The more gorgeous pieces of the United States are federally protected by a program initiated by Abraham Lincoln. U.S. National Parks are some of the most aesthetically attractive pieces of our planet and recognized as such they are visited by millions of tourists per year.
While some purists would cringe at the millions of visitors shuttled through Zion National Park, or across the south rim of the Grand Canyon, or through the sequoia forests or over Going to the Sun road, this is the nation's best effort at recognizing the inherent value of this natural resources and putting it to use without destroying it forever.
There is a problem, though.
The problem with the US National Park system is Disney World.
Millions of people visit the Disney parks each year. Many tourists who vacation in the U.S. will schedule a Disney park trip on their itinerary right before a visit to Bryce Canyon or King's Canyon or Yosemite. To someone on vacation looking at websites or brochures there is little perceptible difference between a walk from Epcot Center to the Magic Kingdom, and a walk from the South Rim to Phantom Ranch. They may see the primary difference as the lack of a monorail at the Grand Canyon which is perhaps justified given the disparity in entry fees.
They may marvel at the lack of guard rails in the national parks and how realistic everything seems.
They may even take as positive the yearly national park death toll statistic. After all, the most dangerous things are the most interesting.
They may see the job of U.S. Park Service employees as not so different from that of a Disney cast member. After all, park service employees vend junk foods and drive trams just like the Disney people.
One a recent trip to Yosemite one of the green shirted, tan-hatted park service employees told me that 2013 has been the most deadly year in the recorded history of the park. And it has nothing to do with the big fire they had up in the northern edges of the park, but rather, right in the valley where most of the tourists go, and where there wasn't even a hint of smoke.
From January 1, 2013, to September 1, 2013, seventeen people had been killed in the valley. This is despite one of the best search-and-rescue teams in the world, bar none. Once you are on the road to ruin in Yosemite missteps multiply and you cannot recover without helicopters and miracles. And the helicopters don't always work very well.
Despite all of our Disney visions, it turns out that gravity can kill you faster than the SAR guys can get to you. Despite all our technology, despite turbine engines and ropes made of modern fibers, despite radios and remote video, despite all-terrain vehicles and field hospital techniques, they cannot pluck you out of mid-air as you plunge from a cliff or out of the foam as you go over a waterfall.
This seems utterly obvious to people who occasionally go outside and who visit Disney parks infrequently, if at all. But Disney conditions its visitors to suspend both disbelief, and comprehension of the actual world. At Disney you have to wait in line to be thrown over waterfalls. And there's a concession at the bottom that will sell you a picture of yourself going over the falls, so you can show everyone what it looked like when you *almost* lost control.
"Look at me. I almost soiled myself."
But it's Disney, and you're paying them to be tricked. You get the adrenaline surge having gone willingly to face fake danger. Even though you felt close to perishing in a terrible air or land accident, you really were closer to pie and a laser show then cessation of vital signs.
The greatest secret in American tourism is that the National Park system, however incredibly gorgeous it may seem to you, is not the result of powerful computer graphics. It is as deadly and menacing as God could make it without throwing in an exploding star or planetary impact. And many people in our modern age simply cannot believe that anything so perfect is not the result of special effects. It was not the case back in the days of Theodore Roosevelt. Back then even city people lived outdoors by today's standards. Modern medicine had not yet increased the average life span and the average person didn't travel hundreds of miles for fun. So visitors to national parks may have been more conscious of how dangerous it was to stroll to the brink of the abyss at the Grand Canyon. Back then the government would hardly imagine it needed to do something to keep people from falling off rocks or tempting brown bears with marshmallows.
The good news is it still doesn't.
The glory of the national park system is that absolutely nothing is done to tamper with the environment save an occasional handrail or a sign. As a citizen of the world you are absolutely free and death is always an option you may choose. This is a wonderful existential concept which goes lost on a lot of people who figure they'll take in the sights, wolf down a couple burgers and ice cream cones, and then head off to the next attraction.
