“These days, young people do not stride into their future with the confidence their grandparents knew. Over and over, in recent years, I have heard the cold undertone of doubt and uncertainty when I talk with college students. The American Dream has suffered distortion and attrition; for many, it is a dream glumly awakened from.”
-Wallace Stegner, in the Tanner Lectures (1980)
Vacation time is drawing to a close for millions of American families, but it’s not too late to schedule your trip to the American West. It’s not too late to restore the faith of the millions who see the country sliding into hopelessness.
Go to the West, as I did in May to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. Don’t let the West be a place to be driven through on a superhighway. Drive to the West and get lost in its canyons, mountain passes, deserts, alpine meadows and vast emptiness.
The author Wallace Stegner tirelessly lent his voice to the identity and protection of the West, and I had the great opportunity to discover his work as a result of my trip in May. Stegner and the many apostles of the wilderness before him called the West and the series of frontiers which defined this country the nourishment for the American Dream . The physical frontier has long eroded, but we have inheritance of our national parks and public lands.
Go to the West and discover an American heritage. My experience this summer in Yellowstone and Grand Teton, shown below in pictures, revealed the cacophonous forces of nature and the conflicting forces of civilization:
The West shows us our fragility: A volcanic caldera seethes at the heart of Yellowstone National Park. Geysers such as Old Faithful and hot springs break the thin barriers between the molten earth and our livable biome. Even in this Purgatory of the springs, bacterial colonies flourish as they do in deep sea vents and perhaps on other worlds, clinging to their life source. Aren’t all ecosystems just as delicate, the multiplicity of life in them teetering a few degrees from extinction? Our global village teeters on just a few atmospheric degrees.
The West shows us how to live within our means: In Grand Teton National Park, the rapidly-rising tectonic plate which created the eponymous mountain range creates enormous contrasts. A mile above the Snake River Valley, the great peaks offer some of the best skiing in the country and precious water flow for the Idaho farms to the west. To the rain shadow on the east, the Tetons are a stockade imprisoning the land in aridity. Our “land ethic” as Aldo Leopold called it, requires respect for each climate and its capacity to hold human use.
The West shows us the power of the public good: In the century and a half of concerted settlement in the West, the interests of conservation groups and the authority of the federal government joined to protect almost half the land of Western states in varying degrees for “use without impairment” and for the enjoyment of future generations of Americans. Visiting a national park is no different than driving on the street or walking down the sidewalk. Our parks, the “best idea we ever had” are part of the Commons and the public square.
In the West, there is discovery and therefore recovery of the Dream which inspired and conflicted so many in the settlement of the United States. The West gives not the microcosm of the national spirit, but the macrocosm of America’s accumulated centuries of sins, virtues and hopes.