I stood atop Angel’s Landing in Zion a month ago, my heart beating like a jackhammer after climbing the knife-edge route to the summit. I was breathless from both physical and mental exertion: not only was the trail demanding, but a single misstep could have sent me tumbling a thousand feet to death. A canyon floor spread out before me, a green river ribboning through the trees at the base of red-and-white cliffs. The sun shone through a clear sky and I felt far removed from civilization, as if looking down from a deity’s perch.
Yet this separation that accompanies many of my trips into wild settings also comes with a connection – to my mom, who saw this canyon thirty years ago on a road trip of her own. To Spanish and American explorers who saw the same view and also noted its beauty. To early Anasazi native cultures that were so moved by the sheer power of the Earth on display here that they deemed it a sacred place.
For centuries, writers have described the sublime natural that I felt in the American southwest. Emerson wrote that one could not feel closer to God than in Nature, and historian William Cronon aptly described this idea in his essay “The Trouble With Wilderness.” “God was on the mountaintop, in the chasm, in the waterfall, in the thundercloud, in the rainbow, in the sunset,” he said.
America’s National Parks are, for the most part, a geographically Western phenomenon. They are also Western in a different sense, one that transcends geography. They were established to preserve the wild – cliffs and bears and trees – that we have long associated with the land across the Mississippi. But they also seek to preserve and embody the West as an American idea: an idea of a frontier, of possibility through exploration and expansion. Witnessing the spectacle of the Parks unites us and rekindles our imagination as a nation, and has done so for centuries: even before the official park system was in place. For example, upon seeing the Zion region while searching for a haven to practice their religion, Mormons called the area around what is now Zion National Park “Kolob” – a place very near to God.
Yet simultaneously, the establishment of National Parks in the late 1800s is categorically anti-Western. Westward expansion in the US, first across the Appalachians, then the Mississippi, then the Rockies, and then the Sierras, was characterized by development, by placing human structures on the natural horizon. Setting aside huge tracts of land for pure preservation contrasts this instinct to build. In fact, residents around Yellowstone initially complained that the establishment of the park in 1872 would cause a stagnation in economic development in the territory. Luckily, natural splendor won out over capitalism.
Historian Frederick Jackson Turner famously closed the frontier in 1890, declaring there was none of it left. The nearly-unspoiled lands of the National Parks work to counter that closure, to provide what Cronon calls a “last bastion of rugged individualism” with plots full of frontiers in every direction. Parks spark memories of homesteads on the Great Plains and of poor young men seeking their fortune in gold in California. And just as the Parks are diverse in their natural wonders—ranging from high peaks, to shriveled desert, to mucky swamp—our own ancestral history is a collection of rugged individuals constituting a variety of movements, settlements, and emigrations, united by the ideals of the frontier.
The Grand Canyon – my other spring break destination – revealed to me the layers of this collective memory. It astonished me that a river, even one as strong as the Colorado, could shave down the vast and flat desert to the expanse of towers and cliffs jumbled together in a stony city. And I was awestruck not by just the scenery unfolding before me; I thought back to the Native Americans and Spanish explorers and all those since – from those traveling on horseback to those traveling in RV.
These histories of exploration render the National Parks uniquely American. Guardrails and gift shops have altered the natural settings as they once were, while major highways and shuttle systems have made them more accessible. But that does not take away from the timeliness of Old Faithful that visitors have relied upon nearly 150 years. Similarly, the Zion that I saw over my break is largely the same that my mom saw when she traveled through the American Southwest as a young woman. The Yosemite I visited years ago is the same that John Muir saw. And the Grand Canyon that blew my mind in March was the same thing that Spanish explorers saw in the sixteenth century.
The longer the Parks stay, the more collective memory they save. To think of all the tourists, settlers, and explorers that saw these same magnificent natural settings is to think of this shared history. The National Parks were established to preserve the United States’ natural wonders. Today, they do so much more. They give us a glimpse of the frontier and possibility that kept so many Americans’ eyes trained to the untamed wild: that diverse, yet unified past we all share.
Kevin Hoffman grew up in the car culture of Los Angeles, but enjoys driving out of LA more than driving within it. He particularly enjoys driving places in which the natural setting outperforms the human engineering it took to get him there. Email him at Kevin.firstname.lastname@example.org