While many people bloviate on the topic the parks exude the ethos of "personal freedom." As safe as Disney can be made to be, the National Park system is the opposite. Absolutely nothing is done to protect you from certain death except the theory that normal people have an innate fear of dangerous situations and that a simple warning from a respectable expert is enough to stop the holiday carnage.
Nothing is done to provide the vacationer information to contrast real life with contrived amusement situations. One is presumed to arrive at the gates of the park with this information installed in the brain a-priori in the forms of fear and self-preservation. Odd as it seems, the federal government of the United States actually presumes this base level of intelligence on the part of its citizens and visitors to the country.
The signs put up by the US National Park Service are about as impressive as the labels they put on packs of cigarettes, which to non smokers seem pretty clear. *SMOKING THESE THINGS WILL KILL YOU* Of course, because we are a free society you have a right to be warned but not to be stopped. Lots of people smoke anyway. "Viva" our freedoms.
US National Park service signs are direct but equally impressive in their impotence. They do not mince words yet they are ignored with abandon. Here is an example of a sign near a waterfall in Yosemite National Park:
"Stay out of the water. If you step in the water you will go over the falls and you will die*."
The asterisk is mine. If I was the US National Park sign maker I would add an asterisk to every sign and at the bottom it would say this:
*No kidding. We cannot save you.
I suggest this fact be illuminated for every park visitor. The current U.S. Park Ranger uniform is a snazzy green wool and brown leather affair. The leather accoutrements are emblazoned with the images of sequoia pine cones. While that is folksy and absolutely reflects the outdoorsy nature of the job, it doesn't map well to our modern society. I suggest modifications. In addition to the green woolens and flat brimmed hats this should be motto emblazoned across the uniform leather belts and leather hat band: "I cannot save you."
In addition I suggest the roadside welcome signs to every national park should be augmented thus: "Welcome to -insert park of your choice- : ENJOY THE BEAUTY - PLEASE DON'T DIE"
When you drive up to the entry kiosk and give the friendly ranger your park fees he should hand you a recently printed 8.5"x11" piece of paper that says that says:
"TODAY'S DEATH TOLL: xx" Where in place of "xx" will be a number.
The page will read: "These 'xx' park visitors came to Yosemite this year and ignored the signs. They are dead. No kidding. Latest dead person - from three days ago: Bob Jones of Madison, Wisconsin. Bob decided to snap an iPhone selfie while standing at the brim of the Vernal Falls. His entire family and many other park visitors watched him slip to his doom. Bob is still entangled in a submerged tree somewhere downstream and we'll box him up and send him home when his body dissolves to the point to allow him come free of the branches and float to shallower water. But good news, despite being wet, the iPhone came out no worse for wear. Here's Bob's last picture. We hope it was worth it."
Driver of car full of screaming children: "Hey ranger, why don't you guys put up a guard rail or something?"
Ranger: Because it's a waterfall.
Driver: Why not just dam up the water?
Ranger: then there wouldn't be a waterfall there.
Driver: But then it wouldn't be so dangerous.
Ranger: We feel that putting up a stern warning sign is the right way to go here. Have a great time in the park.
Water from melting snows in the Sierra Nevada becomes the Merced River. The water runs placidly below several beautiful granite domes and then free falls 594 feet over a cliff. This plunging water is known as Nevada Falls.
The water from Nevada Falls then travels several hundred yards downstream and plunges another 317 feet to become the Vernal Falls.
If you've been doing the math, there's a lot of plunging going on there.
The problem with these waterfalls is that before the water goes over the edge of the cliff, it just sort of meanders around in reasonably shallow pools. There are tiny ankle-deep eddy currents which, were they not the top of a waterfall, would provide an entertaining water park for all ages.
