National Parks, National Values

Trip Start Jun 25, 2008
Trip End Aug 02, 2008

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Flag of United States  , Montana
Thursday, July 31, 2008

The final ten days of our Montana adventure has been spent visiting two of our nation's crown jewels, its National Parks. My sister Kristin arrived a week ago Monday, and after introducing her to Missoula for a day or two, we headed for Yellowstone. And yes, we rented another car. How else to do it? Yellowstone, I am sorry to report, has no public transit - only expensive sightseeing tours.

Actually, first Joe and I spent an afternoon rafting the Alberton Gorge of the Clark Fork River, a grand child-less adventure while Kristin watched the kids. What a lark! And a fairly low-carbon one at that. True, the raft-toting van from East Missoula to Alberton (maybe 50 miles one-way) burned fuel, but it didn't go too far from home, and the rafting itself quite gloriously uses the river's power. We paddled, got to know our guide (I am always just the smallest bit jealous of the raft guide's lifestyle), rode huge whitewater. Our raftmates were an Indian family (not sure what tribe) from Great Falls; the teenage girl was having a birthday, and the time of her life - she spent every possible minute actually in the churning water. Her eight-year-old brother was along, too, and a bit nervous. I got a taste of what it must feel like to be an ethnic minority in this country. At one point the teen turned to her brother, who didn't want to "ride the bull" by sitting in the very front of the raft across a rapid, and said, "You're not Indian! You're not brave! Everyone's going to think you're some white boy." It was a harmless comment really, and an interesting window into a culture I would love to understand better (some reasons below), but I thought of my own little "white boy" and thought - oh dear.

I am almost through Jared Diamond's Collapse, and surrounded by Native culture here in Montana. Diamond looks in detail at successful as well as failed cultures, but he doesn't spend as much time as I'd like examining the lifestyles and beliefs of some of America's Native peoples. There is the "noble savage" myth still surrounding them, and it is not totally unfounded - every Blackfeet and Salish person I have encountered on this trip has exhibited not only pride in their culture, but a sense of reverence for the land's gifts. Yet they are just as human as the rest of us. What is the difference? Diamond details some cultures who began their colonization into a new area by, in essence, mining its resources - using them at a faster rate than they could be replenished, even supposedly renewable things like fish and trees and soil. At some point, these cultures realized that what they were doing would eventually kill them, and imposed restrictions, conditions or taboos to these dangerous overuses. He examines at length what makes some cultures recognize and take action to solve their environmental woes, while others ignore them or fail; I will not repeat his analysis here. But it makes me realize - it is no accident that most of North America's indigenous peoples have cultural beliefs that include a great reverence for the earth. The ones that didn't probably died out long before Europeans could encounter them. Only by enforcing these beliefs: "thank the bison for allowing you to harvest them," "leave the biggest fish to reproduce next season," "take good care of this camas patch; it is a gift from the Creator" could a society hope to persist for centuries and even thousands of years in the same place. It's simple natural selection, but on the level of culture, not genes. Or could it be genetic? Could it be that the members of these cultures not primed to carry on, and out, these beliefs were shunned long ago, before they could reproduce?

But on to Yellowstone. I am proud to say that my country has protected an extraordinary ecosystem. It is diverse, from micro-organism breeding hot springs to deep blue river canyons. It is full of wildlife that give its guests the rare privilege of watching intimately; I hope, and believe, that seeing elk and bison at close range gives Yellowstone's visitors a deeper appreciation of the Earth's non-human inhabitants. (Even if some, like one woman we observed, are insane enough to come within ten feet of a bison's horns to get a better photograph. Sigh. Natural selection might have been better served if it had taken her out.)

