Steaming over Old Faithful

Congressional debates, supreme court decisions, senate bills, presidential speeches – more than fodder for TV drama yet hardly more real to me than watching "Law and Order." I consider myself moderately well informed for a young American, mostly thanks to the "Daily Show." I read articles from newspapers, and not just the ones based in Durango. I form opinions, I research before I vote – and my Facebook quiz confirmed that my presidential choice in the last election was aligned with my ideological values. So I know I’m on the right track.

I disagree with each party on certain issues but still have a naïve faith in the government at large to act according to what is "Right" (even if it’s a different idea of what is "Right"). I trust them to put the country first. I trust them to govern; but my illusions have not met with reality. And I’m pissed!

Durango often seems far removed from the rest of the country – well, the rest of the world. (I often wonder at the European traveler who finds this little corner of the country.) Washington, D.C., and the fast-paced government happenings and what-not that often seem to have far-reaching consequences never quite reach through our bubble.

But, the government shutdown has gone too far! They’ve closed national parks, in peak desert season!  I’ve realized that as far away as the capital seems to me, I’m equally as distant from the minds of many powerful politicians (as are veterans and Social Security collectors).

Henry David Thoreau said, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” What does America look like without its national parks? Why should Washington care if they are closed? Why should you care either way? There are many atrocities committed by world leaders every day, and even post-government shutdown, the closing of national parks seems like small beans next to the Affordable Care Act, the stalled responsibilities of the FDA, and the debt ceiling (which I take to be a metaphor and don’t understand the economic aspect of “raising” a ceiling that does not literally exist).

National parks may be the true American legacy. Yellowstone was not simply America’s first national park, but the first in the world. I have assigned an essay to my writing class wherein the students must analyze a concept or ritual that represents American culture. Some students wish to discuss hunting, others will write about sports, food and the American flag. I have begun to wonder what I would write about. How would I discuss the relationship between a term like “American” that is either bloated with patriotism or empty of any significance other than the humorous accented pronunciation of ’Merca?

More than basketball – which some students contend to be the best sport in the U.S.A. because it’s the best sport in the world – national parks began in America and are owned by the government to essentially preserve wildlife and wilderness. National parks exist all over the world in countries such as Australia, Scotland, Costa Rica, India and Iran. Preservation and education are essential aspects of national parks, but they also represent national pride.

Yellowstone – boasting more than 2 million acres, 75 different mammals, 322 species of birds, 16 species of fish and 1,000 species of plants – is the first but not the largest of our country’s parks. That tile goes out to Denali in Alaska. (Shout out to Wikipedia for some general, possibly accurate, stats.)

America is not a flag; it is not an eagle; it is not a Toby Keith song. America is land and wildness. With desert cities like Phoenix and Las Vegas and dams on every major river, we are losing the wildness. Land is the most American part of America; it’s what we stole, what we conquered, what we “tamed," what we raped. It’s what we value, what millions travel across the country (and across the world) to see every year. We paint pictures of the land, photograph it, Instagram it, sell it on calendars and post cards.

“Look where I went,” the pictures say. “This is beautiful and awesome, therefore I am beautiful and awesome."

Caves, waterfalls, rivers, canyons, glaciers, mountains, deserts, lakes, forests, animals, tourists in fanny packs, jeggings and kankles: national parks are quintessentially American, right down to the bastardization of Western culture for sale at the gift shop.

When Clark Griswold, alias Chevy Chase, drove his family across the country to visit Wally World, audiences laughed at the antics of the all-American family driving cross country, stopping along the way to see the world’s second largest ball of twine, only to find that Wally World was closed for repairs. They laughed because they had been forced to endure such pilgrimages.

Now, instead of a theme park owned by millionaires, it’s the natural wonders of our country, Yosemite, Canyon Lands and the Grand Canyon, that are closed by our own government. And I feel robbed of what I had always taken for granted, just like Clark Griswold.

– Maggie Casey