In a land of red parched stone that doesn’t feel like America, only the ice cream shops and hamburgers evoke the U.S. to me. The backwoods feel of the canyons from that Southwest corner of the country makes it easy to forget the graphic maps of red and blue showing a divided America. The only focus is another hike to the next trail, another layer of rock, another sunset, sunrise, majestic vistas.
Here in these national parks, nature rules the schedule. Connection with the world outside the park borders is discouraged, if not physically hindered by lack of cell service. Life takes on a pleasant routine of waking early, eating oatmeal, hiking through stunning canyon trails, stopping for a sandwich lunch and hiking some more. All the while there’s the repeated bliss of drinking fresh water from scattered water stations, and relaxing at the end of a long hike — after the satisfying final step up and out of a canyon trail. A shuttle driver at the Grand Canyon once said, “It’s optional to go down but mandatory to come up.”
There’s also the pleasant sensation of napping on long car drives to the next hike, snacking along the way and constantly learning something new about nature at a ranger talk. The rangers’ very existence reminds me of how different a life someone could live outside the corporate world of Manhattan.
Every moment in the national parks of the Southwest becomes a chance for a surprise glimpse of some new animal, bug or reflection of the sun and clouds on rocks and water. The simple majesty changes schoolchildren — after a few days in the forest, “they start to identify types of trees and small animals, and notice distinctions in sounds and smells,” instructors at the Mountain School outdoor immersion program told National Geographic in October 2016. “Parents say, ‘What did you do to my child?’” a teacher at an elementary school says in the piece, titled “Can the Selfie Generation Unplug and Get Into Parks?”
What did the canyons do to me?
The part of me that enjoys nature began to awake and savor all the sights and sounds of a wild country I’d never encountered before. Cacti growing like weeds, red sand for dirt, rock instead of fields, shrubs and trees instead of grass. The southwest had too its own lore of being discovered and rediscovered over the centuries by different peoples. I found beauty in being so close in time to a relatively contemporary discovery in 1869, by one John Wesley Powell. In contrast, Henry Hudson had already found the Hudson River more than two centuries earlier.
For all its history, New York suddenly felt very presumptuous and proud, tucked in a little jewel of an island on the Northeast coast, far removed from the arid beauty of the canyons. It was unfair, I thought, that a place like New York had the world stage while this place in the Southwest clearly did not. Even though millions visit the Grand Canyon every year, their brief stays don’t build the same cultural influence that New York boasts. Yet what does New York have to be proud of? So much is dwarfed by the sheer size and power of the canyons, the trails that zigzag up their sides. Skyscrapers and canyons both make humans look small, but one is created by manmade power, while the other is created by some unseen force.
That’s humbling, because no human being can claim to have made that beauty. Rock and water, carved by time and forces far greater than those shaping the Manhattan skyline, spread out for more than a million acres. This, money cannot build. I realized how feeble I was after attempting to recover from a strenuous hike. How much I needed AC, craved junk food and ice cream and sleep. But still I dreamed in the moment of hiding away, perhaps with a dog, and a winding road through the wilderness. Maybe that was what I wanted: the endless trek that constantly opened new wonders and wore out the body in a pleasing way.
People change, yet one of the best pieces of advice I have heard about finding your dream career is to write down what made you happy as a child and find a field with similar attributes. While I have sublimated into the business casual and glass building corporate world, the child in me still loves being outdoors in the sun, dirt and water. Not that nature in the Southwest is friendly. It’s a wilderness of little water, few plants, dry sun and esoteric rock formations. The alien, ancient landscape isn’t the forested mountains of the Northeast — the Adirondacks and Catskills — places I’ve visited growing up. But the novelty of the life thriving in the desert, the different birds, pockets of spring water, and lines of cliffs as far as the eye could see, mean nature is still wonderfully fascinating. I have not changed. I still want to be the kid who ran away to the mountains like Sam Gribley in “My Side of the Mountain.”
In that sense, my call to nature has always had an undertone of some unspoken American ideal. From Native American lore of living off the land to John Muir, Jack London and Jean Craighead George, interacting, living with nature and preserving it is its own subculture. Look at REI, The Sierra Nevada Club. America sees working the land and big boxing the land as profitable, but to embrace nature is to be among the gods. Why else did Henry David Thoreau go to Walden?
This is the sublayer of American culture, made popular in part by books such as “Silent Spring” and “The Yearling.” Now it’s easier to understand what is so spectacularly American about these RVs, tents and hikers, and why the countryside has always conflicted with the city, the midlands with the coasts, the self-proclaimed elites with the ones who know the land. Then there are the ones who come back from the cities to become one with the land — elites or pitiful beings?
Thoreau writes, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
But in the end, nature and urban civilization always seem to conflict. The struggle within myself between childhood joys and a fascinating career keep re-emerging, to choose the wilderness or the sanitized metropolis. In New York I gained a sense of being perched on the top of the world. In the canyons I began to realize how small of a corner I actually occupy.
Ironically, it was in the canyons that community appeared. Hikers passing each other asked names, directions and goals. Here the food was simple. People congregated in lodges, campgrounds and parking lots. Here everything appeared serene, untouched by a rising wave of national divide. That is, until a ranger brought up the federal hiring freeze due to the election, and a local newspaper discussed the White House’s plan for $1 trillion in infrastructure spending.
As with other vacations, again I did not want to return to a city of tall concrete, a manmade canyon of steel and lights. This time I sensed too that the city was so proud of herself, when at any moment something could easily destroy it. The fear is that an event like the headlines of terrorism in London that broke during my trip could disrupt a city’s lifeline, while in nature somehow the one who lives off the land is invincible.
I’m torn inside about the nature that I can never tame. New York says no one’s ever good enough. In the canyon, no one had to be anything.