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On the Road with Michael and Karen

Part IV

Williams, Arizona is located on U.S. Highway 40 about 160 miles east from the California border town of Needles (where the Joads in the Grapes of Wrath first see the promised land of California and take a swim in the Colorado River) and about fifteen miles west of Flagstaff, Arizona. It is the closest gateway town to the south rim of the Grand Canyon. We have been here several times before, but this time we noticed that it had lost some of its charm. There is still a vintage train tourists can ride to the Grand Canyon and a number of old buildings typical of towns in the West. But the coffee shop we used to visit for good coffee and homemade sweet rolls, run by a motorcycle aficionado with a lust for the open road, is now a combination espresso shop and Chinese restaurant. Lots of other places have closed or are for sale, and most of the remaining businesses appear to be counting on a continuation of the nostalgia for Route 66, the famed “mother road” on which as Nat King Cole sang, you could “get your kicks.” The old highway, which began in Chicago, Illinois and ended in Santa Monica, California, still goes through Williams, as it does through such towns as Gallup and Albuquerque, New Mexico and Flagstaff, Arizona, all of whose main streets are the great road itself. Route 66 memorabilia shops abound in these towns, but nowhere more than in Williams.

And as in many other western towns, Williams pretends that it used to be in the “wild west.” Every evening in the summer there is a cowboy “shoot-out,” complete with bank robbers and damsels in distress. The participants are often people who are down on their luck, heavy drinkers trying to put a few dollars in their pockets. The only one of these events I ever saw that had any character was in Jackson, Wyoming, where there was a cowboy poet who read a clever cowboy poem. At another Jackson shootout, the dogs in the audience started to howl when the cowboys started shooting and a young boy almost fell off his father’s shoulders. In Williams, an entire “wild west” village has been constructed for the edification of the tourists. When we were there, the employees were practicing various routines with lassos and guns, while two singers gave the worst rendition of “Tumblin’ Tumbleweeds” I have ever heard. The Sons of the Pioneers must have cringed in their graves. There were only a few visitors in early May, most of them Japanese, who seem fascinated with anything western, no matter how pathetic. It is remarkable how towns try to trade on their pasts, in a completely distorted way, after those pasts have been destroyed. Jerome, Arizona (fifty miles south of Williams) used to be a copper mining town controlled by the Phelps-Dodge company. It sits dramatically on a hill so steep that there is an elevation difference of 1,000 feet between the beginning and end of town. Bitter and heroic struggles took place there when the miners tried to organize against the killing work regimen which is the lot of miners everywhere. Now there are mine tours and fancy shops and upscale bed and breakfast motels. All-terrain vehicles ride the dizzying dirt road which used to be the route of the train which hauled the copper out of the town (we drove this road from Williams to Jerome, the most harrowing drive of my life). Tourists are probably unaware that the beautiful rainbow of stripes which mark part of the mountain is the result of copper waste dripping from the mine. A few miles from town there are ancient (reconstructed) Indian ruins at Tuzigoot National Monument. In front of the ruins there are what appear to be terraced dirt fields, seemingly indicating fields which the Indians once planted. However, these fields are comprised of waste from the mines which was piped here from Jerome. Periodically these toxic fields have to be watered down to prevent poisonous dust from contaminating the surrounding inhabitants.

We were in Williams because it is close to the Grand Canyon. During our travels we visited thirteen national parks and six national monuments. The national parks are Joshua Tree, Grand Canyon, Petrified Forest/Painted Desert, Rocky Mountain, Arches, Canyonlands, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Grand Tetons, Yellowstone, Glacier, Mt. Rainier, and Olympic. All are national treasures; each one has scenery as dramatic as most persons will ever see: jumbo rocks, sheer cliffs, natural bridges and arches, waterfalls, fantastic canyons, buttes, monoliths, and hoodoos, astonishing rapids, glaciers, wild flowers, and ethereal viewpoints to satisfy the most discriminating tastes. We took scores of hikes in these parks. Seldom were we disappointed, and almost always we were exhilarated. There is just no way that a person can see the Grand Canyon or Balanced Rock in Arches or the wild flowers at Paradise in Mt. Rainier or Shi Shi Beach in Olympic or the grizzly bears of Yellowstone and not be mindful of the vast indifference of nature and our insignificant part in it. The insanity of our world, with its relentless injustices and inequalities, is put in sharp relief and made all the more intolerable. In the face of such beauty, it is surely an unforgivable crime for any society to let its people live in misery.

