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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Buses in the Grand Canyon: Mixing Tourism and Wilderness

<ur last day in Grand Canyon National Park, I rode the bus from Maswik Lodge, our hotel in the South Rim Village, to the post office. It was late afternoon and the bus compartment was packed with visitors, their faces red from the Arizona sun and their sweaty arms side-by-side. I stood at the front, holding a railing as the bus chattered back and forth.

The post office is located in the Market Place, the South Rim’s “Business Center,” next to the General Store, a deli, bank and gift shop. It is several stops away from Maswik on the Park’s free shuttle bus. To kill the time, I dialed my father on my iPhone, but as he picked up, the bus heaved and halted—as it seemed to do every three minutes, inhaling and exhaling more passengers—and he answered gruffly amid the clanking and sighing of machinery.

“Hello? Drew? What’s all that noise?”

I pressed the phone closer to my ear as bodies pushed past me. “Sorry, Dad. I’m on the bus.” He was silent. I continued: “You know, at the Grand Canyon?”

“You’re on a bus at the Grand Canyon? There are buses there?”

The doors closed and I gripped the railing tighter as the wheels began turning again. “Of course. How do you think people get around? It’s a big park,” I said, as if it was common knowledge and my father should have intuitively known this, that there are buses in the Grand Canyon, even though he has never been to Grand Canyon National Park.

“Oh, well. I guess that’s true,” he replied, his voice oddly disappointed.

We began to chat about other things, but after I hung up and trudged off the bus, my mind drifted back to his response. After spending twelve days on the South Rim, it seemed obvious to me that there were buses in Grand Canyon National Park. I rode them almost every day, with the exception of the days we hiked down into the Canyon, and even when I wasn’t riding them, they were constantly grumbling along the Park’s roads. They were practical: they helped visitors navigate the large South Rim Village while limiting car use.

But before coming to the Park, I certainly never thought about the free-shuttle buses. My father’s surprise was, perhaps, not unreasonable. Maybe it was odd to be riding a bus in Grand Canyon. After all, it is an iconic landmark in the American landscape, one of the pinnacle attractions of our National Park Service, and is fraught with all kinds of cultural meanings and value—beauty, awe, power, holiness and wilderness, to name a few—none of which shuttle buses represent or embody. Of course the idea of a bus in the Grand Canyon disappointed and surprised my father. It was as strange as the idea of a humpback whale swimming through the dry sand of the Sahara Desert, except in this scenario the humpback whale had black rubber wheels and emitted carbon dioxide. The Grand Canyon, shuttle buses—the two felt utterly antithetical to each other.
The same went for many of the things I experienced on the South Rim: hotels, gift shops, port-o-potties, restaurants, ice-cream vendors, bumbling toddlers and photo-snapping tourists. Sometimes it seemed as if the Canyon was a mere backdrop for this human landscape, instead of the other way around.

At first, I thought most of the Village an irritating eyesore. My romantic notion of the Grand Canyon and its “wilderness” had undeniably dissolved; I found myself wondering what Chris McCandless would think of all of this; I found myself wishing it was all gone, that the Rim was nothing but the Pinion Pine and Juniper, the Prickly-Pear Cacti and wandering Mule Deer. But then, the more I pondered this idea, the more selfish and ridiculous I realized it was: because wasn’t I also one of those photo-snapping tourists, using the port-o-potties, buying ice cream and riding the buses? I was thinking that I was better than all the other visitors around me, when I was just the same or arguably, even worse considering my haughty attitude.

I left Grand Canyon National Park strangely disillusioned, self-loathing and confused, contemplating the contradictory purpose of the place. The mission of the National Park Service, according to the Organic Act of 1916, is to “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” In our meeting with Laura Rotegard, the Superintendent of the Horace Albright Training Center at Grand Canyon National Park, Rotegard explained that when preservation and enjoyment are at odds in the Park System, the guiding principle of the Service is always to put preservation first. In abstraction, this principle feels possible and appealing, but in application, I am intensely skeptical of it. If preservation always came first in the Park Service, how does the South Rim Village even exist? Five million visitors come to the Grand Canyon every year. Each one spews their own trash and sewage. But ultimately, they are why the park exists. If no one came or were interested in the Grand Canyon, the Park Service wouldn’t bother managing it.

Preservation hinges upon enjoyment. But preservation and enjoyment are also constantly at odds, with the enjoyment of a place frequently destroying it—or if not completely destroying, at least in some way harming. Every decision that the National Park Service makes is overwhelmingly complicated because its officials must balance enjoyment with preservation. They must seek to provide an experience to visitors, without letting that experience ruin the thing experienced itself, a seemingly impossible task. In his 2005 essay “Consider the Lobster,” David Foster Wallace calls the modern tourist an “insect on a dead thing.” To be tourist, according to Foster Wallace, “ It is to spoil, by way of sheer ontology, the very unspoiledness you are there to experience. It is to impose yourself on places that in all non-economic ways would be better, realer, without you.”

The very thought of this idea with regard to wilderness and the National Park System frightens me. It leads me to wonder whether humans are inherently harmful to our environment, unable to live within or enjoy any natural ecosystem without detracting from it, without wounding it. Have we all become “insects” and wilderness, the “dead thing”? Would the Grand Canyon—would all National Parks—be “better, realer” without us?

Maybe. But it also occurs to me that such a question is probably not the right question to be asking. Because regardless of whether or not we should, we exist, and we exist in and around the Grand Canyon. The important question is how we can exist less destructively, or even co-exist, within it. Within any landscape.
When I arrived at our meeting at The Horace Albright Training Center, I was ready with hard-hitting questions about the flaws I had witnessed within the Park and the flaws I thought existed in the National Park System on the whole. But my aggression and cynicism dissipated when I met the individuals leading the meeting. Their earnestness was palpable. As they fielded our questions, it was clear they did not possess every solution. But they were trying. And with all the ecological issues we currently face, our complex relationship with the land included, I’m certain that trying counts for something, is possibly tantamount.

A Grand Canyon within the National Park System is indisputably safer and wilder than one outside it. If every piece of land in the United States was managed like a National Park, with each land-use decision carefully contemplated and weighed with respect to its impact on the ecosystem, our country would be infinitely more sustainable and ecologically sound. Not perfect, but better–just as shuttle buses in the Grand Canyon are not perfect, but are better than visitors driving their personal vehicles around the South Rim.

My experience at the Grand Canyon allowed me to see the nuance of the decision-making within National Parks and to see issues of management not simply in terms of “right” or “wrong,” but in gradation, in terms of “worse” or “more harmful,” “trying” or “better.” It also effectively shattered my romantic notion of wilderness within National Parks. But maybe that had to be done, because such a notion was unrealistic, and only made me angry when the external world did not align with it.
Stewing and griping, as I’ve often been guilty of, seem to do very little to do solve problems. Not only do they make us unhappy, but they lend us to asking the wrong questions. Alternatively, recognizing complexities, having compassion, praising progress–however small–lends us to asking the right questions, the ones which engender change and sow solutions.

So maybe we are insects on a dead thing. Who ever said all insects were bad? With some serious care and thought, we could become prime decomposers, recycling nutrients back into the Earth.

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