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Recreation American style ­— post COVID-19

A View From the Edge

People come to experience our outdoors, our culture and rub shoulders with our pioneering spirit. Our land is full of natural wonders, vistas that take your breath away. Cultures ancient and new will be, once again, open, waiting, to be explored: New England, coasts of two oceans, mountains, plains, the desert Southwest, homeland hills and valleys, historic rivers — all these are our playground, and Americans know how to play and welcome people to share. Some would say that God seems to have created this very continent for all our enjoyment.

However, like Alfred Russell Wallace once said in 1863: “…future ages will certainly look back upon us as a people so immersed in the pursuit of wealth as to be blind to higher considerations. They will charge us with having culpably allowed the destruction of some of those records of Creation which we had it in our power to preserve; and while professing to regard every living thing as the direct handiwork and best evidence of a Creator, yet, with a strange inconsistency, seeing many of them perish irrecoverably from the face of the earth, uncared for and unknown.”

Take Yosemite Park, which is in danger of being driven on and trampled — to destruction. The Grand Canyon south rim has more square miles of paths and roadways than your average town: hundreds of acres of asphalt. Yellowstone is normally so crowded in summer they experience traffic jams six and seven miles long. Jones Beach used to be a wilderness preservation area. Chesapeake Bay used to have the cleanest waters on the Atlantic Coast. The Everglades Park has lost 30% of its fresh water and nearly all of its tidal action (to save what unsalted water is left). The Indian ruins of New Mexico’s Santa Fe and Taos region are dwarfed by adjacent (and huge) bus, RV and car parks. The list goes on.

At sunset a year ago, I stood on Route 12 in Southwestern New Mexico between the Apache and Gila National Forests. Twenty miles in front of me the road stretched to the horizon and 20 miles behind lay a straight path from whence I had come. The curve of the earth was just discernible; the cool evening air tingled with the smell of Pinon pine and the grey sand of the forest desert apron blowing gently in the breeze. As I stood there, without another human in sight, no cars, no sound, just nature, the hand of man was still in abundant evidence — the blacktop, white lane markers and sign warning, “Watch Out For Snowplows.” Still, I felt that this road didn’t intrude on nature; it complimented it in a way that, somehow, couldn’t offend. If the land were meant to be walked, traveled, then this road was the kindest, narrowest, path. For it, too, seemed to follow the contours and flow with nature.

Years ago, traveling up Route 684 north of Manhattan, I was struck how wrong 684 was for the land. Efficient? Yes. Popular? Sure. In tune with its surroundings? No. It cuts through, instead of around. It dominates instead of flowing across valleys and rivers. It tames and offends the land. In Tony Hiss’ book, “The Meaning of Place,” he explains this innate ability of humans to feel right, in tune, with their surroundings. When things are not in tune with their surroundings, we are alienated, feel rushed, or harried, and generally feel inhuman or unnatural.

The “controversial and startling” plans (as one paper put it) for Yosemite, the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone (three parks with the highest public profiles, a good place to start) required that engineers rip up offending roads and car-parks, no matter how efficient. In their place will go transportation systems (railways, bus lanes and the like) that will, according to ex-Secretary Bruce Babbitt, “preserve the essence of these National Parks’ beauty.” The idea is to allow more visitors into these parks, not less, but to constrain the roads and land-taming amenities these loads force us to build. More Route 12 thinking and less Route 684. More Woody Guthrie “this land is your land, this land is my land…” and less Joni Mitchell’s warning of “put up a parking lot.”

And after all this time hunkered down, being out and reconnecting with nature will be vital to us all — maybe now we have a chance to see nature for its real worth, not merely as a disposable play park.


Writer Peter Riva, a former resident of Amenia Union, now resides in New Mexico.

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