But if the parks are almost indescribably beautiful, they are also the products of the social structures which created them in the first place. Yellowstone Park was our first national park, established in 1872. The idea of national parks, however, dates from a few decades earlier. Philip Burnham, in his interesting book, Indian Country, God’s Country: Native Americans and the National Parks, quotes the artist George Catlin, who had visited and painted in the west, as envisioning “a magnificent park, where the world could see for ages to come, the native Indian in his classic attire, galloping his wild horse, with sinewy bow, and shield and lance, amid the fleeting herds of elks and buffaloes.” It is ironic that he would write of the Indians living their traditional lives in parks, since already in his own lifetime, the white settlers and their government had begun their brutal campaign to remove the Indians from their native habitat. The entire history of the national parks is marked by systematic and, for the most part, successful efforts to remove the Indians from those areas designated national parks. In Yellowstone, for example, many Indians traversed what is today the park to hunt, but a cornerstone rule in the national parks is that there cannot be any hunting. In some cases, the “treaties” made between the U.S. government and Indian nations (I put treaties in quotes because these treaties were ordinarily fait accomplis made after white settlers had entered and taken possession of Indian land and the government stood ready to ratify this white theft by force if necessary.) guaranteed the Indians traditional hunting rights, but these agreements were routinely broken.

Only one group of Indians lived in Yellowstone Park, the Sheepeater Shoshone, who managed to survive in this harsh wilderness with its terrible winters by hunting and eating the mountain sheep native to the region. The tribe was physically removed from the Park in 1879 (in that year fifty-two members of the tribe, mainly women and children, were hunted down and subdued by the U.S. army after a three-month search). This process of removal of Indians from lands designated national parks was repeated over and over again over the ensuing decades. Indians might be tolerated for awhile in the parks, either because they were too numerous to remove at once or because they could be utilized commercially, as hunting guides or performers for the rising number of tourists.

Interestingly, the first rationalization for national parks was that they would serve as “monuments,” signifying the greatness of the new nation, just as the human-made monuments of European countries denoted their majesty. They would mark the United States as a great nation, one whose very terrain was more magnificent than that of any other country in the world. That they were not human-made meant in a way that God, himself, must have singled out this new nation as something special, one which, by its very nature (literally speaking), was great. However, in a country founded upon the transcendence of commerce, it was not long before monetary interests came to the forefront (Ironically, later rationalizations for the parks were rooted in the notion of communal property, that is, the national parks would belong to all of the people. But at the same time, the communal holding of land and the absence of any concept of private property common to many Indian groups were condemned as unnatural, as communistic and a sign of the Indians primitive thinking. Many leaders argued that only when the Indians were forced to accept private ownership could they become productive citizens of the United States).

Spurred on mainly by the burgeoning railroads, the government acquired, by bogus treaty or by force, more and more land for the national parks (constant conflicts occurred between the government and other commercial interests, such as timber and mining companies, and these were resolved in various ways. These commercial interests were not always satisfied, but neither were they completely ignored very often. For example, George W. Bush is not opposed to the mining of uranium on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.). Soon a variety of tourist attractions, invariably run by private commercial interests, sprang up and began to make considerable sums of money. While the parks have never become theme parks like the various Disney enterprises and while there are many thousands of square miles of true wilderness in the parks, places where it is still very dangerous to enter unless you know what you are doing, it is certainly true that selling things to tourists is a primary activity in all of the parks. The idea that the parks should be run by the government with very limited commercial activity, much less that the Indians should be integral to the operation and management of parks, was never seriously considered.

To give readers some example of the commercialism rampant in our national parks, consider some of the things I did when I worked as a hotel desk clerk at the Yellowstone Lake Hotel in the summer of 2001. As part of my job I sold tickets to the following activities: one- and two-hour horseback rides ($23.50 and $35.50), stage coach rides ($6.75), “authentic” western cookouts, boat tours of Yellowstone Lake ($9.00), guided fishing tours ($55 to $72 per hour), four different types of bus tours of the park ($32 to $38), and a photo “safari.” ($37.50). Tourists were very keen on these things; they accept that they are the things a normal visitor to the park does. Even the National Park Service participated in commercially-driven activities, such as “Kodak” photography demonstrations. Of course, many people did drive around themselves and hike the numerous trails, but somehow paying to go to a western cookout, complete with cowboy songs and jokes after a wagon ride, struck me as more than a little ridiculous. This rampant commercialism was depressing. I often walked around the hotel, watching people spend large sums of money, bitching that their cell phones did not work or that there were no televisions, even as they were completely taken in by the patter of the tour guides or the corniness of the cookouts, and wondered, what exactly was this all about. When you could see a spectacular full moon shining luminously over the lake amid a million stars or trout swimming upstream to spawn or a moose eating by a mountain river, why would you be attracted to a corny stagecoach ride?

