I guess we’re the sort of people who thought it would be fun to listen to the The Grapes of Wrath on audio book on a cross-country road trip to California. As E. and I left North Carolina to spend the next month camping out of our car in fifteen national parks, we noted the parallel migration that both we and the Joads were on, though obviously, ours was a voluntary vacation, not a labor migration. The twenty-some hours of faux Okie-accented voices took our patience only as far as eastern Nevada (not Cala-forn-e-uh). Since reading the book at age eleven with a riling ambition to consume “the classics” on a still-developing mind, I had forgotten–or more likely, never known–how much of Steinbeck’s book is about the human requirement for public space. If you cut the frame right, The Grapes of Wrath is about how both earthly and human demands on American landscapes dictate our desire, need, and right to public space. Think about the Joads’ threatening drive across the Mojave Desert, the troubles they encounter in finding a place to camp along the road, the flood at the book’s end. Think of the Dust Bowl itself.
Even without the Joads as a soundtrack, it is impossible to enter America’s national parks and splendor about in their wonders without asking yourself what really constitutes public space. In their most positivist interpretation, the 59 national parks, 129 national monuments, 20 national preserves, 51 national historic parks, 89 national historic sites, 30 national memorial areas, 18 national recreation areas, and 29 national seashores, lakeshores, and rivers are all public lands. They belong to all citizens of the United States of America. These spaces are not just where a citizen may go to walk among marvels and miracles, but they are where a citizen should go to feel herself again a citizen and to hold firm the tenuous relationship between others, herself, and her nation. I admit myself susceptible to the religiosity of this belief, which has been sanctified and multiplied in the thousands of Americans who saw Ken Burns’ 2009 documentary The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.
As a native of the East, I had imagined the national parks of the West to be spaces both truly public and pristine with landscapes strange and wild. I had been dreaming of the Sequoias for twenty years. E. would fall in love with the Joshua Trees’ thorny arrays, their starry forest in the desert. Above all my expectations for our trip, I hoped to return back to the South with a sense of myself within the nation, kin to the people around me who were also making their own journeys to these public spaces, together filled with a collective, natural awe. The last year has rendered many Americans grief-stricken. More of us have joined the ranks of citizens untethered from our nation. I did not come to the parks to become the American I was before the political earthquake of the last twelve months (which is to say, naive about certain historical patterns). But I did believe that I would return home from these public spaces feeling engaged in the human responsibilities of my political and social identities as a young southerner, a white woman, and as an American citizen.
“At the heart of the park idea,” Dayton Duncan says at the start of The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, “is this notion that by virtue of being an American, whether your ancestors came over on the Mayflower or whether they just arrived, whether you’re from a big city or from a rural setting, whether your daddy owns the factory or your mother is a maid, you–you are the owner of some of the best seafront property this nation’s got. You own magnificent waterfalls, you own stunning views of mountains, you own stunning views of gorgeous canyons. They belong to you. They’re yours.” And yet, in every park there are silences screaming that not only does this space not belong to us, but that there are those who share that same “virtue of being an American” who are kept out by the virtue of the national parks being what they are: symbols of American nationalism. The parks are beautiful and awesome, but they are also fearsome and terrible. And they are more exclusive and segregated than many Americans might wish to believe. “The creation of America’s national parks has been the creation of myths,” Terry Tempest Williams explains in This Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks. And the Park Service is coming to terms with selected myths of its history–the forced removal of native tribes and nations from dozens of park lands, the destruction of animal populations to make the land more palatable for visitors, and the massive clearing of valleys and forests to make way for the generations of Americans who would need to inspect their western properties.
The degree to which the Park Service is addressing the genocide, theft, and racism inherent to the current experience of the parks is both ambiguous and varied. A recent piece in the New York Times by Daniel Duane describes the recent trademark dispute that led to the renaming of several camps and lodges in Yosemite, names which formerly “falsif[ed] and celebrate[d] the slaughter and land theft upon which our national parks were built.” The renaming of the former Wawona Hotel to I only witnessed trace acknowledgement of the evils committed by the Park Service on behalf of America’s best idea, and only in those parks which loom large in the American vision of the West: Yosemite, Sequoia, and Rocky Mountain. I get the feeling from Duane’s piece and from exhibit materials at these big parks that visitors are supposed to commend the Park Service for their commitment to an honest interpretation of their history. But on the whole, the human history they give is static, reducing remorse to the speck of the distant past and willfully ignoring how both the histories and landscapes of the parks influence their present.
