What makes America great tour 2 — Death Valley and Yosemite

Lesson 1 of our journey through two of America’s most contrasting national parks — it’s not the heat which makes the wild west great. Even at 9pm, Death Valley was a scorching 40 degrees — enough to make two brits run (slowly) to the nearest source of air con we could find.

It’s not what you want — especially not when the sat nav sends you down a dirt track to what looked like a deserted cemetery, and not the lodge you’re desperately in need of. Death Valley is an incredible reminder of what 19th century pioneers battled in their attempts to forge the American nation and pursue the dreams of the gold rush.

Driving through Death Valley is a fight against your instincts. Signs warn of the lack of civilisation and it’s all too tempting to turn around and find another route. But, to do so would be to miss the last chance you have to experience the wild west as those 19th century settlers did — a stark landscape which offered long term potential if you could find a way to conquer the brutal short term opposition it offers.

By contrast, Yosemite illustrates the sheer beauty of America. It’s an unmissable symbol of what makes America the country great — all sweeping landscapes, beautiful trails and the tantalising hint that somewhere within the park you might spot a bear.

Barely a minute would go by without one of us visibly exclaiming or gesturing eagerly at some new sight which had caught out eye. Even the dried out waterfalls elicited a gasp, a tribute to the raw power of nature.

But, any visit to Yosemite is a stark reminder of the losers of the growth of the United States. It’s impossible not to wander the park without seeing hints and traces of the native american community who had settled the land thousands of years ago and were now reduced to a tiny fraction of their former glory. By US standards, this purge is ancient history, but as outside visitors we were struck by the fact most of the land clearing and resettling happened within the last 200 years.

It’s a dark stain on an otherwise great area. In years to come, I hope the memory of what a people lost isn’t overshadowed by the sheer beauty of the area. That’s true for us, but also the park itself. It’s too easy to allow the greatness of the present to outshine the mistakes of the past.

The contrast between the two national parks is striking — where one offers opportunity, the only offers challenges. Together they speak to America’s history in a way history books can only stumble out — a visual illustration of the riches offered to people throughout history and the challenges they had to overcome to meet them. Nature doesn’t make people great — but it does create the opportunity for greatness.

And when it looks as good as Yosemite, it’s pretty great itself.