We all want the solitude of wilderness. What happens when we have to share it?
Last year, I made a resolution to go outside more.
Like most millenials, I am riding the cultural tide of reconnecting to nature. Perhaps it’s because I spend most of my day, staring at a computer screen — that’s what work is now. Or, perhaps it’s because I’m afraid that I might never afford a house with a proper backyard, and I’m part of the last generation that played outside. Either way, the itch to reconnect to something less polished than a Marie Kondo living room, fresher than recycled office air, and more authentic than Instagram became overpowering at some point in 2018. I wanted to become a hiker again.
Being a Californian, my first instinct was to go to Yosemite, the crown jewel of California’s parks. However, I had heard rumors of overcrowding, and frankly wanted more solitude than what I thought a place with three hotels and a strip mall could offer. I found myself a hiking partner, and, just coming out of the winter snow season, we opted for something in the foothills just outside of the park.
At the end of the day, my companion and I were both exhausted. While not exactly a hardcore hike, we were soft from many winter nights on the couch, and had endured 9 miles of rough trail in a humidity I had not prepared for so close to the sky-scraping Sierras. I was getting a tension headache, and we were nearly out of water.
Then, my hiking partner suggested “let’s go to Yosemite.”
“Yosemite??” I said, incredulous. “The sun is setting in an hour. We won’t get home until after midnight. And it’s like $80 or something to get in.”
“Yeah but…it’s right there. I mean we’re right there. When’s the last time you went?”
I paused. My “hiking partner” was actually man I met on OKCupid one month ago. Last week, I had casually mentioned that I was planning a hike near Yosemite, (“you can come if you want to, but, you know, it’s whatever, really, it’s not a big deal, just a thing I’m doing now. I don’t even care what’s caring.”) He had cheerfully accepted.
Now here, I had subjected him to 9 miles of mugginess, my sweaty back, warm nalgene water, and an intimate encounter with a rattlesnake. This was technically our fourth date. He deserved a medal. All he was asking for was a ride down the road.
“OK.” I said.
We piled into the car, and five miles later, at around 7:00pm, blew past the shuttered entrance station to Yosemite National Park.
The road meandered, the radio played, we perspired.
Then, as suddenly as if a sea had parted, the valley floor opened in front of us.
We both fell into silence. I was suddenly an ant, driving my silly ant-car down the hall of a granite cathedral. We rolled all the windows down, and sweet, snow-melt air plunged into the car and wrapped itself around our limbs, cooling all the swollen punishment of the day’s humidity. To my left, Easter green grass rolled in waves, like the surface of a wind-whipped lake. I craned my neck out of the window to see the tops of the granite cliffs, pinstriped with glacier minerals, bejeweled with evergreens and frosted with snow. The sky had faded into an almost cartoonish periwinkle, and a scattered handful of stars were twinkling down their “good mornings.” The titanic ribbon of mist named Yosemite Falls cascaded mindlessly some distance away, a 200 foot tether between heaven and earth. I couldn’t remember the last time I smelled air this clean, pine and snow and fresh grass all at once. Everything was magic. I was so small. I felt tears come into my eyes. Oh my god. Yosemite. Yosemite. How could I have forgotten Yosemite…
Then suddenly I screeched to a halt. I looked ahead. There were about 15 cars in front of me, all waiting at a stop sign to pass. A perpendicular road was similarly backed up. Google maps (wait — Google maps is working here?) showed deep veins of red all through the valley floor.
I was in a traffic jam. In Yosemite.
My periwinkle spell snapped. I suddenly noticed hundreds of people crawling all over the Valley floor: Japanese tour groups climbing into buses, Midwesterners in practiced parkas, Women in hijabs pushing strollers, a troupe of Latino kids chasing each other with bouncy balls, White Americans fighting with teenagers to get out of RVs…everybody and their mother was here. The streets were lined with cars competing for parking spaces, blinking traffic signs and vending machines. It was 7:30pm in April, over a month before Memorial Day weekend and the start of the “official” season of National Park tourism.
This wasn’t supposed to happen.
There is no “traffic jam” in anyone’s Yosemite wilderness fantasy.
And yet, there we were, staring at reality. Which incidentally looked like a tailpipe.
