Last Monday, my mom and I stood behind a fence at Arches National Park and took a couple photos of Landscape Arch, the longest sandstone arch in the world. She turned to two ladies sitting on a rock munching sandwiches and said, “You sure picked a great spot for lunch.” One of the ladies said,
“It’d be a lot better if there weren’t so many people here.” One of us said something like, Yeah, I guess it is pretty popular, and then we made our way down the trail.
Sometimes when people say things about there being “so many people” at a place, I’m not sure if they’re referring to me, like “please stop taking photos so we can enjoy our lunch,” or if they’re just making a general comment about the number of people they’ve seen on the same trail. And sometimes I just want to say, “You mean people like you?”
The lady was right. The view of Landscape Arch would be great with no people in it, like you see in photos. But against Edward Abbey’s warnings and maybe thanks to a $4.6 million ad campaign, Utah’s national parks are now increasingly popular.
The previous day, my mom and I had hiked out to Delicate Arch at sunset and found that we were only two of about 100 people who’d had that idea. Mom had never seen Delicate Arch before, but I had done the same hike 11 years ago on a May afternoon and hadn’t seen another person. I told her that, not complaining, and I asked if she’d ever read Desert Solitaire, in which Ed Abbey rants against the building of a road that will bring more people into Arches National Park (at that time it was only Arches National Monument). She said she hadn’t.
I don’t live in Moab, and my first visit there was in 2005, which is pretty late in the grand scheme of things. I’m not a local, but like anyone who’s been going to a place for a decade or so, I can remember when there was a little more solitude and a little fewer restaurants and hotels. What do I think? Not that it matters, but I usually think the same thing whenever I get nostalgic for “back when it wasn’t so crowded.” I don’t know where I first heard it, but I’ve heard a few different iterations of:
“This place started going to shit 15 minutes after I got here.”
Which I think applies to all of us who get a little jaded with nostalgia, because we all have to remember that we weren’t the first ones here, by a longshot. Ed Abbey was writing about the hordes that would visit this place 48 years ago, if you want to go back to the first jaded local saying the place was going to shit—back in 1968. Whether it’s the desert, a mountain bike trail or climbing crag, your favorite ski town, your hometown, or a new restaurant that you feel like you discovered first before there was an hour wait for a table, it’s going to get found out someday, and it’s not going to be the same as the first time you saw it.
There’s another saying, often utilized by bike commuters:
“Hate traffic? You are traffic.”
Yes, your route to work would be less stressful if it weren’t for all these other damn cars on the road. Except guess what, you’re one of those cars on the road too, just trying to get to where you’re going—exactly like all those other people.
We can argue all day about what causes crowds, or how it should be harder to get to certain wild places, but I think it’s worth pointing out that if you’re complaining about a crowd when you’re in one, you’re part of the crowd. If you look around and find yourself surrounded by “tourists,” you might ask yourself if you’re a tourist too—and if it’s really that bad of a label.
Did you know Arches National Park contains more than 2,000 sandstone arches? I managed to get a photo of one with no people in it, at high noon, just a few minutes’ walk from where those ladies were eating lunch.
I’ve been to plenty of places in the desert where there’s only a slim chance of seeing another human being, and I love those places. But I don’t want to stay away from some of the iconic places just because other people might be there. My mom had never seen Delicate Arch, or Landscape Arch, or Little Wild Horse Canyon—but was I going to say, “Nah, Mom, you’d hate it, there’s too many people there; we should go somewhere else”?
Our second-to-last day of our desert road trip, Mom and I hiked the Fisher Towers trail, and I noticed some changes since the last time I’d been out there to climb Ancient Art: Instead of the trail simply being marked with the occasional cairn, there were now lines of rocks along the route, more signs, and even some wooden markers to keep people from getting lost. We hiked out to the end of the trail, made some coffee, and had a wonderful time, even though there were a few dozen other people out there doing the same thing.
As we drove back into Moab along River Road, I pointed out a group of rafts in the Colorado River to mom. She said, “It’s so nice to see people utilizing the outdoors.” And I thought, shit yeah, Mom, it is. I grew up in Iowa, and my mom still lives there, and we didn’t have an incredible red rock desert nearby to explore, let alone complain about how many other people were out in it with us. It’s a pretty privileged position, I think, to be in a place this beautiful, even if we have to share it.
In Moab, which had a few more cars and a few more people than on my first visit, Mom and I went into Back of Beyond and I bought her her first copy of Desert Solitaire—because even though some places have changed since he wrote the book and there are more people here, the desert is still a magical place.