There are signs right beside these placid waters. The signs seem utterly non-sequitur. The signs say quite directly: If you go into this water, you will die. To many visitors familiar with Disney parks it must seem like someone posted that sign at the entrance to the Snow White ride. The pools are veritably pastoral. One imagines cartoon bunnies and chipmunks bathing in them.
Whatever the reason from the behavior of the people at the top of the Nevada Falls it would seem that many people simply do not believe the sign. This might be due to the condition of the signs themselves, which are somewhat old and worn. It may have to do with the fact that while the signs are large enough to be unavoidable, for a population desensitized by multimedia bombardment they're nothing more than painted words on a metal plate. There's no accompanying video or underlying Flash program animating them.
To get to the top of the falls one must climb either the Mist Trail or the John Muir Trail. Each of those is quite steep and multiple miles long. Yosemite park can become quite crowded in the summertime with visitors from the world over. Many visitors have no concept of taking the appropriate precautions before making a hike. After all, in Disney World there are refreshment vendors every hundred yards in the summer. I've seen people at the top of Nevada Falls wearing beach sandals and carrying no water at all. After spending two or more hours climbing a 12% grade to the top of the falls, a hiker who is unaccustomed to a walk any longer than that taken through the average shopping mall will be tired and possibly dehydrated. In the summer the temperatures in the park will easily exceed 95F and because the national parks are by their nature, outdoors, there is no A/C.
The landscape at the top of the falls is picturesque. Towering granite domes frame the sky above a forest of evergreens. And absolutely refreshing streams cascade and dribble down the solid granite hillside. This is the stuff of travelogues. This is where they take those pictures they show to people living in high rise apartments.
At the top after the long, hot, dessicated and crowded hike, one can find comfort sitting or laying in the sun on the smooth granite beside the river. And then right in front of you are waters no more than a few inches deep. What could be less dangerous and more refreshing than doffing ones footwear and dipping the toes in the cool glacier runoff?
Once one's toes are in the cool waters, a hot, dehydrated, unaccustomed hiker will think nothing of wading in first ankle deep, and then maybe farther. In fact, the water all the way to the edge of the waterfall is fordable by the average adult in midsummer when the runoff begins to wane and the current is weak.
What most people do not realize is that even though it is not polished like a counter top, wet granite is slick. Like rough ice.
Worse, the submerged granite in Yosemite is frequently coated with a thin slime composed of algae. Now then. You have a naturally slippery rock coated with a lubricating substance the consistency of warm butter. The coefficient of friction between this surface and the human foot is negligible at best. Meaning it's more slippery than a bathtub bottom coated in soap scum. To compound the difficulty of one trying to stand on this surface, even the slightest river current is enough to knock the footing out from under a person.
Thus, perfectly rational people with high IQs and the capability for great calculation go over the falls every year for failing to grasp the fundamental inability of gravity to keep the human foot attached to what amounts to a half inch of snot.
Despite the frequent interaction between the Yosemite black bear population and human kind, not one person has been killed by a black bear since the inception of the park. In fact, the most common injuries inflicted by wildlife upon people are done by deer. And the only reported death due to wildlife happened when a 5-year old attempted to feed something to a buck, which became startled, and gored the child to death.
The stupidity of this situation is that of all the animals in the universe, deer are perhaps the easiest to avoid as they will always do their best to avoid you. But this isn't something known to many park visitors. And bears make a much more fearsome concern than deer. The park rangers will be glad to show you pictures of expensive luxury automobiles that have had had doors and roofs torn off by bears trying to get inside to munch the remains of a child's PB&J. A creature that can rip automotive sheet metal like tissue paper is certainly more of a worthy adversary than a skittish vegetarian with hooves. But the parks do a yeoman's job of educating the population to keep bears out of the camp areas, and they relocate or kill bears that get used to tearing into trucks and buildings to get to someone's empty beef jerky wrappers.
This leaves the death dealing to deer and ground squirrels, which, statistically speaking, are bound to kill at least one park visitor every so many years.