Yosemite National Park saw a roughly 30% spike in visitors between 2013 and 2016. The John Muir trail, one of the Park’s most popular backcountry routes that also overlaps the famous Pacific Crest Trail, has septupled in usage since 1998. The park service is doing its best to keep up with the steady frenzy, from new traffic initiatives to fare increases, while maintaining its mission to preserve the magnificence of Yosemite for the posterity of the world.
I do not envy their task.
But, the real question on my mind is: what has caused this influx? Why is Yosemite suddenly the hottest place to be on a Saturday night in April?
Perhaps it’s not just California’s swelling population. In 2008, 89% of Yosemite’s visitors were California residents, but in 2009, only 62% of all summer visitors were Californians. This increase in visitors is not unique to Yosemite or California either, nearly all National Park attendance rosters are growing, and they show no sign of stopping. California may have experienced a surge in population growth, but this doesn’t fully explain the swelling of its parks.
I suspect something else is going on: being outdoorsy has become very, very, trendy.
As a tree-hugging National Parks Foundation donor, I consider the tidal wave of people “going outside” a good thing. The more people visit preserved sections of wilderness, the more of a chance we have of continuing their preservation for future generations. People’s engagement, exposure, and experience of nature…all these things help keep magical places like Yosemite safe from development threats, government budget cuts, and as best we can legislate, climate change.
But there is such a thing as a hug of death.
To prevent this, in 2018, the Parks service increased the Yosemite entrance fee to $35, and more price increases beyond this are rumored to be on the horizon. They have installed shuttles, put up signs warning people of full parking lots, and are quick to note road closures. They are trying to keep it under control.
On the one hand, the fare increases are a decent idea. Increasing the use price of something is a common government tactic to support (or, rather, discourage) the number of people that engage with something, be it a bridge, a service, or a park.
On the other hand, increasing entrance fees is a bad idea. National Parks are named such because they are for the benefit of the nation — the entire nation, regardless of where you came from originally or what you can afford right now. America basically invented National Parks. Like Lady Justice, they are blind to bias, politically bi-partisan, and quintessential to our national identity. Putting a price barrier on access to them borders on unconstitutional. The National Parks system, along with freedom of worship and freedom of speech, is one of the things that still makes a government-bashing, Berkeley alum like me genuinely Proud to Be an American.™
Privileged statesmen, some of whom lived 200 years ago, amongst everything else they had going on with “manifest destiny,” had the foresight and thoughtfulness to save these spaces for us — just in the hope that we would agree they are worth saving for others after us, too.
Hence, I am outraged that a place like Yosemite could have the gall to produce something as not-worth-saving as a traffic jam.
For most people, it defeats the entire point.
There is an irony, about being a hiker or backpacker as your primary sport, and about this whole idea of nature becoming trendy. Most sports are very convivial and communal. You have a team, they are called your “mates,” you do a thing together, usually involving a ball or something with a wheel. You celebrate and clap butts and clink glasses over inside jokes and pizza later that night.
Hiking is not like this at all.
If other sports are dogs, hiking is the cat of the organized recreational world. Hikers go into nature seeking peace, reflection, and, as much as can be found, solitude. John Muir said “only by going alone in silence, without baggage, can one truly get into the heart of the wilderness.” Yes, a rare few and dear mates may join along. But generally, most hikers aren’t into hiking for the community. They’re in it for the opposite; the lack of stimulation — the ultimate solitude — that wilderness, and really only wilderness, can provide. Hikers tolerate each other on the trail in much the same way well-behaved cats tolerate each other in a house: because we have to. Sometimes, especially in the backcountry, we quite need each other — and don’t get me wrong, the sacrosanct bond you share with someone you have backpacked with can transcend the boundaries of time, space, and whether or not one of you likes Justin Bieber. But, still, given a choice, most of us would rather have the whole place to ourselves.
This is why the idea of so much civilized sprawl on the Yosemite Valley floor, however necessary it is to actually protect the park, feels so bizarre.
Millions of us aspire to be outdoorsy; the implications of minimalism, self-sufficiency, lack of vanity, and above all, tranquility. But in these visions, we are invariably alone with the trees and the valley and the mountaintop. “Sharing” is not much of a theme in #onewithnature. Solitude is.
