Regarding the Government Shutdown of our National Parks

I’ve been deported before—

There was that Chili’s in college where the manager asked my friends and I to leave immediately . . . and then there was that small middle-eastern nation with its humorless dictator, whose border agents informed me that I had been blacklisted—should I attempt to return, I would be barred entry.

No, this was not my first expulsion, but to be deported from inside one’s own country felt more unsettling. It wasn’t like the movies—there were no 3 AM door knocks by the Stasi, no snarling dogs or guns pointed. There wasn’t even a notice at my hotel—just a phrase that got passed from waiter to diner, from one hiker to another, from the receptionist to the guide to his clients and to their friends.

You have 48 hours to vacate the premises.

For three days, the weather in the mountains was poor—wind, rain, and fog—but the day the government shut down, the sun returned, the sky shone blue and the Grand Tetons popped like a clean row of gleaming wolves teeth.

We departed from the south gate, knowing that once we passed the orange traffic cones, we could not return. Flimsy, half-assed barricades marked the entrance and all the side roads, and just in case the signage was lost on non-English speakers, a row of SUVs sat parked across every lane of the road.

Out front, a pair of frazzled rangers stood in their brown uniforms, turning people away, repeating, “We’re closed,” like some perverted mantra, shrugging their shoulders at the disappointed Koreans and Chinese and Germans and Poles.

There was nothing to explain—simply put, America’s national parks were closed for business. Not knowing how to react, the busloads of group tours lined up and took pictures anyway—of the barricades and the vague mountains in the distance, or standing solemnly with friends and family in front of the closed gates in the most pitiful “I was there” souvenir, ever.

Like a bird facing winter, I headed south, through Star Valley, across Idaho, and into Utah, where I quickly learned to keep my mouth shut when asked the most common traveler’s question of all, “Where are you from?”

The mere mention of Washington, DC provoked sour looks and scowls or even curse words. One rancher spit on the ground in front of me. Nothing personal, some of them disclaim, but they all hate my hometown—as if my address makes me complicit in the general failures of the United States government.

I laughed alongside them all the way until central Utah, when I grew tired of this blasé narrative of the west, “You do know that we can’t vote in Washington, DC. It’s you guys who put these folks in office. Congress isn’t doing us any favors right now, so don’t blame my town for the craziness.”

But arguing politics is never a good idea—nobody wins when it’s personal, and now that so many of my friends are sitting at home, unpaid, and all the national parks are closed, it’s become very personal.

Aside from our flag and midtown Manhattan, nothing makes me prouder as an American than our national parks. We invented national parks as a concept and through a century of painstaking preservation, we saved our greatest landscapes for the greater good. Today, we boast 59 beautiful national parks, each one unique, and though Disney World and Hollywood have their allure, it is our incomparable, irreproducible national parks that drive million of foreign tourists to America each year.

Last year, 62 million foreign tourists traveled to the United States and spent $153 billion—a fraction of the total $1.2 trillion spent by tourists in America, a sizable revenue which supports 7.6 million jobs (Department of Commerce, April 2012). Our national parks alone bring in $62 billion and support 612,000 jobs (Department of the Interior, 2011).

Thus, the decision to shut the parks during an economic recovery seems absolutely asinine. It’s also making my assignment to cover some of our best-loved national parks quite impossible.

After scouring maps, I found an open road—through Capitol Reef National Park in south central Utah. The park is closed—meaning it is mostly empty, devoid of any uniformed authority, but still wildly impressive in its red rock grandeur. I stopped the car along the roadside and took pictures of the pinnacles and mesas and balanced boulders. Ancient petroglyphs decorate the silent cliffs, and I left my car running as I dashed up to the wall for a picture, then rushed back.

Parking in the park is illegal—I already saw an abandoned SUV with an angry fluorescent orange ticket stuck to their window. Somebody’s day hike would end badly, I thought.

Nearby, a tree had fallen and crashed through the wooden walkway, leaving an explosion of timber. Not only did it look bad—it was dangerous. Anybody could easily fall through the splintered boards and break a leg, or worse. The state of disrepair reminded me of other disheveled places I’ve been in the world—Ukraine in the nineties or Zimbabwe at present—when governments fall apart, things fall apart and then don’t get fixed. Instead of our national park rangers maintaining the walkways, they were sitting bored and antsy at home, or out and about issuing parking tickets to nature-loving lawbreakers.

