National Geographic : 2016 Oct
but no follow-through, is not enough.” What’s needed, he said, is a broad cultural shift—a re- turn, of sorts, to a time when outdoor exposure was a basic nutrient of American life. WHILE I WAS in the North Cascades, Casey went to Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. The colors of the hardwood forest in fall impressed him. “Lots of blood orange, yellows, and reds—it had a fantasy-utopian feel to it,” he said. He and his girlfriend toured along Skyline Drive, pulling over for pictures with a selfie stick, laughing at themselves in the pose of a demographic cliché. “ The selfie sticks were everywhere,” he said. They hiked Marys Rock. The summit was thick with people their age, the twentysomethings nearly as common as the white-tailed deer. The people Casey spoke with said they hadn’t come to Shenandoah as a solo destination—as my par- ents might have. It was something to do along with something else, like touring a winery. Does it matter how the parks fit into their lives? Not really. At least the parks have a place in their lives. Affection for landscapes and peo- ple can take many forms. On Marys Rock on that Sunday afternoon, the Park Service had nothing to worry about regarding the next generation. A few months later Casey and I went to Josh- ua Tree National Park, where the Mojave and So- noran Deserts meet in Southern California. From Los Angeles, we drove four hours through the ceaseless sprawl and choking traffic. Finally, after chugging up more than 2,000 feet, we arrived in the darkness of a winter eve. The moon was nearly full, giving off enough light to see the eerie out- lines of the signature trees. We hiked without des- tination or path, using the jagged-toothed horizon as a guide. We were lost, but it was hard to get real- ly lost, it seemed, in the Flintstones wonderland of Joshua Tree, which the rangers promote with the slogan “Half the park is after dark.” This desert sanctuary is popular with Casey’s generation, with its lost-world, sci-fi vibe. Artsy types are drawn to it. It’s known, also, as a place to trip, and not in the way those who saw the U.S.A . in their Chevrolet did. We got up early and wan- dered some more, bouldering on the clean rock, going wherever our curiosity took us. The Joshua trees looked whimsical, as if drawn by Dr. Seuss. We hiked to the top of Ryan Mountain, where a summit sign indicated we’d topped out at 5,457 feet above sea level. The wind was knock-you- down strong, and the views were to forever, in all directions. There was fresh snow on the peaks to the west. It was a wonder to both of us on Ryan’s bald top that an island of soul-lifting wild land could still be found in the clutter of California. I thought of John Muir’s argument for national parks—a curative for a frenzied era, he’d called them, places to escape “the stupefying effects of the vice of over-industry and the deadly apathy of luxury.” At the time, the first years of the 20th century, the nation was a mere 76 million people, coping with an immigrant surge and the rough pivot to the industrial age. What would Muir, who spent much of his life making the case that na- tional parks were vital to a growing democracy, think of the stupefying effects of overindustry in our noisy nation of nearly 325 million people? Casey told me it had started to grow on him— the idea that his generation had a duty to ensure that people could stand atop Ryan Mountain a hundred years from now and take in the same things. Joshua Tree, a landscape at least a hun- dred million years old, forces you to think in long arcs, well beyond the quick-flash processing of our age, he said. “And there’s definitely a thera- peutic effect—just being here.” Whether this park would continue to be a liv- ing thing, with its nearly 750 plant species, was perhaps out of our control. In part, it would de- pend on whether all those kids the Park Service is trying to engage find a little bit of religion in their visits. At dusk, just before we started back down, I caught a glimpse of Casey with his phone out. He quickly stuffed it in his pocket, and smiled back at me. “ What is it?” I asked. “ Three bars,” he said. “But who cares.” j unplugging the selfie generation 55 Timothy Egan is the author of eight books and a col- umnist for the New York Times. He won a National Book Award and shared a Pulitzer Prize. Corey Arnold is both a photographer and a commercial salmon fisherman.