I am also embarrassed to report that Yellowstone is pretty much about burning fossil fuel. It's a huge place, (though remarkably not large enough to protect many of its species - nonprofits have protected land outside the park as well to delineate the "Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem) and slow to drive through - one 19-mile stretch takes over an hour. There are no bike lanes and any cyclist foolhardy enough to use its roads would take her life in her hands. There are no shuttles, only - as I mentioned - chartered tours which start and end in one location and can cost hundreds for a family of four. The park gets three million visitors a year, most of whom never leave the frontcountry (and, in many cases, even their cars). This makes the developed areas of the park, like Old Faithful, feel like throbbing masses of humanity - not exactly the national park experience I was hoping for, but with our two young ones, we didn't venture much farther than most of the RVs. Not only that, but Yellowstone is far from just about anywhere. Unless you're based in Bozeman or Billings, you - like us - will drive for hours just to get into the park. Even Bozeman is well over an hour away.

Glacier felt better. Maybe it's because it's smaller, or less crowded with visitors, or because I have visited it (although only a few parts) so many times. Maybe it's because it can be accessed easily from Kalispell or Whitefish in less than an hour - and Kalispell itself feels like home, since we have dear friends there who watched our bags, fed us and gave us warm beds during this leg of our trip. Maybe it's their new, free shuttle system, instituted to reduce traffic on Going-To-The-Sun Road but also allowing people to leave cars behind and save lots of gas. (Warning: The shuttles still have their kinks to work out. Because of road construction, they often get clustered, so groups will wait nearly an hour and begin jostling for front-of-the-line spaces, then be presented with four shuttles in a row. The posted schedules are not up-to-date, as we discovered when Joe had to interrupt a nice dinner to take what we learned was the day's last shuttle to retrieve our car - we thought we had two hours more. The west side shuttles can't handle the demand for them, because they are small to fit on steeply winding roads. But all in all it is a tremendous resource.) In any case, we had a glorious two days in Glacier. The kids loved camping among the cedars. We took the shuttle to Logan Pass and attempted our usual hike to Hidden Lake overlook, a well-traveled boardwalk of 1.5 miles each way. Unfortunately (or fortunately, if you know anything about how the glaciers of Glacier have been shrinking alarmingly in the last 30 years), there was so much snow on the trail that Aislyn in her crocs, Ren with his tiny feet, Joe carrying (yes, really) his fiddle, and I in sandals (because my hiking boots got left on the bus to Kalispell) finally had to turn back. We visited the gorgeous and kid-friendly Trail of the Cedars instead, then had a special dinner at Lake McDonald Lodge. The next day we spent rowing boats on Lake McDonald and ended with a hike through a brilliantly-colored burn area, now covered with wildflowers and huckleberries, the latter of which we harvested with gusto and presented to our thrilled Kalispell hostess. (Now that's local food - plus we felt an awful lot like bears while we picked them!)

Now we are on a train hurtling through Minnesota on our way back home. Am I glad we brought our kids to see these two beautiful and important natural places? Of course I am. Will we do it again? After reading Collapse, I wonder if we can do it again. By the time we try, perhaps the cost of gas will make it all but impossible. Or perhaps - less likely I know - our culture will have shifted its thinking to the point where no one would want to make such a long, gas-guzzling journey.

Gas-guzzling, you say incredulously? I thought this was the low-carbon vacation? Didn't you guys rely on bicycles and public transit as much as possible?

Well, yes, but it was still a fuel-expensive trip. Not to mention money-expensive and, at times, human-energy-expensive.

I've already detailed the fuel budget for us to take Amtrak, in an earlier entry. Other public transit we used during our month in Montana probably came out better in the carbon department. For instance, we took a public-radio sponsored bus to Butte for the National Folk Festival, although renting a car for our family of four would probably have been cheaper. The Glacier shuttles, too, are a no-brainer - they are almost always full, not that much bigger than a car (they hold 12 plus the driver), and probably each keep at least four or five cars off the road. And Missoula's buses, though we rarely needed them, are doing a great job of making it easier for Missoula's residents to swear off cars in town.

