State by State

Apparently there is an entire country between Boston and San Francisco.


by Natalia

They want comfort… [and] they have to be taken care of when they go to the Grand Canyon. There must be some sort of a program for those people; there must be something conventional for them to do. The sentiment expressed 100 years ago by Fred Harvey, the founder and owner of the famous El Tovar hotel on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, seems to belong to the past when one visits American national parks. The Grand Canyon may still offer mule rides but conventional entertainment is relentlessly squeezed out by the park service. No more driving cars through giant sequoias, fishing or boat renting on Mount Rainier’s Reflection Lake, snarfing hamburgers in Snowball Room of the Mammoth Cave.

Scenery is a splendid thing when it is viewed by a man who is in a contended frame of mind. Give him a poor breakfast after he has a bad night’s sleep, and he will not care how fine your scenery is. This opinion of Stephen Mather, the founding director of the National Park Service, no longer holds sway. Lodging offered in national parks nowadays can be charitably called basic. As for food, after countless experiences, I suggest buying your own. It might be unintentional, but mediocre food and rudimentary accommodations reinforce the change in NPS attitude. The new mantra is: nature does not need popularization, it needs protection.

And while I would not mind comfortable accommodations and edible food, I never particularly regretted lack of conventional entertainment of the other sort. I am not alone in this. If one judges by the sheer number of people still visiting US national parks either famed scenery got more impressive or public expectations of a decent breakfast took a death spiral towards the oatmeal bar. But if it is the entertainment of the bygone era what you are looking for, try crossing this mental line known otherwise as Canadian border.

Like their US counterparts, national parks in Canada are immensely popular: Jasper, Banff, Waterton Lakes teem with people. The nature one can experience there belongs to the realm of wonders. That said, the array of conventional activities is possibly even more impressive.

Take Lake Luise: a beautiful turquoise-colored post-glacial lake surrounded by snow covered granite peaks and fragrant coniferous forests roamed by grizzly bears. Hiking alone provides incredible aesthetic pleasure and adrenaline rush. To begin your peripatetic adventure you don’t even need sturdy shoes: a convenient boardwalk veers along the lake shore. But why would you walk if you can rent a boat, fish in the lake, stay the night in a giant luxurious hotel on the very shore, pamper yourself in a spa, consume an expensive and hopefully tasty meal, play tennis and minigolf. Don’t get me wrong: I am not against spas or restaurants. It’s just that once I end up in a place as unique and amazing as Lake Louise partaking in conventional activities that can be enjoyed when at home does not seem to be the best use of my time. American Park Service after decades of trying finally seems to ween itself off the misguided notion that one can improve the nature. At the same time, on a scale from wilderness to Disneyland, Canadian parks are a bit too close to Micky Mouse for my taste.

Proponents of conventional entertainment in American national parks 100 years ago thought that people needed to be attracted by the familiar in order to appreciate the unfamiliar. They wanted to popularize natural wonders in order to gain public support to protect them. And once the number of people visiting started to threaten the very thing they were trying to protect, up went measures restricting access.

As witnessed in Alberta, Canadian national parks hardly need any more visitors. And yet the Canadian national park service seems reluctant to get back to the basics and introduce some obvious restrictions. Injunction to stay off glaciers or requirement to hike in tightly knit groups of four in grizzly habitats are obviously designed for visitors’ safety, not park protection.

Canada has similar territory to US, but only a fraction of the population. One does not have to travel far to find oneself surrounded by wilderness. Canadian national park land might be actually more civilized than its surroundings. Roads leading north are few and far between. They stretch for miles encompassed by primordial forests. One can easily develop a false sense of inexhaustible supply of beautiful scenery untrammeled by humans. In comparison US the century ago experienced a sudden shrinkage of the natural world. Even giant sequoias were threatened to become fuel in relentless industrialization. And the collective feeling of doom hasn’t abated since. Canada, despite its share of ecological disasters, observed this mostly second-hand. This might be why Canadians don’t feel the overwhelming urge to protect their treasures yet. Or they need their spa treatments and minigolf to sooth the nerves frayed by encounters with grizzly bears.

deja vu

One of the precious few ways to offend your Canadian friends is to suggest that their country is a paler and colder version of its southern neighbor. And there are indeed many ways in which Canadians are different. Food seems to be more edible here and cities actually resemble places to live in and not abandoned movie sets. But in some cases Canadians are just dead set on repeating American mistakes. The ever present foreclosure signs and empty subdivisions disappear when you cross the border. Instead props that we begin to forget show up: real estate agents are shamelessly peddling their trade on every inch of promotional space, houses are getting bought, demolished and reconstructed apparently overtime, your bartender is giving you free buy vs. rent advice with a pint of local brew.


The guy opens his backpack and rather promptly starts removing its content and placing it in the pockets of his cargo pants. What are you doing, I ask. I am taking out all the valuables, so that I can feed my backpack to the bear, he continues his pocket stuffing unfazed. And I am pretty sure that he did actually say: feed. Does he think bears eat backpacks? I wonder. The state of the primary schooling in US is allegedly atrocious nowadays, but he looks like his days of no child left behind were over before 60’s kicked in for good.