What I did at Yellowstone is common in most of the parks. And there are many more ugly realities about our national treasures. First, commercial interests are more integral to them than my experiences as a desk clerk suggest. The most important concessionaire is Xanterra Corporation, which has contracts to operate Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Crater Lake, Death Valley, and Everglades National Parks. Zanterra was formerly called Amfac. This stood for “American Factor.” Amfac was originally one of the Big Five sugar companies which ruled Hawaii for many years. A sugar “factor” is what might be called a market maker, as it stands between the plantations and the buyers of sugar. The Hawaiian sugar factors used their control of the market to gain control of the sugar plantations, shipping operations, and nearly all other economic entities on the islands. One of the factors was Hackfeld and Company, a German operation. The U.S. government confiscated Hackfeld’s properties during the First World War and distributed them among the other factors. The company was reorganized by the other sugar companies and renamed “American Factor (Amfac for short)” with the emphasis on “American” (as opposed to German). As the sugar industry declined, Amfac branched out into the tourist industry. Its history as a very powerful company in Hawaii is never mentioned by the company, nor is the considerable political power it wields. Today it not only runs the lucrative concessions at several national parks, but it also owns some of the park property, including a significant share of the water rights at Death Valley and the historic buildings at Grand Canyon. The company’s contract with the federal government (it also has concessions at many state parks) was recently renewed. There were rumors that fear concerning the renewal was behind the name change to Xanterra, although I am sure that one reason for the change was to completely divorce the company from its unsavory Hawaiian past.

[Note: although the Bush administration would like to change things, there is not that much overt commercial activity in the national parks besides the concessionaire’s operations. However, in our national forests and recreation areas, there are many private profit-seeking activities, including logging, mining, and grazing animals. The signs that notify drivers that they are entering such areas often include the motto “Land of Many Uses.” North of Albuquerque, New Mexico in the [get name] there is a maze of commercial communications towers (obstruction an otherwise fine view) which the Interior Department actually calls a “steel forest.”]

A worker at Yellowstone told us on our visit this year that another reason for the name change might have been Amfac’s rating as one of the nation’s worst employers. The treatment of workers at our national parks (excluding the rangers and other federal employees, who have their own problems, including massive underfunding and the consequent understaffing) can be only slightly unfairly compared to that accorded migrant farm workers. Workers are recruited with promises seldom fulfilled. Many come from the poorer countries of Europe, lured with hopes of adventure and gaining knowledge of the operation of national parks, as well as good pay and full-time hours. But once in the parks, they are at the mercy of the company which sets their hours strictly to meet its needs, sometimes cutting them ruthlessly (when understaffed–turnover among workers is extremely high) and sometimes working them overtime (but often not paying them overtime pay). Foreign workers, especially those with poor English, are put to work in housekeeping, cleaning hotel rooms, no matter what they were told when recruited. At Yellowstone there were young men from Ghana (all workers pay there own way to get to the parks) who came believing that they were going to learn about park administration to help them prepare to work in their own nation’s parks, but they too were stuck in housekeeping. The workers are housed in cramped and usually unpleasant company dormitories and fed poor quality food (in Yellowstone the food is literally slopped on a tray, just as it is in prisons), the cost of which is deducted from their pay, which is seldom more than eight dollars an hour. Many of the younger workers and nearly all of the foreigners are without cars, and this means that they are stuck in the parks and must hitchhike or otherwise find a ride to get to the nearest town on their free days, which is often fifty to one hundred miles away. The concessionaires provide no health insurance, and if a worker gets injured outside of work, say on a hike (which th e employer encourages workers to take), and cannot return to work in a few days, he or she may be given forty-eight hours to vacate the park. Given the vulnerability of the workers, the company can maintain a draconian discipline. In the very near future I am going to begin a campaign to improve the lot of national park employees.