But what about that bus to Kalispell? We took it mostly because it was too expensive to rent a car one-way from Missoula, and it wouldn't have held all of our things, with the addition of my visiting sister and her three bags. It was definitely more expensive to buy four bus tickets (Ren was free) than to do any normal, return-to-original-location rental. And there was the hassle of figuring out how the Mountain Line could get us to the bus station on time, dragging lots of luggage to the Mountain Line stop two blocks from our house. (Joe had dropped off the large bags the night before, when he still had a rental car - otherwise, how could we have done it? Multiple fifteen-dollar cab rides?) We got to the station to find the bus delayed over an hour - first waiting for another bus, then waiting for the driver, who astonishingly could not be contacted after the first bus arrived. One simply, I think, has to abandon the American cultural values of efficiency and timeliness to ride buses without going crazy. But it was not only was it an energy drain on us. The bus contained only seven passengers total, and after St. Ignatius (about halfway there), its only inhabitants were our family and the driver. This is efficient? I wonder if, had we not been on the bus, it would have even continued on to Kalispell, or turned back at St. Ignatius. I'll probably never know.

Then there was Kristin's visit. It was so nice to have her out for ten days - not only to share our special Montana places, but because her way with the kids (Aislyn especially) is so beautiful. It was a great gift to have more adults than children for awhile! On the other hand, that was another fossil-fuely 3,569 BTUs per passenger mile for her to come out. Oh, I know. I can't control what other people do and I shouldn't try. The best thing is to live by example, and perhaps reflect on it as I'm doing here. Still - any of you out there trying to readjust your priorities the way we are know how frustrating it is to realize how small your own efforts look compared to the big picture. All this hassle on Amtrak (did I mention they cancelled the baggage car from Albany to Springfield? You probably don't want all the gory details but just imagine trying to get six huge bags plus a bunch of carry-on from one train to another in ten minutes because you can't have any checked bags and that's all the layover you get) really is less than, well, a drop in an oil well.

My last reflection has to do with this idea of "first class." As in, when we were in a sleeper cabin on Amtrak, we were considered "first class passengers." We got a special fancy lounge in Chicago, champagne and other treats on board, and our own first-class car attendant. We also were four of about 32 passengers on the sleeper car, compared to over 100 in a coach car - if everyone traveled by train the way we did on the Empire Builder, it would not be a lower-carbon choice. It felt strange to be singled out and treated more "specially" than other passengers. But what felt even weirder to me was realizing that everyone - on the train, at the parks, a lot of other places we went - was "first class" compared to most of the world and even our country. The faces at the National Parks and on the western trains are overwhelmingly white, and by definition include only people who can afford to travel long distances and eat out. I marveled sometimes that people from thousands of miles apart (Missoula and Massachusetts, for instance) could be so culturally similar - but it's because we all belonged to the same subculture, which might be labeled "We Have Disposable Income." Are we happier than people who don't know where their next meal is coming from, or people who are aspiring to have what we do, or (probably not on this one) people who, like some of the Indian tribes of Montana, have chosen to put their energy into a renewal of their own culture or subculture?

I can't answer that question, I realize, for anyone but myself. And maybe not even for myself. But I do know this: when we get home, I am excited to make sourdough bread again. And homemade yogurt from local milk. And find what is in season to preserve for winter. And look into that root cellar we want to build. And teach another class in primitive and Earth skills - fire by friction, finding food in the woods. Almost every book I read, even the most radical ones, include some caveat like "Well, we can't return to living like cave people, so. . . " (I was proud of Jared Diamond for avoiding this until he mentioned, "No one advocates a return to the horse to solve the problems of cars." Well, maybe I do!) But I think that by returning to our ancient roots - not, perhaps, abandoning all modern technologies, but choosing only those few that support the flourishing of small and sustainable communities of people - we will be, if not happier, at least more connected and fulfilled.

So, for the moment, I am planning to stay close to home.
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