Over the last few months, I visited two of our flagship National Parks — Death Valley in California, and Zion in Utah.
Both share some of the less-than-inspiring features of many national parks: the miles of paved highway, the acres of park land devoted to borrow pits, maintenance yards, employee housing, and snack bars, and the occasional hordes of tourists on paved trails talking on cell phones or plugged into iPods in an apparent effort to distract themselves from the scenery. "Front country" is not always a pretty sight.
Beyond the pavement, though, there's another world. At Death Valley, within a mile of the state highway, one can find one's self alone in a tiny dune valley with a view composed only of sand, sky, and distant ancient mountains. Creosote plants fight for a foothold in a battle against wind, sand, and erosion that has probably gone on for thousands of years.
At Zion, a brief walk through 20 yards of foot-deep icy water brings one to the Virgin River narrows, where a stream a few feet wide has, over a millions of years, carved a slot canyon a thousand feet deep through petrified sand dunes that covered southern Utah during the time of the dinosaurs.
In these quiet places, one feels the immensity of time. The trivialities of life — the arguments and petty vanities, harsh words and jealousies — and even the brief span of one's life slip into insignificance. At the same time, the miracle of life, its ability to persist in the face of the harshest conditions, inspires hope in the resilience of the living world.
Death Valley and Zion thus protect not only fascinating geology, sensitive ecosystems, and historic and pre-historic wornders, but an emotional and spirtual landscape that is increasingly difficult to find in the hustle and bustle of modern life. To me, it's an important reason to suport our national parks and those who protect them.