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I turn to the boy. "Listen, have you ever seen wild swans?" I ask him. "I'll tell you where you can get a look at two big swans and four baby swans. I know where you can see beavers working on a dam."
He jerks at his father's sleeve. "Can I look, too?" he asks. "I want to see the wreck."
If there had been any point in it, I could have told that family a good deal more. They could have found, within a day's walk or a short day's drive, a natural bridge, a set of ancient Indian rock drawings, a mountainside of fossils, a system of ice caves, a perfect miniature glacier the size of a schoolroom, and a network of rarely visited alpine lakes. They could have seen deer and antelope, a herd of buffalo, a black bear picking huckleberries, a coyote stalking mice. With some luck they might have turned up a lynx, a marten, a grizzly, a mountain lion. They could have seen wildflowers blooming in a snowdrift; they could have safely climbed a 12,000-foot mountain or gone down to the river and caught trout. In one or two days they could have learned something of the strange history of the earth by looking at it. Or they could have just relaxed and absorbed the special beauty of the place.
They did not do any of these things. What they did, after driving all the way west from South Bead or Cleveland or Trenton, was stand on a hilltop and spend half the afternoon looking for the scraps of a 10-year-old airplane wreck.
The grisly preoccupation of that family—the sort of thing you expect to run across only rarely—unfortunately typifies the behavior of a great segment of the American public toward wilderness and scenic beauty. I am not talking here about the cranks, the vandals or the damn fools, but the decent, pleasure-seeking travelers a ranger meets most of the time—people who wouldn't think of carving initials on an aspen or flipping a cigarette into the brush. I am talking about Uncle John, Aunt Martha and the kids from Akron—nice folks touring the American West.
Armed with maps, brochures and lots of color film, they journey in comfort and safety across land that a few generations ago was seen only through risk, sacrifice and hardship. As they cruise today across the prairie at 60 miles an hour in a softly sprung car, they probably never think of the earlier men who so painfully covered that same ground. Uncle John and Aunt Martha come fresh to the country, and they are their own explorers. In the national parks, where the country has been disturbed very little, they have an opportunity to recreate for themselves the experience of Lewis and Clark, Bridger, Smith, Fremont and Pike.
But it is not this kind of recreation, the reliving of history, that they are seeking. They search instead for the quaint, the cute, and the faltering hand of man. They spend more time watching the dummy cowboy band at the Wall Drug Store than prowling around the Badlands. They are more responsive to the bogus hijinks of the Cache Street posse than to the eagles along Snake River. They come to see a wild world, but they are suckers for the souvenir ashtray, the varnished pine plaque inscribed "Yellowstone" and the Indian totems that are made in Japan.
When the visitor does come face to face with the country, its subtle excitements often escape him. And it is not altogether his fault. The brochures and the travel articles have so ballyhooed the spectacular features that the lesser offerings of the land are usually ignored.
One day in the Tetons I spent 10 minutes showing maps and pictures to a lady visitor. I told her about places for hiking, riding and boating, told her where to find an assortment of wild-flowers and big game.
"But where," she inquired, "is Old Faithful?"