My solitude in Capitol Reef ended with a vanload of Czech tourists who, like me, rushed out the door, took a flurry of photos, and then hopped back in and sped away before it counted as parking.

I ran into them again that night, at a Mexican restaurant in Torrey, Utah. Their American vacation had become an exercise is subversive maneuvering, and talking with them, I felt their utter sense of disappointment in their stilted American dream. In another booth sat a French engineer who had rented a car for two weeks to “See America’s Nature.”

I asked him if his vacation had also been ruined, but he said no, “There is plenty to see outside the park, so I will be fine, but it is also a pity.”

At Bryce Canyon, there was nothing but French tourists—busload after disappointed busload doing U-turns at the gates. By now, we all knew the park was closed, but it didn’t stop us from trying. One kindly ranger pointed us down out a dirt road to the left, “Follow that for a few miles and it will take you to the edge of the canyon. You can get some pictures there, but we ask that you not cross the fence into the park—please.”

Standing at the edge of the cliff, staring at the swatch of pinnacles, I felt bad for the French tourists who had planned their trip, spent thousands of Euro, and then flown all the way from Paris, only to end up with this stunted view.

“What’s it like inside?” they asked me, and I told them, without any exaggeration, “It’s just like this, but times a thousand.” They frownd in that French manner and then loaded back onto their bus. More French tourists visit national parks in Utah than any other nationality, but the buses have begun to cancel.

“We used to get up to ten busses a night, now we’re down to two or three,” said Spencer Harmon, a shopkeeper in nearby Kanab, Utah. His “Little Hollywood” store commemorates all the western movies that were filmed in Kane County and sells everything from cowboy hats and Navajo blankets to John Wayne ashtrays and engraved sheriff’s badges.

“Kanab wouldn’t be Kanab without the tourists,” he added, before kicking off on his own rant against Washington.

“The first day of the shutdown, it helped us out, because when the parks closed, the tourists had nothing else to do, so they came here—but then they started canceling,” Spencer checked his roster, “We had three buses cancel today: French, German, and Australian.”

A week into the government shutdown and we are all beyond annoyed. Kanab has taken a hit, and my two-hour drive to Grand Canyon turned into a six-hour detour around all the closed roads and up into the South Rim. I was so exhausted that the last fifty miles from Flagstaff, the elk on the road seemed like some vague hallucination, blocking my path before shuffling away at the final moment.

The Grand Canyon is still closed, but there are no words left to state the obvious.

“Last night, somebody stole our ‘Grand Canyon Closed’ sign,” explained the park ranger to me at the closed gate. Gosh, that’s a low blow—stealing from a national park in shutdown, I say, but the ranger shrugged and motioned be back to the two-block town of Tusayan. Half the businesses were shut, but the National Geographic Grand Canyon Visitor Center was still open, as was the pizza place across the street.

“We’re doing 15% of our normal business,” my server Katrina admitted, “but we decided to stay open, because we can . . . for now.” She and the cooks seemed bored—mine was the first pizza they’d made in two hours.

“It can’t go on like this indefinitely,” Katrina added. Already, most of the local businesses couldn’t afford to pay their employees, she explained.

“When you go back to Washington, tell them that they’re ridiculous!” Katrina exclaimed. “They’re acting like a bunch of kids—and they’re hurting us.”

Katrina was right. They are hurting us—the tourists, the business owners, the workers, the rangers—nobody wins here. Closing the national parks is a lose-lose situation for all.

In an empty hotel a few hundred yards from one of the seven wonders of the world, I weighed my options. The park was most definitely closed—and rangers were issuing citations to stragglers. The only way to (legally) see anything of the park was from the air, and so I head to the airport and paid for a very expensive seat on a helicopter tour over the canyon.

Waiting to board the flight, I met Andreas and Håkon, two Swedish bikers who had rented Harleys to explore the national parks. Long-haired and leather-clad, they epitomized the wild freedom of the two-wheeled American road trip, but spoke with the circumspect mastery of European reason.

“You think they could have figured this out another way,” said Andreas, disappointed by the government’s decision to shut down. “I guess it just means we’ll have to come back,” offered Håkon.

While most businesses around Grand Canyon felt the crunch, the helicopter and airplane tours felt a surge.

