For the past couple of days we have been on guided tours, guests of knowledgeable people. Expats, in a way, from the rest of the US, freed to spend half each year showing visitors the country they love. I’m glad we’ve taken the time to listen to them. Having two tours in a row plus a few ranger-led talks, however, has illuminated which elements belong to the myth of this place, to the story it tells itself and all four million plus of us others. One part of the story is how a century ago visiting this remote area was an experience reserved for the wealthy. This is true, but saying it implies: not like now, when everyone can come. I’ve looked around: I don’t see everyone. I still see the privileged.
Numbers are not something my brain holds well, so I can’t say how the immense number four million (maybe five this year) fits into the population of the US–or the world, for that matter. This is the hinge between seasons, when by all reports there are fewer visitors than even two weeks ago. Yet there are still plenty of people, speaking Chinese or French, German or with an Eastern European intonation. Speaking any of the Englishes, though mostly American. The faces match what I hear–mostly European-looking, lots of Asian-featured folk, occasional brownness like I’m used to seeing in Texas. But not much. And so few truly dark skins that on our second day I turned to My Sweetie and remarked on it. This does not look like everyone to me.
And those that *are* here wear the same clothes. Slightly shiny, channeled down parkas. For shoes, Keens or Vasques or any of a number of well-regarded brands, shoes with good soles, sides still thick. Outdoor-brand shirts, official hiking pants, jeans without holes, park-logoed souvenir wear. This doesn’t look like everyone, either.
Even the food here has a privileged price. My Sweetie comments on it in one of the grocery stores, and our guides echo the sentiment: twice as much as outside the park. Like Disney. With fewer rides, and more thermal activity. A stretch for middle-class money, but “worth it for the experience.” More reasonable for those with resources to spare…money, and time. Which is not everyone.
Perhaps the “for everyone” in the story is aspirational. Our expat guides (newly retired from ordinary jobs) go home and tell the story in their far-flung communities. They inspire their friends, children, grandchildren, or maybe later serve as informal expedition hosts–like the elderly woman I heard before breakfast: “I used to stand there, behind the counter, every day.” The rangers tell each guest, so that they can return home and tell the story, too. And perhaps some guests tell the story beyond their insularity. “It’s our park. They’re each our parks. You should go and see; there’s nothing like it.”
Which is true. Everyone should. There really is nothing like it.