Despite the fact that Yosemite is only a three hour drive from my home, I've only visited it four times in the past two decades. And we were there twice in two months last year. The blonde haired girl and I did what I feel is a considerable amount of hiking on those trips - from the valley floor up to the top of Yosemite Falls on one occasion, and on the other, from the floor up to the Panorama Trail and over to Glacier Point and back down. These multi-mile trips wear hard on my not-so-physically adept body, but generally the beauty of the place puts me into an ecstatic mindset, possibly similar to those experienced by zen masters or psychedelic drug addicts, and I find myself reaching the destination in a state of physical breakdown wondering how I managed to motate my corpus that far.
After our last trip I decided that I would climb Half Dome to celebrate my 55th birthday, a feat that seemed well in reach. I figured that since I had been so far good at surviving our treks, I could probably live through a Half Dome climb. Then two things happened. First, is that I read a book called Death in Yosemite which chronicles a century and a half of park visitors perishing in situations of improbable bad luck or choices of super-human stupidity or both. The book is written by former Yosemite Search and Rescue experts who both describe their own experiences and give a thorough historical accounting from the founding of the park to the present. While the authors try to remain objective, they can't refrain from what I feel is the appropriate degree of sarcasm when describing some of the ways people managed to kill themselves. As a park visitor the book is both horrifying and hilarious*.
In it I read the story of a 55-year old guy who reached the summit of Half Dome on his birthday only to suffer cardiac arrest on the way down the cables. His inert body under the influence of gravity nearly took out an entire line of climbers like a falling log as it plummeted off the granite and through a better part of a mile of thin air to splat on the rocks in the valley below.
After reading that I thought the obvious: what are the chances of it happening twice? Since it happened once, through the statistical mathematics of the well known Monty Hall problem , I had a better chance of making it than not.
Then I wound up nearly bleeding to death after a minor surgery, and my surgeon, a man in as good physical condition as most seasoned Olympic triple-jump competitors suggested to me that he himself has ruled out that exact climb because the risk:reward ratio was way too low. And by the way, given my bad luck with very safe things - like minor surgeries, perhaps I'd be better off visiting Disney World and watching the Half Dome movie instead.
Thus I sit here writing about climbing the granite in Yosemite and the risks therein rather than experiencing them myself. I cannot deny the risks are higher for someone of my age with as little mountaineering skills as I have. And I wonder if I was to try the climb would I be placing myself in the category of the people I've read about in Death in Yosemite, where ego and motivation replace reason and sensibility.
But one has a fire inside himself that cannot be extinguished. Through life it has led me literally to the ends of the earth and to storied experiences that have enriched me as well as if I was the character in an adventure novel.
Will I try it?
Keep your eyes on the news for falling Californians.
(For no particular reason I am reminded of the story of a woman who attempted to become "The First Woman to BASE Jump From El Capitan." She had a t-shirt made with that slogan, and leapt from the top of El Cap and deployed her parachute. Unfortunately she did not judge the winds correctly that day, and the air currents were gusting directly into the face of El Capitan and then upward. So, as soon as her parachute opened it caught the upward thermal which also was moving inward toward the face of the granite cliff. She began whirling around in a wide circle like someone on a carnival swing ride, her chute caught in the updraft descending slowly in circles. As she came down in the wide arcs with every revolution she bashed repeatedly and violently into the rock face until she reached the valley floor. When SAR found her, her ribs were broken and her face had been nearly abraded off. Her nose hung to her skull by the remaining torn cartilage - but she was alive, and the SAR team managed to get her to the hospital where she survived to BASE jump another day. However, before releasing her to the ambulance the SAR men and women took photos of her on the stretcher, her skull caved in and her body mangled, with the words still visible on her bloody t-shirt: FIRST WOMAN TO BASE JUMP EL CAPITAN
According to the book that photo apparently still hangs in the SAR office at Yosemite.)