“We’re booked out 100%,” reported Monty Parsons, of Grand Canyon Air. “We’re getting people who normally would have never considered going up in a helicopter.” In fact, flying over the Grand Canyon was the only way for me to see the national park, and so I joined the throngs of Europeans for a once-in-a-lifetime jaunt over the biggest hole in America.

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Yet the thrill of the anticipated experience was dampened by the sense of shame I felt for this current reality. Every tourist I talked to had their tale of woe, from the French couple with their son, who had driven the whole of Route 66, only to miss the Grand Canyon by one day—to the retired English geography teacher, whose lifelong dream was to witness the geological features that he had been lecturing about for the past 40 years.

The helicopter lifted up into the wind, above the black green forest of ponderosa pines, and then spun north, buzzing towards the gaping gash of pink stone in the earth. Within seconds, our tiny aircraft floated out over the cliff’s edge and into the immense gap of the Grand Canyon.

The view from above was awesome and overwhelming, larger and grander than any wall-sized photo or IMAX movie can express. As we gasped and failed in our words, our pilot swerved into side canyons and over the rose-hued ridges of stone and sage. To help in the majesty of the moment, the helicopter tour included a powerful musical overture, Debussy’s Clair de Lune, followed by the unmistakable opening theme from Star Wars.

In a way, the added soundtrack was cheesy as hell, but it was also kind of perfect, for here I was, hovering in a fuel-scented helicopter a mile above the bottom of an empty national park, closed by this spurious government crisis, while listening to the musical theme of a movie that opens with a space-age blockade of a peaceful planet as a knee-jerk reaction to the dysfunction of the Galactic Republic.

But the scene was too magnificent to think about Star Wars. Somehow this festering wound in the Earth’s surface was the most extraordinary and beautiful thing I had ever seen from the air. To fly over the Grand Canyon is to step away from the careful comfort and flat-footed world of home into a bottomless pit—a kind of heavenly hell where the only two dimensions are vertical and void.

They say that over a billion years of Earth’s history is revealed in the exposed walls of the Grand Canyon. Indeed, the beauty of this national park lies in the millions of colored layers of naked sandstone, steep walls of history stacked into marvelous sections and entirely separate canyons that seem to go on forever.

Floating above this library of time, I looked down from my plexiglass perch and into the countless folded layers below. Indeed, the Earth is enormous, and the Grand Canyon like some ancient clock where time has ticked away in solid grains of sand. Even if I live to be a hundred, my little life would barely show up in these stone stories. No, the entire history of the United States government does not even equal a single inch of sandstone in the Grand Canyon.

The thought brings me great comfort. Not that my country and its history are rather insignificant—but that our significance lies not in the machinations of Congress, but in the omniscience and permanence of nature, a nature we have chosen (thus far) to preserve for generations and civilizations to come. Yes, you may stop visitors for enjoying the best of our country for one or two weeks, but you cannot “close” the Grand Canyon anymore than you could ever begin to create this kind of natural magnificence. This park is bigger, older, and more powerful than all of us put together, and I am fairly certain that we could bulldoze the entirety of American civilization—buildings, roads, cities and population—into a single side canyon, and by next Spring, we’d all be forgotten.

All that would remain would be the beautiful gaping void of the Grand Canyon, the unbothered elk and the feathered hawks, soaring in the utter silence of untouched nature.

But mine is not some kind of doomsday, anti-humanist dream—I like my America with people, and people need government more than nature does. Indeed, like my own government, nature can be ruthless and self-destructive, but in the end, life goes on, the trees grow back and the water flows.

Who knows how long this stupidity can last, or how long our parks will remain off limits—unused and unprofitable. If this whole debacle has taught me anything, it’s that every American has an individual responsibility to protect and preserve our parks, be it through patronage, volunteer service or electing decent leaders who value our natural spaces. Otherwise, the most intelligent beings on Earth (by which I mean humans and not Congress) will lose our greatest treasure.

Not that the parks will ever go away—nature never goes away, just like nature never closes. Nature simply takes over and rids itself of any manmade nuisance. I suspect that if this ridiculousness goes on any longer, Nature will start deporting us in the same way I was deported from Grand Teton, without any written warning at all. It will happen quickly (as fast as election night), and quietly, the trees shuddering with urgency and only the sound of wind whispering through the leaves . . .

But the message will be unmistakably clear—

You have 48 hours to vacate the premises.

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