January 2017

A new play for public lands

By David Feela

In our local Walmart parking lot I noticed a half-dozen camping rigs were parked under the scant shade provided by a row of desperate trees. Every desirable spot at the back of the lot was occupied by some form of recreational extravagance.

Had American playwright Eugene O’Neill lived to the ripe old age of 128, he might have been inspired by this scene to write one more Broadway hit. His usual fare features characters from the fringes of society filled with disenchantment and despair, but this would be a comedy like “Ah, Wilderness,” a whimsical peek at America’s relationship with the idea of outdoor leisure.

The National Park Service has been searching for solutions to its unfolding dilemma — how to welcome and provide access for the ever-increasing number of visitors while still maintaining the integrity of an ecology that this same population may be on the verge of trampling. How strange to think today’s tourism might be viewed as just another threat to our pristine lands, one more commercial enterprise such as logging, mining, and grazing.

For the hypothetical play I’m proposing, O’Neill might open with a couple of retirees, Dug-less and Care-in, for example, sitting in folding chairs beside a propane firepit. Behind them, their RV parked in a City Market or Safeway lot with a scenic portrayal of the rugged El Capitan profile painted artistically on the building’s outside concrete wall. Dug is leaning back, sucking a pine-scented air-freshener deep into his lungs, rhapsodizing about the beauty of natural stimulation, while Care-in is smoking legalized reefer, motionless like the famous depicted stone face.

“Watcha thinking, honey?” asks Dug.

“We should have parked at Yellowstone.”

A partnership between the National Park Service, corporations, and local muralists could do a better job of producing famous park vistas all across the country on the vast blank stretches of retail America, but for the sake of Broadway theater, let’s for the moment imagine the more primitive construction of stage scenery and spotlights.

Drama critics might argue that Eugene O’Neill would have used more dialogue, but you get the picture. Our public lands are being overrun by well-meaning supporters of the outdoor experience, arriving in RVs large enough to stage their own productions.

Downsize. That’s the spirit. Those who drive or tow accordion-style homes on wheels where rooms crank out of each side of the vehicle like a giant bellows deserve every opportunity to share experience, but our parks need less pavement and fewer parking lots.

America’s asphalt fields for commercial gain are immense and mostly unappreciated. The retail market might be happy to cater to our legions of hookup campers. Dug-less and Care-in could spend hours and dollars shopping for souvenirs while stocking up on beer and groceries. When they return to their rig, the scene on the wall would remind them of their upcoming reservation with the national park experience, all while parked under the nose of, say, Teddy Roosevelt.

The next morning an electric bus would pick them up and drive them into the national park. Reduced traffic, soothed tensions, and hands free to dedicate themselves to the task of taking picture with their cell phones – the big-rig campers could make a day of it. The wildlife might even relax, and the real camping experience would be left to those who really camp without having to become judgmental or exclusive.

If O’Neill is rolling over in his grave at the thought of writing such a play and sponsoring such a revolution, I will gladly take the blame. Of course, we should always be the audience in this great unfolding drama on our public lands. Our park service employees are just fortunate enough to have the better seats. Why is it that we are bewildered by a world that rises so honestly out of the dirt, designed without so much as an apology for distracting us with its beauty?

With luck and a revised strategy for managing public lands, we might buy a hundred more years for our national parks, with scenery and tourism developed as the next exploitable resources. Here’s hoping, and if you can’t see the forest for the RVs, let’s not encourage visitors to haul in more scaffolding.

David Feela, an award-winning poet, essayist, and author, writes from Montezuma County, Colo. See his works at http://feelasophy. weebly.com/.