Ah, bewilderness!

David Feela - 09/29/2016

As I pulled into our local Wal-Mart, I noticed a half dozen camping rigs hanging out under the scant shade provided by a row of desperate trees spaced at long intervals along its black asphalt surface. Every desirable spot at the back of the lot was occupied by some form of recreational extravagance. Even if these travelers had mistaken the idea of a park for a parking lot, they still appeared to be having a good time. 

Two enormous RVs without any shelter had pulled alongside each other, a picnic in progress within the slim canyon of shade between them. A portable table filled the gap, an awning drawn, and chairs for at least six people arranged in a patio ensemble. I swear I could smell the heady fumes of barbecue mixed with a latent odor of diesel. 

Had American playwright Eugene O’Neill lived to the ripe old age of 128, he might have been inspired to write one more Broadway hit. Unlike his usual fare featuring characters from the fringes of society filled with disenchantment and despair, this would be one of his few comedies, a whimsical peek at America’s relationship with the idea of outdoor leisure.

The National Park Service has been searching for solutions to its unfolding dilemma, how to welcome and provide access to the ever-increasing number of visitors knocking at our wilderness’ gates while still maintaining the integrity of an ecology that this same population is on the verge of trampling. At one time, commercial enterprises such as logging, mining and grazing posed the biggest threats to our pristine lands. Ironically, today’s tourism might be the next unrealized threat our wilderness faces.

For the hypothetical play I’m proposing, O’Neill might open with a couple of retirees, Dug-less and Care-in, for example, sitting in folding chairs beside a propane firepit. Behind them, their RV parked in a City Market or Safeway lot with a scenic portrayal of the rugged El Capitan profile painted artistically on the building’s outside concrete wall. Dug is leaning back, sucking a pine-scented air-freshener deep into his lungs, rhapsodizing about the beauty of natural stimulation, while Care-in is smoking legalized reefer, motionless like the famous depicted stone face.

“Watcha thinking, honey?” asks Dug.

“We should have parked at Yellowstone.”

A partnership between the National Park Service, corporations and local muralists could do a better job of producing famous park vistas all across the country on the vast blank stretches of retail America. But for the sake of Broadway theater, let’s for the moment imagine the more primitive construction of stage scenery and spotlights. 

Drama critics might argue that O’Neill would have used more dialogue, but you get the picture. Our public lands are being overrun by well-meaning supporters of the outdoor experience, arriving in RVs large enough to stage their own productions.

Downsize. That’s the spirit. Those who drive or tow accordion-style homes on wheels where rooms crank out of each side of the vehicle like giant bellows deserve every opportunity to share experiences, but our parks need less pavement and fewer parking lots.

America’s asphalt fields for commercial gain are immense and mostly unappreciated. The retail market might be happy to cater to our legions of hookup campers. Dug-less and Care-in could spend hours and dollars shopping for souvenirs while stocking up on beer and groceries. When they return to their rig, the scene on the wall would remind them of their upcoming reservation with the national park experience, all while parked under the nose of, say, Teddy Roosevelt.

The next morning, an electric bus would pick them up and drive them into the national park. Reduced traffic, soothed tensions and hands free to dedicate themselves to the task of taking picture with their cell phones – the big rig campers could make a day of it. The wildlife might even relax, and the real camping experience would be left to those who really camp without having to become judgmental or exclusive.

If O’Neill is rolling over in his grave at the thought of writing such a play and sponsoring such a revolution, I will gladly take the blame. Of course, we should always be the audience in this great unfolding drama on our public lands. Our Park Service employees are just fortunate enough to have the better seats. Why is it that we are bewildered by a world that rises so honestly out of the dirt, designed without so much as an apology for distracting us with its beauty?

With luck and a revised strategy for managing public lands, we might buy a hundred more years for our national parks, with scenery and tourism developed as the next exploitable resources. Here’s hoping, and if you can’t see the forest for the RVs, let’s not encourage visitors to haul in a little more scaffolding.


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