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Shopping at the Nature Mall

Boondocking on raw, unimproved land has a great effect on your notions of value and common sense.

What does it really mean to "improve" land, such as they are said to do in national parks, monuments, and other special areas? Recently I was in the Tucson area where one such park is called Madera Canyon. It is a special area in the national forest in the Santa Rita mountains south of Tucson. I always go into such a place with a chip on my shoulder. Despite that, it is fair to say that the US Forest Service is doing more things right than wrong there. 

I rode the mountain bike up to the summit in the canyon. At the entrance a sign warned the visitor that a list of rules and regulations was coming up soon. I tensed up. But the rules were small in number and full of common sense, of all things. These days a "park" of any kind is expected to be anti-dog, unless it's a dog park. That is the first manifestation of city-slicker culture that makes me growl. (They prefer cats, goldfish, and gerbils.) But Madera Canyon only insists on leashes. The entrance fee for cars was only $5; bicycles and pedestrians paid no entrance fee.

Pedaling up the canyon was a good endorphin buzz. But in order to get even more from this, I tried to look at everything as if seeing it for the first time. So why did they do this, or that? Good heavens, the road was even paved! Is that even a good idea? Joseph Wood Krutch and Edward Abbey didn't think so.

But most visitors don't think their metropolitan nature park is over-improved. Did it ever occur to them how artificial their appreciation of "nature" is? Probably not. They are all part of the same Metropolitan Bubble Syndrome.

A busload of grade school kids were on a field trip. They were led by volunteers who seemed a bit like clucking hens. Put yourself in the kids' shoes; how boring it must have seemed. What does the name of this or that tree have to do with their lives back in the human hive of Tucson? It would have been interesting to follow along and listen to the indoctrination being dumped on the bored kids by these officious volunteers. They are probably in favor of a new rule that visitors must take off their hats as they pass the entrance booth and enter the Cathedral of Nature.

On raw land just outside the nature park there is none of this to put up with, so why isn't everybody there, instead? Well, because the scenery inside is more spectacular, you say. Sometimes that really isn't true since you need a certain distance to mountains to really see them best. Besides, when people say scenery is "spectacular", don't they really just mean "really, really big and vertical?"  Indeed high-contrast, vertical topography appears impressive when looking at a coffee table book or a nature show on television. But as a mountain biker I prefer land to stretch out more horizontally, with just enough verticality to be interesting.

Suburban nature lovers come to these metropolitan nature parks expecting everything to be pretty, pretty, pretty. Visual entertainment is the whole purpose of nature, as far as they believe. They want a Disney World with a nature theme. Their activities are so controlled, and there are so many rules and regulations, that they couldn't have a natural "experience" if they wanted to, and most of them don't want to. Rather, they are there to consume a product -- nature has been turned into a consumer brand.

The great draw to any nature-theme park is a paved loop road. The parking lots need to have concrete curbs and yellow stripes to remind the visitors of a strip mall back in the suburb. The next thing on the list is a visitor's center where, hopefully, there will be crowds of people, an IMAX-like movie to watch, and a gift shop, which gives the bourgeois visitor that all-important chance to spend money.  

But visiting a place like this is not an isolated shopping experience to these visitors. They see a place like Madera Canyon as an individual outlet in a nationwide chain of nature stores run by the forest service and park service. The generic forests, grasslands, and deserts that I camp on are bland, uninteresting places to these visitors. 

One visitor to Madera Canyon wandered off the reservation and stumbled into the low-rent district just outside, where I was camped. She asked, "What about all these cows?" I guess she saw cows, horses, cowboys, thorns, stickers, and -- shudder -- cow pies as some kind of threat to my Western camping experience. I really didn't know how to answer her.

She would probably like it if all public lands were managed with the fees and restrictions of national parks; the ostensible reason would be "environmental protection" of course. But I think the real reason is that general purpose (lightly regulated and unfee-ed) public land is as boring to her as walking down the breakfast food aisle in a grocery store and looking at store-brand corn flakes. But a national monument or a national park, well, that's like $10 per pound organic mueslix imported from Europe. Only high-end consumer brands will do for her.