek below 13,063-foot Wheeler Peak. We paid our respects to bristlecone pines older than Greece, breathed in the high-desert scent of bitterbrush and mountain mahogany. Ellen and I turned in early, but the girls stayed up, talking infrequently, feeding a flickering fire that licked eagerly up into the Universe.