This past July, I traveled to Utah to visit the “Mighty Five”. The Mighty Five consist of five national parks: Zion, Bryce Canyon, Arches, Capitol Reef, and Canyonlands. Each one of these parks are unique in their own respects, but are drawn together by the simple fact that they are all amazing destinations. As I began reading Cronon’s essay, I related what he was saying back to my own previous experiences.
One of the earliest ideas Cronon discusses is how closely related the wilderness is with religion. The earliest adventure seekers were drawn to remote the remote wilderness areas, such as Yosemite or Acadia, because of their “sublime” nature. Being in the presence of the larger-than-life geographical features of the park allowed those who traveled there to feel the presence of both God and Satan simultaneously. As I continued reading, I was reminded of information I had learned at Zion National Park. Originally, the park was named Mukuntuweap, Paiute for “straight canyon” by John Wesley Powell, the first to lead a scientific expedition of those lands. But, after some time, President Wilson changed the name to Zion National Park. Zion is a religious term synonymous with “city of God” or “place God loves”. This change was brought on by multiple reasons with the largest being that if the park had a tie to religion, it would attract the attention of more tourists. Smaller reasons included the fact that Wilson worried the Mukuntuweap would scare off visitors since the name was not easily pronounced. Overall, the changing of Zion’s name demonstrates the close connection to religion and wilderness.
After the term sublime became washed out, the wilderness became a refuge for city dwellers. Authors such as Owen Wister populated the idea that American cities were toxic, confining places to be; they compromised the masculinity of men and subjected them to feminine ideals. In order to combat this, the solution was to journey back to the roots of the “real American man”: a man who wasn’t afraid to get dirty or work hard. Luckily, the wilderness provided an outlet from the cities to the wealthy. They quickly inhabited the lands, building extravagant homes and places for outdoor recreation, all while reshaping the American definition of “wilderness”. Traveling through the Mighty Five demonstrated these ideals. Many parks had extravagant hotels and condos that seemed to defeat the purpose of an outdoor vacation. Why would anyone expect five star room service in the middle of the desert? Needless to say, they were always fully booked every night. Within the parks, it was obvious that the majority of visitors came from a wealthy background. Most were covered in gear from high-end retailers such as Patagonia, REI, or Columbia; it was rare to find someone in pants that weren’t Dri-FIT or in a jacket that wasn’t made out of Gortex. This observation made me look at myself and the way I was dressed too. I was technical clothing from these brands, and was even sporting a new REI backpack. Without realizing, I fit Cronon’s stereotype.
Looking at the bigger picture, I conclude that Cronon is correct to an extent. I agree that the outdoors have partially become a refuge for the wealthy, but they have also retained some genuine aspects. As a whitewater raft guide on the Shenandoah River, I know that the wilderness will always prevail over humans. Time after time again, I have seen people being sucked into gnarly hydraulics or ejected from the raft by ocean-sized waves. In those moments, there is no way to tame the river or prevent its effects: you will always succumb to its power. The same goes for the looming cliffs at Zion or the boggy swamps of the Everglades: there is no way to control the weather atop of Angel’s Landing, and there’s no way to control the alligators in the swamps.