Cranky on the Grand Staircase

December 31, 2016 Posted by: George Jacobi
In Bryce Canyon, distant view looking over a rounded hill at a foot trail that runs along the base of a number of orange and yellow hoodoos

It was a busy September week on the Grand Staircase Circle Tour. No, not an official Tour, just us blasting through southern Utah and the Arizona Strip, visiting Bryce, Zion, and the North Rim. Apparently a popular idea, as all three parks were packed with tourists. The opportunity to share these captivating canyons with my family had been planned with enthusiasm, and yet it became a struggle for me to enjoy.

I want so much to love these places, and I do, but it becomes more difficult every year. LOVED TO DEATH is not a cliché when it comes to the National Parks. Looking for an intimate connection to the most sublime landscapes in the country is not easy when they’re overcrowded.  In her new book, “The Hour of Land”, Terry Tempest Williams extols the positives of the National Park System, their importance to our culture and our spirits. All true - if you can find a quiet spot where you and the park can communicate, where the secret spirit of the Earth meets your soul one on one.

Once off the park bus, we allow the crowd to dissipate, and then set out up the trail. It could be any trail, all the trails, in any National Park in canyon country; it doesn’t need to be identified here. Like most, it is more than wide enough for two people to pass each other, and not quite wide enough for three abreast. It’s a perfectly comfortable width, and allows room for one to stand aside resting while one passes in each direction without forcing anyone uncomfortably near the edge. Any wider and the trail would seem like a highway. We walk in single file. My daughter follows me, and my wife brings up the rear – she stops more often for photos. Did I teach them to hike this way? I don’t think so. My attention is outward – I see lizards, hear birds, note flowers, consider the attractiveness of each for a photograph at different angles and backgrounds.

I don’t miss the mule deer munching three feet away that many others went right past, gossiping gaily. In short, I’m on a nature walk, and if I have something worth saying to my family, I’ll stop in order to pass it on to them. They take their cue from my behavior, I guess, but have their own interest in the surroundings.

Down the trail come the crowds from the last bus. Chattering, each group is two or three wide, some holding hands. Doesn’t matter if they are tall Scandinavians, short Japanese schoolgirls, New York stockbrokers or French people wearing NY Yankee hats. Mormons or Methodists. They all are so busy with each other, they don’t see anything, least of all the fact that I have to give way. Is there some competitive street contest that I failed to be taught?

What are they doing? Don’t they realize that they will never be here again? My attention is diverted from the natural world over and over. It’s much like going to a big city museum show, where you’ll experience wonderful sights but usually be unable to interact with them intellectually or spiritually. Angry, I adopt a similar program, looking away until they realize I’m about to bump THEM. This helps my competitive spirit, but it still means I’m playing THEIR game, not my own. Over and over.

Now I’m ready to just shoulder bump the next human, male or female, who isn’t willing to share some space, even if it means starting a fight. Not the serene state of mind one hopes to adopt amongst such beauty. Nobody else seems bothered by the situation. Perhaps the city street state of mind is so entrenched, they are oblivious to trail etiquette, as well as the glorious profusion of life and magnificent geology around them. A sad thing indeed.

Am I being an old grouch now? Sure. I know we added to the stress and discomfort of everybody else by doing what we did when we did it. And I know bringing up these issues in a personal way like this probably doesn’t help. Long time Park Rangers know not to expect peace on a popular trail; they can be found (actually NOT found) walking out of uniform, in an off season, in a less congested area for their own enjoyment of nature. They have that opportunity – you and I can make an effort to do the same.

The conversation about how to handle the over-abundance of visitors goes on everywhere every day. Are the National Parks losing the ability to put people into a spiritual/emotional connection with nature? Honestly, I can still find ways, but I already sing in the choir. What about the ones for whom this can be a life-changing moment if they could feel it? Those are the ones who need it the most.

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This blog is meant to encourage awareness and thoughtfulness about the Grand Canyon, one of our most precious resources. It is not merely a story of what happens or has happened here, not a cookbook for what you should make of it yourself, but more an example of the many-faceted inspiration the Canyon nurtures in an artist, perhaps in you. Indeed, inspiration may be the Canyon's greatest resource.

These words are sincere, my own take on this world, deliberately non-academic and directed toward users of social media. In no way does it represent the policies or opinions of the National Park Service, although it is done under the auspices of that entity, but is offered in gratitude, with my respect and admiration for these soldiers of conservation. George H. Jacobi 2016

Last updated: December 31, 2016

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