Sunday, June 24, 2018

What Makes Americans American: Yellowstone National Park

For five days, Su and I drove to and from Yellowstone National Park.  It is a 1,000-mile trip from Southern California.  On the way we stopped by Zion National Park for two days, so indeed we spent just one full day at the America's first National Park.  A few things struck me during the trip.

National park experience is an American way of expressing a widespread longing to get away from the sameness of everyday and to recapture the relation to the planet.  The biggest thing which seems to me to make American National Park experience distinct and even eccentric is that we "drove" through the park: the concept of National Park in the US revolves around driving, another key component of most Americans' individuated lifestyle.  Essentially the entity you tour with through the landscape is defined by a vehicle you drive.  You drive, park, take photos, read descriptions in panels, ponder on geologies, get on the car, and drive to the next destination as the road leads.  You view the scenery from your car, or even eat and sleep in the car.  Some national parks have tram or shuttle bus systems, where their landscape hardly allows enough space for parking lots.

wild animals (bison) seen from the car window at the Yellowstone. The gap created between human and the wild felt so wide.

William Zinsser, the author of American Places: A Writer's Pilgrimage to 15 of This Country's Most Visited and Cherished Sites (1992), suspects that the reason why so many Americans are eager to visit the Yellowstone has something to do with "ownership," especially "family possession."  You, as a child, make a visit with your parents; by yourself becoming a parent you lead the family visit.  The renter-car manager also told me that he visited the Yellowstone when about 10 years old.  As George Greenia (2014) calls, the national park visit seems to have become an American cultural pilgrimage.

Zinsser also interestingly mentions about the history of the park.  Nathaniel P. Langford in the Washburn Expedition of 1870 to the soon-to-be national park wrote about "feelings of mingled awe and terror" which recalled him his "entire dependence upon that Almighty Power who had wrought these wonders."  Langford's talk in Washington, D.C. inspired politicians to create a "Yellowstone National Park," leading to, on March 1, 1872, President Grant to sign the first bill setting aside wild lands "for the benefit and enjoyment of the people" under the management of the federal government.

hundreds of people are waiting for the "faithful" Old Faith to spring up.

It is also interesting to see the early connection with the military service at the park management.  Before the creation of the National Park Service in 1916, for about 30 years the army managed the Yellowstone and protected it against poachers and mischievous tourists.  The soldiers later quit the army and served under the Park Service as lifelong rangers.  The pseudo-militarization of park service and sheriff-styled ranger service characteristic to the American national park system seem to have originated from this early connection. 

Yet Zinsser, and the bulletin of Yellowstone National Park as well, does not mention the thousands years of Indian residence in the area.  For the several decades since the inception, the Park had deliberately ignored and misinformed the presence of American Indian tribes inside the park.  The killing of several dozens of American Indians in the process of making the park has long been ignored.  The system of National Park, in the US and around the world, is still relying on the idea that a non-human place demands superintendence from human forces in order to remain intact and "natural."  

The idea of National Park in the US is therefore ironic: a human-created non-human area to be enjoyed under voyeuristic eyes from cars.  

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