Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Burning After Reading

Yesterday, I collected more guidebooks than could fit in the collapsible basket on the back of my bike. Seriously; I had to double-check whether the library had limits on the number of items you could check out, and it was totally out of character that I managed to lug it all home without either dropping an armload of books or knocking over my bike. I also made some very carefully considered purchases at the Globe Corner bookstore, where I was surrounded by slightly disdainful Belgian teenagers (or perhaps French just sounds disdainful to English-speaking ears?) who only seemed interested in guides to Disneyland. I was overly generous with library check-outs, and probably overly timid with actual purchases. Even though one goal of this trip is to spend money, I still have the thrifty mind of someone with an erratic income, and it's my general habit to avoid buying stuff if I don't have to. Nonetheless, I managed to get within $20 of the store's buy-this-much-and-get-your-next-purchase-free thing.

But I think borrowing many and buying few was the right decision. I've been weeding the library books into three categories: Useful, Useless, and Landscape Porn. The process has already been enlightening. For starters, the Useless pile is much, much larger than the other piles. The main issue seems to be this: I want to go to the national parks for solitude and wilderness. Most guides presume I want to go to the national parks for easy sightseeing, restaurants, and shopping. I guess that's only fair. As the few Useful guides love to gloat, the vast majority of people who visit national parks do so almost solely from their cars. They crowd the scenic overlooks and choke up the big touring roads and look for accommodations with flush toilets and places to buy T-shirts and sweet snacks. Day-visitors and vehicle tourists are by far the largest market for guide books. Relatedly, they're also the largest market for the national parks themselves. People who spend one day driving through Yellowstone in a car will pay the same admission fee as someone who spends a week at a back-country camp site--or even more, since the back-country person might (like I will) have a National Parks Pass, which can pay for itself (or, if you're the NPS, "lose money") after visiting as few as three parks. Car tourists also pay for lodging, food, and entertainment, which the back-country camper will probably find on his or her own. I'm in a niche market, and not a profitable one. At the bookstore, I was thrilled to find a camping guide with info on bear poles, cat holes, and leave-no-trace practices. But now that I've got it home and read it through, it turns out that most of the listed "campsites" are really "campgrounds," which means car camping or RV-ing.

I'm going to risk sounding like a snob, but here it is: to me, the idea of heading to a national park to go car camping sounds about as pleasant as going to a three-star restaurant only to be seated at table in the parking lot next to a dumpster. I grew up in Vermont with a dad who liked the outdoors and abhorred cars; though our camping trips didn't venture all that far from civilization, they certainly went at least a half-day's walk away from internal combustion engines. Just as I was typing this, a few of my friends returned from our annual Buffumville Lake camping trip (I'd joined them last weekend), where the campsite is on an island that's accessible only by boat. Believe me when I say that this is not a strenuous trip; it involved more bacon and pilsner than I normally consume in a year. What the guidebooks and national parks call "back country" or "wilderness" camping, I call simply "camping." 

I don't mean to dismiss the parks, or the visitors, who prefer a cushy trip--I do plan on grabbing a room or shower-equipped campground here and there as a respite from being in the woods. I'm especially excited to splurge on a fancy room in one of the magnificent historical lodges, the kind with giant riverstone fireplaces and mounted bison heads (I'm eyeing the Ahwahnee or the Wawona in Yosemite, both of which will hopefully have off-season vacancies). It just seems odd that my respite from wilderness is most people's respite from civilization.

 My fear is that this perception (thinking of a "campground" as a "campsite") is going to continue to confront me throughout my planning, and even once the journey is underway. When I was living in Tucson, a friend and I drove out to Carlsbad Caverns. We planned to camp for one night and go on a cave tour in the morning. He and I had the same definition of "camping," but when we went to the visitors' center to grab the back-country permit, it appeared that the ranger didn't share it. She seemed surprised we would even consider sleeping out in the desert canyon, and direly warned that there was a scant chance of rain. That evening, we watched a herd of desert bighorns skitter over the cliffs above our campsite, and awoke near midnight to the most star-filled sky I've ever seen. Thinking of that ranger now, I fear that after explaining for the umpteenth time that by "camping," I don't mean "sitting in a foldable chair listening to my car stereo," my half-assed, apologetic snobbery will have hardened into true condescension. I mean, I love being better than everyone else, but I think it might ruin my wilderness zen.

Okay I've been going on for like two pages whining about tourists and my philosophy of camping, and I haven't even talked about the good news I got out of my Useful guidebooks. (The most Useful so far has been Frommer's National Parks of the American West, which I borrowed from the library, though I'll soon purchase the most recent edition. It has a knowledgeable, familiar style and an oft-stated goal of getting the reader away from crowds.) It appears I over-estimated the harshness of the southern-Utah winter, especially if I invest in some cross-country skis. On the other hand, Grand Teton pretty much does shut down once winter sets in, so it looks like my initial and more convenient itinerary (Pacific Northwest to Mountain West to Colorado Plateau to Southwest. Color coding is teh awsum) is the way to go. That is good for all the reasons I stated in the last update, plus it allows the URL of this blog to continue to make sense.

Q: Why is it called "Down Continent," anyway?

A: Because "In Continent," has two meanings.

The next phase of planning involves contacting the parks and getting more specific information on back-country camping opportunities. It also looks like I should schedule any Colorado River exploration sooner rather than later, since permits often have a long waiting list, and it would be one of the few parts of my itinerary that will be fixed on the calendar. The Grand Canyon will have to be the fulcrum on which the whole trip balances.

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