Half DomeThe tree’s bald patch is startling—an oasis of smooth white exposure amidst all that brown. We think, at first, that it’s an animal that took to it. An elk rubbing velvet maybe, a bear sharpening claws? This is Yosemite, after all, there’s a sign around every corner warning you of the dangers of every other living creature.  We’re forest-savvy kids, raised by parents—a Dad especially—who have always turned to the land as a kind of sanctuary, prayed in that church of the wild, made a home in the woods. We've all been indoctrinated in the same religion, and though we were raised in a city (money, that old terrible truth) we know an animal when we see one, we know a this scat from that, and could find a game trail faster than most. This tree proves perplexing, however, thick bark torn away at shoulder-height, revealing the pale trunk underneath. It's not quite right, so we all turn to my Dad as the knower of all things to know about being outside. As we're moving down the trail he says, pointing an accusatory finger at the tree, not an animal, kids--that tree's got a bad case of the humans.

This is the odd dichotomy that has always troubled me about National Parks. In theory, they're protected land. And they are--sort of. Who knows what kind of havoc our endless greed would have wreaked on some of the most beautiful terrain we have if not for someone telling us to not to. All those sweeping vistas, soaring views, all those places that exceed imagination would be razed without hesitation. There are so many ways to capitalize on the majesty of this landscape--and, to an extent, I will concede, the National Park Service has. We ate, one night, at a beautiful restaurant that captured the setting sun on Yosemite falls so beautifully it was breathtaking--and it didn't come for free. You just have to hope that the money you pay to the NPS will go to managing the presence of people in the parks as best they can.

Our bare tree though seemed to prove the opposite. Here was a testament to the destructive power of humanity--our mindlessness, our innate selfishness, tore away the bark of the tree without a second thought. I doubt that it was just one person, it seemed more like the work of many, many people walking by, hitting each tree with a stick as they go, but still--that kind of obliviousness is a hallmark of our species. At the risk of sounding condescending, I have to wonder what it is that lets some people to "get it"--understand the outdoors, and others, to not.

In protecting the parks, the government created a sort of "lite" version of flora and fauna--a brief exposure to the elements that promises instant gratification and the rejuvenation that our society has long associated with being out in the fresh air. All you have to do is look at how many driving tours are recommended--you don't even have to get out of your car to see the sights. Face it--the only way to make it better--by better, I mean truly protected--would be to make it harder. For the National Park Service to say, only the strong deserve to see those sights. Only the people who are willing to hike miles, get eaten by bears, rappel off cliffs and climb mountains can stand and look up at the foot of Half Dome and feel the awesome power of that sheer rock face. I doubt you would have any naked trees if that were how the park was managed.

We stood one afternoon at the base of lower Yosemite falls and looked up. It was an easy,  half-mile walk in after we'd already done the two (uphill!) miles to upper Yosemite falls--paved the whole way. We walked past multiple groups of people, a lot of them from other countries, that were varying degrees of irritated (my Dad overheard one German woman say to her husband, this is the last goddamn picture) to excited (mostly  kids). Many of them were on guided tours, and most of the tours stopped just off the trails. People posed for photos inside trees, under talus caves, wherever they could. When we actually reached the falls, there were so many people that pushed past the end of the trail and onto the enormous boulders near the river--far enough away that they looked like so many ants, crawling over the rocks. It was, after the quiet of our earlier hike, unsettling at best.

In my perfect world, none of them would have been there, but perhaps I'm being unkind. Are we not all there for the very same reason? Even the tree-hitters are seeking the trees out, by default, when they visit the parks. Whether we know how to behave and respect nature or not, a lot of people are drawn to the parks every year that may not have any other outdoor exposure at all. These are the people's parks after all--even when the people aren't who you would choose to have in them. I have to believe that, at the very least, the people who go and have zero understanding of the natural world may learn something.

Even the worst offenders, people who hate bugs and physical exertion, can't help but be moved by the enormity of the Yosemite Valley--or really, at any of the Parks. Very few people can refuse the primal pull that the rocks and trees exert on us, the beauty and the terror of being shown your place in the natural world. How it happens matters less, but one can only hope that it happens at all.