“Do you think Edward Abbey is turning over in his grave?” my son asked.
We were standing in a growing queue of disgruntled humanity, waiting to claim a seat on one of the shuttle buses pulling into the visitors’ center parking lot at Zion National Park in an endless convoy. Even in the blast furnace that is southern Utah in late July, hundreds of people continued to flock to the park’s transportation service, instituted almost 20 years ago when traffic on the two-lane road into the heart of the canyon became unmanageable. Since then the throngs have only grown more unwieldy.
“Spinning like a top,” I surmised.
This was what the naturalist/curmudgeon/misanthrope saw coming six decades earlier. Desert Solitaire, his ode to the slickrock and silence of Utah’s canyon country, warned of a time when we humans would choke what was a pristine and empty wilderness. As a ranger at the then newly-formed Arches National Monument, he once went so far as to pull up the surveyor stakes that marked out the new (paved) road planned by the park service to allow better access to the area. He had nothing but disdain for the doughy tourists who peeked out the windows of their motor homes at the natural wonders around them, and his employer, whom he felt was mismanaging the resources it was supposed to be protecting.
It would appear his fears have been realized. The parks are overrun. People are everywhere. In the case of Zion, the trail to Angels Landing – an improbable viewpoint at the tip of a soaring fin of sandstone – is every bit as crowded as a rush-hour freeway. The last half-mile along the ridge (where chains have been installed as a handhold to keep you from plunging the thousand or so feet down the sheer face of the rock to a messy end) is like a game of ‘chicken’ as those heading toward the top and those coming back down meet and try to decide who will be the first to relinquish their death-grip on that precarious life-line.
‘The Narrows’ are equally log-jammed, with hundreds of people at a time vying for footing in the gentle currents of the Virgin River, making it perhaps the most well-traveled slot canyon in the world.
And in a crowd of those proportions, you will contend with all types. Most are pleasant enough, of course, but many are far less than that. They are the ‘I don’t give a shit about your personal space’ers, the ‘we’re going to stroll five-abreast down this trail so no one can get around us’ sorts, the ones who believe ‘lines are for everyone else but me,’ the ‘fuck quiet time at 10pm, we’ll be as loud as we want for as late as we want’ers, the ‘my friends and I are stopping in the only passageway in this crowded cafeteria to stare at the menu’ types. Those who have absolutely no consideration for others.
Not that I have any ‘Holier than thou’ position to preach from. I am merely one of the herd, returning to a place I fell in love with many years ago, this time with my son. But I’m sure his first impressions of Mukuntuweap (as the Paiutes called it) are far different from mine. Yes, everyone should have an opportunity to experience the grandeur of the natural world. Yes, doing it with so many people lessens that experience, to a great degree.
And so we seek out the less-traveled paths. Surprisingly, there are still some around. One day we hiked a good distance into the wilderness outside of the main canyon, where we came across only a handful of others. Another morning, avoiding the most heavily-traveled routes and hiking times, we got up close and personal with several bighorn sheep.
I have no answers – it simply is what it is. The world is becoming a very crowded place, even those formerly pristine and empty corners. Which makes it impossible at times to avoid the teeming masses. And as Jerry Seinfeld noted (and to which Abbey would surely agree), “People – they’re the worst.”