A third issue with the national parks is the obsession with building roads and paving trails. The terrain of many of our parks is not well-suited for paved road building. But a soon as a park has been established, private interests, keen on the arrival of wave of money-bearing motorized tourists begin petitioning Congress for road money. Hiking and biking trails are neglected or never constructed; rangers to lead hikes and teach visitors about the wilderness are in short supply (wasting their time and skills collecting money at entrance gates); and visitors are stalled for hours as constant road repair and road construction proceed. Well-heeled visitors support bigger and better paved roads, and this means that the parks are clogged with bigger and bigger SUVs and RVs which slow down traffic further, damage the roads (requiring more repairs), and making accidents more likely. We actually saw a large truck pulling an RV to which was attached a huge boat It is interesting to note that sales of RVs, especially the most expensive models (retailing for nearly a million dollars) are skyrocketing. Rich owners then park these at special RV parks, with lavish pools, spas, and the like, on lots priced at more than $100,000. These huge rigs, for which drivers need no special licences and which can even be rented, get about five miles per gallon.

Another and really critical problem with the national parks has to do with the racial and economic profiles of the visitors. The parks are supposed to be for everyone, but this is not the case. The remote locations of many national parks and the commercial focus of most of them make them all but inaccessible to people without both money and time to travel. The proportion of park visitors who are people of color (except for Asian tourists) is very much less than the proportion of the population comprised of Blacks, Hispanics, and Indians. It is possible to hike an entire day in Rocky Mountain National Park or Arches or even Yellowstone and not see a single person of color. And given the expenses associated with a park visit (gas, entrance fee, camping or motel fees, etc.), poor persons are unlikely ever to come to a national park. And as economic inequality worsens in the United States, the parks will more and more become retreats for those in the top quintile of the income distribution.

We have given a lot of thought to national park reform. Here are a few of our ideas, with an acknowledgment for Edward Abbey, who has some similar proposals in Desert Solitaire:

  1. Sharply reduce the money spent on road construction. More well-maintained dirt roads should be built, navigable by most cars but off limits to RVs, campers, and the like.
  2. Stop building parking lots in the parks and paving trails. At Grand Canyon, a visitor can almost drive a car up to the rim by the El Tovar Hotel (named after one of the Spanish imperialist Coronado’s men, who came north aiming at conquest and were the first Europeans to see the Grand Canyon). Visitors walk from their cars or the hotel to an overlook, take a few pictures, and head back to the snack shop for ice cream. Parking lots and paved trails abound, ruining much of the experience of seeing a true wonder of the world. On one paved trail, allegedly built for persons with disabilities and from which there are no views of the canyon, workers have actually spray-painted rocks to look like the red rocks of the canyon. At one visitor’s center, signs give distances to various buildings in feet so as not to discourage the millions of sightseers who are too unfit to hike.
  3. Build more trails and maintain existing trails. It is not possible to know the parks without hiking in them.
  4. Encourage hiking and biking. Rangers should lead a lot more hikes, and they should be teaching us how to survive in the wilderness: how to climb, how to find water, how to pitch tents, how to find and prepare food, how to use a compass, how to deal with bears and other dangerous animals, how to ford streams and walk on ice and snow, how to treat bug and snake bites, how to identify the things seen on the trails, and a hundred other things. The rangers should have better job protection and pay.
  5. Eliminate all of the park hotels. The parks should be publicly operated not run by profit-seeking corporations. There should be no high-priced private hotels. Instead all existing hotels should be converted into cheap publicly-owned hostels. More hostels should be built, with bunk beds and basic supplies provided. Cheap nutritious food should be available for sale. Campgrounds should be expanded and more should be built. Tents should be available for renting. When possible, water and showers should be at hand.
  6. Working persons and persons of color should be actively encouraged to visit. Thousands of “scholarships” should be granted, maybe through a lottery, so that people without means can see their parks.
  7. Prohibit, wherever feasible, automobile traffic in the parks. Have large lots at the entrances and shuttles and bikes (and horses) readily available.
  8. Absolutely forbid commercial activities such as logging, communications towers, and animal grazing. Perhaps some cooperative ventures could be tolerated to supplement what the rangers would do (rafting, pack trips, and the like).
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