Here, at the top of the perfectly named Going to the Sun Road in Glacier National Park we pull over, stop the car, and get out to gape like the Midwestern tourists we are at the towering Rockies. Can you blame us? Who wouldn’t? It’s not just the altitude that’s breath-taking up here. The naked peaks draped in white sheets of snow dwarf the pine trees that huddle in groups in the lush green valley below. Pencil-streak waterfalls gleam and ribbon the cliffs that wall-in the valley floor.
Everything around us is blue and green and gray and bathed in brilliant sunlight. Two miniature clouds hang suspended in the blue air above the mountain peaks—a high ridgeline with one lone cone protruding in the center, puncturing the blue.
Captivated by the beauty of this place, the thin pine air, the texture and depth of the landscape, I sit on a large sunbaked boulder on the side of the road and simply stare.
It’s true. My parents and I are tourists.
We’re just passing through, consuming scenery like this, which we observe mostly through our car windows as we drive through Glacier National Park, our CO2 emissions adding to the assault on the glacier fields of northern Montana that are receding more and more each year.
So much for the whole “Take only photographs, leave only footprints” mentality. I don’t think a carbon footprint falls under that protection. The land is rugged and wild, but we keep it at a distance. I wish that I could just scoot down the rocky ledge away from the road and descend into the valley for a while. I daydream about what it would be like to saunter through the clusters of pines or drench myself in the shower of a thin waterfall. The mountains force me to stretch my imagination as high as they are tall. I try to picture what it would be like to stand on the summit of that cone piercing the distance.
Mountains baffle me. From the spot where I sit, the sun warming my shoulders, the mountain is only a part of the whole scene. Its size doesn’t register. It seems small in comparison to the landscape as a whole. But then, I look at the trees, compare them to the valley walls and then compare the walls to the mountain. I realize that it’s huge. Gargantuan. Massive. My eyes, which are so accustomed to fields of crops that stretch out until they meet the horizon, are confounded by the enormity of this landscape. And I feel very small here. But I don’t mind. I am content to play a small role in this scene and let the landscape overshadow me.
As Emerson said, “I feel that nothing can befall me in life, — no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes,) which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all.” And I want to believe that. I want to bask in my smallness, mollify myself with my own insignificance, and when I look at the mountains, it’s easy.
But over my shoulder there’s another photograph—one that won’t make a postcard. Cars snake their way up the road, engines whir and tires grind over asphalt. The shoes of other tourists crunch on the gravel pullout as they step up to snap their family pictures—their faces barely making room for the mountains. If I took a picture of them, I could post it under the title: “The industrialized world chugs on,” all of us clogs in one big machine of commerce and consumerism.
I think back to the ticket booth that we were funneled through to purchase a park pass from a ranger sitting in a small box, belittled by his repetitive task, boxed in from the vistas that we and a thousand other travelers are stuffing ourselves with like pizza at an all-you-can-eat buffet.
I knew that, unlike Emerson, I could not trick myself into believing that I was nothing. I was part of the problem, and it broke my heart, because I want to be part of the solution.
The first step toward the solution is embracing both pictures. As humans, we crave beauty and landscapes like this one are truly awe-inspiring. I could write many blog posts on the importance of nature. However, we also need to recognize the consequences of human life on the natural world. We need to face the fact that our consumption of beauty comes at a high cost to the planet and work to minimize that cost.
I want to be someone who gives the land a voice and protects it, not abuses it.