In other words, Yosemite has made me realize I want everyone to experience wilderness. Just, you know, not my wilderness.
What are we to do about this overcrowding? How can we all have our nature quest, while not seeing each other have it?
In something like a housing crisis, the solution is deceptively simple: build more housing (why that doesn’t actually happen is an entirely other story involving governments, contractors, and community housing boards). In a National Parks crisis, we can’t exactly “build more wilderness.”
We could preserve more of it, certainly. This is something the Sierra Club would like me to give them money for very badly (amidst their busy schedule of sending me address labels I didn’t ask for). But, to pretend no others exist already is silly.
And that’s the real secret:
Yosemite is just the popular kid. There are hundreds of parks in our state — in our country! — boasting luscious flora, sweeping vistas, and jaw-dropping natural features. These parks have clean restrooms, open roads, reservable campgrounds, and would love — just love — to make friends with you.
Further out, miles out, there are other unspoken, secret places where the splendor of nature truly shines. Away from paved roads, traffic, and wifi signals, there are places that still allow you feel like maybe, just maybe, you could tap into the little feral magic that’s left in you.
…And if you don’t know about them already, I’m not going to tell you where any of them are.
If, at this point, you’re thinking that I am an asshole, or a hypocrite, you are probably right. But let me explain myself.
There is nothing more successful in breaking the hypnotic tranquility of a nature stroll like the sound of an oncoming drone (“where is it? Is it watching me?!”), the reflection of sunlight bouncing off of a discarded cheez-its wrapper, or the Smiths playing over a low fidelity bluetooth speaker just up ahead.
Nature is the closest thing an insufferable, doubtful, post-modern cupcake like me has to church. I wouldn’t play a bluetooth speaker in your church. I wouldn’t let a drone loose to check out the rafters. I appreciate that people are really looking forward to sharing “Day 2 Trail adventures of Boon and Piper” set to some festy EDM with their Youtube followers, and that others have spent $400 on a flying camera in order to see vistas previously only reserved for birds, planes and gods, but I am literally walking 7 miles to get away from people like you. Please die.
The biggest unspoken rule about low-tech, self-reliant sports like hiking, tent camping and backpacking, is that if you find the kind of picture-perfect, Ansel Adams-y place that would heal the lame, cure the sick, and get everyone who looks upon it desperately laid in the bushes nearby, you don’t tell anybody about it. Because then it gets ruined. Everyone brings their speakers and their drones and their cigarette butts, and the pastoral innocence is slowly drained from the place. It becomes another pit stop on someone’s bucket list, barely looking up from their phone. Before you know it, there’s a traffic jam just outside.
This is why we don’t want to share; this is why there’s only one person staring pensively across the cliff in the #waderlust Instagram photo. But there’s only so many cliffs in this park. Should we take turns posing?
Someone once told me that 99% of people who visit Yosemite never leave the Valley floor, never see the world of wonder waiting in the shrouded peaks that guard from above.
But, getting out of the village and up in the clouds feels dangerous. Highly specialized. Requiring peak fitness (although this assumption I can tell you to toss right out — I’ve done over a week in the Hoover Wilderness with scoliosis and a respectable muffin top. #unlikelyhikers is real, guys).
So, perhaps the solution here is to encourage people to leave the village and go into the backcountry — it’s not necessarily as hard as you think. Or perhaps it is to encourage tourists to explore other parks, like Sequoia, Big Sur, Joshua Tree or Lassen. Give poor Yosemite a break. There’s more than one fish in the sea.
California’s wilderness is both vast and varied. It is not mine, or Ranger Rick’s, or Teddy Roosevelt’s. It is yours. It is everyone’s. It’s a gift that has been preserved and passed down to you, to all of us, for you to do nothing with, except to enjoy, in the hopes that you will preserve it for someone else to enjoy, too.
It’s just hard to remember that kumbaya sentiment at about 7:30pm on an early April evening, a waxing moon rising in a lavender sky, the scent of melting snow and sun-baked pine in the air…while I’m sitting in my car, staring at someone else’s tailpipe, screaming “IT’S YOUR TURN, GO.”