A YOUNG MAN was struck by lightning while watching Old Faithful erupt. The bolt knocked him unconscious, burned his clothing and neatly sliced off one of his motorcycle boots. The strangest part of his story was this: When he regained his senses, there was a man in a tractor cap standing over him asking, "What time's this her geyser gonna go off?"
The story suggests something I have suspected for a long time: Wildness is turning into weirdness. Where once we sought to fit ourselves into the events of wild nature, we are increasingly becoming mere spectators and sensation-seekers.
I see hints of the change almost daily in the news. In Death Valley, a man ignored barricades and warning signs to drive down a flash-flooded dirt road. Approaching a rain-filled gully, he sped up and tried to leap the chasm, Evil Knievel-style. The car came to rest with a bumber on each bank, badly damaged. The man sued the National Park Service, claiming it ought not to have operated such a dangerous gully.
Increasingly, what we see going on in the wilds seems out of control. One reason is that it has become crowded in the wild. As civilization devours more and more landscape, we gather in greater densites in the remaining wild places. Nine million visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park every year. Nearly 3 million visit Yosemite, most of them managing to find a toehold in the seven square miles of Yosemitte Valley. Some 200,000 float down Pensylvania's Youghiogheny River, and 100,000 down Idaho's Snake.
Gone are the space and solitude we used to seek in these places. Fading are the traditional challlenges we sought in wild nature, the mountains to climb, distances to walk, animals to comtemplate and solitude to enjoy. The wild is becoming certified. a
One expects everything to be managed, just as one expects property owners and solicitors to eliminate the risks on city premises. Visitors are less and less able to make that leap of imagination required see that nature works on its own.
They expect bears that move on runners and lightning that strikes only after a warning buzzer sounds.
David Graber, who for six years studied the interaction between men and bears in Yosemite, says, "People go to wild places expecting the Disney version. Things will be more dramatic to the eye and ear, but with the Disneyland tameness. Like the wild hippo that roars, and then the man shouts and it goes away." A ranger at Lasen Volcanic National Park reports, "I've had people ask me how often we have to bring in the sulfur and when we turn offthe steam pipes."
Visitors to the national parks are handed brochures which warm them of sudden storms, dangerous rivers and wild animals. But they still wade into the rivers and leave food out to tempt the bears. Surveys indicate that almost everbody who sees a bear in Great Smoky Mountains National Park tries to feed it. In the certified atmosphere, they assume that someone else is mediating the risks. Says Graber, "They aren't responsible for assimilating the information thrown at them. They sleep under a bear-warning sign and get ripped off. When you say, 'What did you think the sign said?' they say they didn't really think there were bears here."
Little wonder that when people find out that nature isn't an illusion, they are inclinded to sue. A few years ago, a judge in Los Angeles, applying Disneyland standards to an incident in Yellowstone, declared that the National Park Service ought to have prevented a bear from attacking an imprudent camper and awarded the camper's survivors $100,000 (the verdict late was overturned.)
Another suit was lodged by a man who stood on a peak in Sequia National Park in a hailstorm while others scurried to get down, their hair standing on end with static electricity. The man was struck by lightning. The National Park Service has seen a 3 1/2-fold increase in the number of visitors over the last 20 years, but a 6 1/2-fold increase in the number of court claims.
Crowds aren't the only cause of the growing weirdness. What we're doing there also is different. Ours is an age of action. We are caught between the blunders of the Cold War and Vietnam and the triviality of the counterculture, between excesses of the mind and excesses of the heart. We mistrust both reason and feeling, and that leaves us stuck in the limbo of action. We are joggers, mountain climbers, tennis players and off-road racers.
The wildlands always have been our theater of action, and traditionally have served America as a stage upon which the individual can take risks without endangering the rest of society. But, with the lack of solitude, the old risks of hand to rock, eye to space, mind to night, imagination to animal form, the kinds of tests that tell of men's place in nature, are vanishing. Instead, we are inventing new risks.
Look at the list of applicants for use permits in Yosemite: It includes hang-gliders, skydivers, roller skaters, snowmobilers, skiers, bicycle racers, marathon runners, balloonists, even high-wire walkers. One local hero helicoptered to the top of El Capitan, skied off it and parachuted to the meadow below. Rangers in Yosemite Valley report that, three years ago, youths began to "dive-bomb" river rafters as they passed under Sentinel Bridge. Grand Canyon is troubled by ilegal hang-gliders and pilots flying small airplanes down inside the canyon. "It's the bravado, the thrill, the desire to be one cut above the rest," says Dick Wilburn of the National Park Service. "People want to do something new and exciting that no one else has done. We see it all the time."
The new activities have little to do with naturalness of the setting. They only have to do with the space and its accessibility. And, as nature recedes in importance as a reason for visiting, citified risks and fantasies take its place. You see and hear a lot more guns in the wildland these days. Last year, a man in California's Emigrant Wilderness unloaded his pistol into the backside of a bear while other campers pleaded with him to stop. The same weekend, another man unloaded his gun into a fellow camper near Yosemite.
As solitude and space vanish, the nature of the outdoorsman is changing. Not long ago, the wilds were a refuge for quiet eccentrics, the Thoreaus and Muirs among us who were affronted by big-city complexity but perhaps too thoughtful or too sentimental to go beserk. Today, the backwoods belong to the consumer. You buy your hiking boots at Bloomingdale's, your trip from a travel catalogue and your woodlore in the Sunday paper. One sees, more and more, a consumer's infantilism, an expectation that someone else out there will make the effort and provide for you.
Fifteen years ago, I shared a back-country campsite with a solitary graduate student who talked eagerly of fishing, geology and the role of Mikhail Borodin in the Chinese Revolution. This year, at the same campsite, I listened to a group of stalwart outdoorsmen argue for nearly an hour over the relative merits of their Japanese quartz-crystal watches.
The challenges of the wild seem less and less personal and more and more societal. Old-timers say that years ago you could leave a $50 bill on a picnic table and come back a week later to find it still there. "Today," says one, "you can't turn your back on a trout fly. It's a jungle out there!" s
No wonder all those campers have begun packing guns into the woods. Not just deer rifles, but man-stoppers, big .357 Magnums. What moves the gun-toters is the realization that wierdness imples that we have no place in nature, that man is some kind of aberration to whome rules mean nothing. Nature is but a stage set in which men act out urban dramas about greed, power and survival. Animals and landscape cease to be entities in their own rights. There is nothing to judge men by except the actions of other men.
We ought to resist this change. For real wildness implies that we can know the rules, predict the future and exercise some control. Those are the things that give us a sense of consequence and make us feel good about being human. Those are the antidotes to the passivity and spectatorship that plague our public affairs and the irresolution that so often daunts out private lives.
We need the personal challenge and reassurance of human competence that wildness makes possible. If we cannot somehow reassert the old quality of the experience over the new quantity of the experience, reassert the thought and the feeling over the mere activity, we are likely to lose a great deal more than just birds and trees and solitude. We need all the wildness we can get.