Two rear ends jiggle down the Bright Angel Trail into the splendor of the Grand Canyon. One belongs to a bored, chronically flatulent mule. The other, wider in white pants, is attached to a spherical lady from North Carolina. She and I are part of a guided mule train. We wear matching bota bags and dime-store straw cowboy hats. As her mule picks careful steps, a stream of twangy nothingness pours from Lady Carolina’s mouth–enough to fill the ocher void before us. “It’s all shiny here!” she says.
My girlfriend (now wife), Sarah, and I had followed the snowmelt of a Colorado ski season south. We envisioned a scramble to a riverbank where we’d set up the type of camp you see on the cover of Backpacker. Except we hadn’t called ahead, which meant no backcountry permits. After loitering dejectedly around the visitor center, I succumbed to the emasculating mule ride, Sarah snickering behind me.
Laugh all you want, for I am a National Park boob. Too lazy to do research, too scattered to plan ahead, I just show up, resplendent in my ineptitude. Last fall, on a family road trip, the ranger at Grand Teton asked for $25. “We just want to park up there,” I replied, pointing to a trailhead a half-mile distant. “The kids can only hike for a couple of hours.” Her hand floated patiently, palm up. Bled of cash, I was now obligated to drive the offspring beyond their wee limits. “I don’t care if your legs hurt, you’re three years old. Move out!”
Boobery. In the mid ’90s, we drove from Montana to the Tetons only to learn dogs aren’t allowed. Boobery. We scaled the cliffs of Cadillac Mountain in Acadia to discover the trail terminates in a parking lot. Boobery. Stuck in traffic for two hours on Glacier’s Going-to-the-Sun Road. The Smokies in the rainy season. An Arctic front in the Guadalupes. Boobery.
My photographer buddy, Kelly, shoots wildlife in Yellowstone and feeds me a steady stream of such morons-in-the-wilderness stories. Kelly recently pulled over near a bison carcass where coyotes were feeding. A busload of Japanese tourists commenced barking at the coyotes to get their attention. Kelly rushed the crowd, only to have a ranger step in. “We aren’t allowed to do that type of crowd control,” came the warning. “But thanks.”
Okay, I get it. The Park Service is overwhelmed and under-funded, so it needs to keep knuckleheads (like me, I guess) on the main thoroughfares or risk blowing the budget on rescues. So we get permits and quotas and pleas of ignorance when we beg for obscure trails to explore. But I keep asking anyway. “Where can we go for a nice, uncrowded overnight?” Silence. Next time, I’m going to tell the permit guy I’m a Himalayan expedition leader and wildlife biologist, as well as a volunteer knapweed eradicator. Come on. Hook a brother up.
And there will be a next time. Because for every bumbling screw-up on my part there’s a corresponding triumph: West Texas sunsets lighting up a stand of burr oak; heat radiating from the pink granite of Acadia; an impossible army of névé penitente glittering on the summit of Rainier. There’s a reason the most stunning examples of American wilderness are protected. My personal idiocy aside, national parks matter. I want my kids to know that, because this land is their legacy.
But they shouldn’t get it from me. I can only offer a pup tent and a package of hot dogs. No, they should get their direction from the following pages: Inside are all the tips and trail information I wish I’d had way back when. I might even laminate the issue for later on–anything to keep them off the mule train.