Here is what we saw: trails choked with people and roads choked with cars, filled with white families from across America. They travel in vans and RVs, carrying boxes of costly camping equipment, shiny in their slick down jackets and leather hiking boots. The lack of racial diversity in the parks is stark, if not unexpected. There are cultural reasons for this which most white Americans are oblivious to (and those working to change those cultural reasons), and there are financial reasons for this insidious segregation, which become obvious when you are in the parks themselves. Getting to, staying at, and camping in national parks has always been expensive. But having never been to the western parks before, I found myself profoundly discouraged by their blatant commercialism. Inside and outside the boundaries of national parks, the cornucopia of capitalism is flagrant, with the comforts of shopping and fine dining sometimes mere steps away from trailheads and campgrounds. If you strip away everything about national parks but the economics, it would be impossible to ask Americans to spend their money and time in these spaces to rejuvenate their own national genius loci and thereby participate in the nation’s civic growth. Of course, it is for everything you stripped away–the space itself–that the Americans who can afford to do so flock by the millions each year to the nation’s parks. Though the parks promise to show us the very best of America, the sheer whiteness and shameless industrialism, ubiquitous in every park, undercuts this promise, showing us the America we truly have, not the one in seek in democratic space.
We were at Bryce Canyon when we learned the news of murder in Charlottesville during a white supremacist rally and counter-protest. Staring off from Rainbow Point beyond the orange hoodoos to a storm rolling across the distant Bryce amphitheater, my phone entered a rare space of data reception and it began to ping and ding. “Can you believe it?,” the texts read. “Right there in Charlottesville, and I mean, it’s Charlottesville, that’s the liberal part of Virginia.” E. and I talked through the afternoon about white supremacy in the South, the allure of whitewashing the present with the myth of liberalism, and how to be better anti-racist actors and human beings. The next morning, we hiked down into Fairyland Canyon, where sunrise shone on the hoodoos so that it appeared that they were emitting light from their insides. These enormous spires of orange light enclosed us, and I became afraid of their brightness and enormity. We rushed along the loop and climbed as quickly as we could out of the canyon. When we made our way up and onto the rim, my heart slowed and rested on Charlottesville and our home in the South.
I became afraid of the landscape in other places too. In Capitol Reef, where the red cliffs and rocks jut and fall and destroy, the landscape feels ephemeral at the same moment that it smacks you with its ancient geology. This lack of identifiable temporality upon the place creates an a subtle sense of violence, not unlike walking through a gentrifying neighborhood. From up among the sandstone needles in Canyonlands, your view is time and water on rock and land. What is more terrifying than time? The remoteness of many parks may induce as much lonely pleasure as they do fear. I do not find these feelings to be exclusive from each other. On the hike down from those dreamy blue-green lakes around Mount Wheeler in Great Basin, my heart raced to feel both the bliss of an August alpine chill on my body and the fright of the view down across Nevada of naked nothing but level expanse and a highway out to nowhere but west.
I never quite felt kin to any of the landscapes of the western parks, and by the end of our trip, I ached for the sight of kudzu along the highway. My heart soared as we drove through the Ozarks towards home, those Arkansas hills not unlike my own hills rolling down the eastern side of the Appalachians. When I try to conjure the dread I felt staring down at the blue salt of Upheaval Dome in Canyonlands, I wonder if the fear is not the strangeness of the sight itself but the latent knowledge that these landscapes are a mirror of the pasts and possibilities of our nation. How far into the abyss of the Black Canyon might America fall? How long will it take for these deadly mountains of racist violence to erode into the sweet and windy balds of Shenandoah? The transcendence and sin of our national parks is that they show us as much about ourselves as they do about themselves. And it is one of our nation’s gravest perils that we do not acknowledge nor honor the possibilities for our nation that lie in the beauty and fear of connection between our souls and the experiences of visiting the parks. Despite the Park Service’s seeming inability to interpret for visitors how the human history dissolved into their landscapes dictates the experiences of Americans now or imagines what the experience of Americans could be, how is it that the national parks are still the spaces I know will turn to when I need to truly see the best and the worst of myself and my country?
When you enter a national park and stand in awe of the sight–the mountains, sea, cliffs, or rocks–you bind yourself to your own humility, you renew your capacity for astonishment and observance, despite the human propensity to close yourself off in fear. Even when the landscape itself inspires unease, it still beckons you to stare deeper into the difference that frightens you and to try to know it. The lesson extends beyond landscape and beyond the boundaries of our public lands to the ongoing project as a diverse people to create a shared and ethical ground for our country, past and future. And it extends to the parks themselves, which must do more to hold themselves accountable to their pasts and work to shift their culture towards their aspiration to be truly public lands, for all Americans.
“They can be seen as holograms of an America born of shadow and light; dimensional; full of contradictions and complexities,” Terry Tempest Williams writes. “Our dreams, our generosities, our cruelties and crimes are absorbed into these parks like water.” In the evening of our last night in Zion, we walked down to the brackish blue Virgin River and floated on our backs in one of the eddies made by a small rock dam. When the chill of the night water got to us, we climbed out and dried off. The salt stuck to our legs and whitened the ends of my hair. We didn’t shower for two days after that, and so we lived with the memory of that river on our skin all the way to California. I keep thinking of the sight of my own white skin spattered with the salinity of a river two states away, the imprint of past waters on who I was then; the memory of myself in the parks creating who I am now.