Vacations often seem like a rush to escape anxiety, missions of restoration doomed to disappointment. Last summer my wife and I visited the Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks and plan to do it again soon. Like thousands of vacationers, we hiked through spectacular forests to forget the stress of the panty-hosed, necktied, meeting-filled, claustrophobic work year. Now middle-aged, we prefer a shower, a bed and a good dinner to trail dust, sleeping bags and packaged food after a day’s hiking. But it’s the ratcheting down of inner and outer noise we most seek, the chance to be alone with our thoughts and to embrace the steady rhythm of our steps along paths alive with brilliant wildflowers and scuttling chipmunks. At last we’ve left the dull hum of fluorescent lights, the blare of car horns, the numbing Muzak of supermarkets. Everything is put into perspective without distractions. We feel small but connected as we begin to discover what we almost forgot we were missing.
But these days, except for deep back-country hikes, I find it increasingly difficult to find quiet. I don’t mind all the people visiting the parks. If temporary peace and an appreciation of nature can be restored to more lives, we’ll all no doubt be better off. As Rob Smith of the Sierra Club said recently about the controversy over proposals to limit sightseeing flights over the Grand Canyon, “The one great value of national parks should be that visitors don’t have to listen to the clatter of everyday life.”