Improved Roads

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When we “improve” a road, what exactly are we improving?

My map of Death Valley shows four kinds of roads: paved, improved, unimproved and primitive. As I bounce and rattle over the washboard of the unimproved road past the salt marshes of Saline Valley, I wonder what an “improved” road would do to this place.

Saline Valley feels wild and remote. The idea of getting out of the car to walk off into those hills is intimidating. We are short on time, so we will just shake our bones on the washboard, make our way to the warm springs, and lounge for a bit. We are nothing but tourists today.

The fact that there is a road here at all, improved or not, makes this possible as a day trip. From pavement to warm springs is a mere two and a half hours. On foot, I would count on three of these short December days to get there and three more to get back. Perhaps two if I were highly motivated. In the summer, I wouldn’t consider it.

If this road were improved, we could be here in an hour and a half. If it were paved, it would be a comfortable hour.

The mountains and the salt marshes would remain, much as they do in Death Valley proper, just down the road from the golf course. Yes, the golf course. Enough said.

The warm springs might even remain. But pavement brings crowds, RVs, gift shops, hotels, “services” and other “improvements.” The warm springs as we know them would be gone.

Saline Valley makes me feel like I’ve suddenly left California and landed in Alaska. It reminds me of driving through the Brooks Range in 1985 and 1986. I drove for a fly-by-night company with a cocaine-addled owner who wasn’t paying his drivers. I had to take my pay straight out of customer receipts. It was a miserable job in some ways, except for being out on the dirt roads of Alaska. In those days, you needed a special permit to drive that road. Most traffic was tractor trailer trucks supplying the oil fields. I suppose it was industrial, rather than tourist, much like Death Valley was a century ago and even half a century ago.

In the Brooks Range and up on the North Slope, I thought about how easy it would be to die out there of a flat tire in the winter. In Saline Valley, a similar thought crosses my mind with respect to a flat tire in the summer.

No doubt there are those who think that Saline Valley and its sisters were destroyed when the faint miner trail was made into a wagon road. No doubt there are those who think it was destroyed when the first miner showed up with his mule. No doubt, there are those who think it was destroyed when the first Homo sapien trod the salt marshes. No doubt they were right.

I am not attached to the Saline Valley that existed before the mule trail became a wagon road. I am attached to my Saline Valley. The one that is only 2.5 hours from a perfect ribbon of asphalt that runs unbroken from New York City to the Saline Valley Road turnoff. The one that people visit in their Chevrolet Equinox with air conditioning and the stereo blasting. The one that has bathrooms with toilet paper at the end of the road.

The valley is likely lonelier today than when it was a hub of industrial activity a century ago. At the peak, the miners were sending a daily cargo of 20 tons of salt over the mountains to the railroad terminal a mere 13.4 miles away by cable tramway. Both the tramway and the railroad are gone. Shoshone farmers grew vegetables and exotic tropical fruit to sell to the miners. The farms too are gone.

They have been replaced by tourists and the wild descendants of escaped burros, the two great plagues on the Death Valley landscape in the twenty-first century. Of these two most destructive invasive species, the biped is the one that does by far the most damage.

The valley is defended only by a lack of asphalt and the disinterest of most people in desert landscapes. One quick view of the lowest place in North America is enough for most people. Fortunately, Saline Valley is not a quick view by modern standards thanks to the lack of pavement.

All of which makes me consider what pavement has done to Yosemite. Where Death Valley feels wild, Yosemite feels tame.

I know that Death Valley has been utterly tamed by the air conditioned car. Only my ignorance of the desert makes it feel so wild.

In Yosemite, however, I am never more than an hour’s walk from water and never more than a hard day’s walk from a road with actual traffic on it. I am at ease in the Yosemite landscape. That’s partly due to a lifetime of experience in similar landscapes. But it is partly due to the fact that it is a welcoming landscape. The most remote backcountry of Yosemite feels less wild than parts of Death Valley that are near the road, but much of it can still pretend to wilderness.

Yosemite Valley, on the other had, is a beast apart. As Alfred Runte noted in Yosemite: The Embattled Wilderness, as of 1988, there were 23 places to buy beer, wine or liquor on the Valley floor. It has been improved, so to speak.

Death Valley isn’t without its tourist invasions, of course. The Racetrack, despite also being a washboarded two hours from pavement like Saline Valley, sees a constant stream of tourists in their rented Jeeps and Chevy Equinoxes (apparently a popular fleet vehicle currently). There are no traffic jams yet, but dozens of people per day come to see the mysterious moving stones. It is an official spot with something unique to see, and that always brings in the riff raff. It brought us in after all. Twice.

Just down the road, all the accoutrements of industrial tourism can be found at Furnace Creek. Restaurants, hotels, gas stations and, yes, that insane golf course in one of the hottest, driest places on earth.

Most people see only that part of Death Valley. They are hunting scenery, not nature. And scenery need only be seen. There is no need to linger. Almost everyone I speak to who has been to Death Valley says “We didn’t really stop. We just passed through.” Pavement whisks them there. Pavement whisks them away, having checked a box and moved on to the next thing on their list. Yosemite or Disneyland, assuming you can still tell the difference.

Industrial tourism follows pavement and pavement follows industrial tourism. In economics, we would call that a virtuous cycle. In conservation, we would call that a death spiral.

My first instinct is to want to keep these places as they are. Then I realize that the person who arrived five minutes before me wanted to keep it as it was too, But then I showed up.

John Muir came to love Yosemite by walking the trail to the majestic Valley, but lamented that the trail became a road.

Ansel Adams described the Yosemite Park and Curry Company as perfidious for building a monstrous hotel in the valley, among other things. But then, to the very end of his life, he was proud of the Bracebridge Dinner performance he had created at said monstrous hotel for the express purpose of increasing winter visitation to fill said monstrous hotel (ibid.).

David Brower grew to love the high country of Tuolumne Meadows, which he discovered by driving the road. Later, he said that park service personnel should have been jailed for allowing the 1958 widening of that same road. Was the first criminal act the road, or the widening? Without the road, would Brower have come to know the Yosemite high country? Without knowing the Yosemite high country, would he have become one of the great environmental activists of all time? These connections are complicated.

And so we ratchet down (yes, I’ve started seeing ratchets everywhere these days). What we think is perfidious, becomes habit. What we lament as a monstrous intrusion of Man, becomes tradition. What we think is a degraded landscape, becomes natural. What we decry as tamed, becomes wild.

There’s an instinct in all of us, certainly me, when bouncing down a potholed road for hours, to wish that someone would run a road grader down it and make it just a bit smoother, just a bit more comfortable, just a bit faster.

But a moment’s reflection makes me realize that the potholed road is already too much of an intrusion, already a first ratcheting down, and those potholes are the last rampart defending the places I love.

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