IKE YOSEMITE Valley, the south rim of the Grand Canyon, or Old Faithful in Yellowstone, the Old Man of the Mountain was a wild object that most people appreciated in the most tame of manners. All one had to do was get off at the exit ramp in Franconia Notch, step out of the car, and look up. Instant gratification. Virtual appreciation. Live free and drive. As inspirational as the Old Man was, it was also another spot to proclaim America the Beautiful while leaving the purple mountain majesties an unexplored mystery.
Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote: ''It seemed as if an enormous giant, or a Titan, had sculptured his own likeness on the precipice.'' We are titans of another sort these days. Hawthorne wrote that if a viewer of the Great Stone Face walked up too close to it, ''he lost the outline of the gigantic visage, and could discern only a heap of ponderous and gigantic rocks, piled in chaotic ruin one upon another.'' Now that Old Man has collapsed into a heap, perhaps we are freed to walk up to the mountain, walk in its forests, and become lost in the very clouds and glorified vapor Hawthorne wrote about.
The Old Man, after witnessing generations of Indians and European descendants work themselves into exhaustion through hunting, foraging, farming, and logging, died precisely at a time when the United States is at the most sedentary and obese. To Hawthorne, the Great Stone Face ''seemed positively to be alive.'' The Old Man passed away as we turned to stone.
Our use of our national parks and forests is as good an example as any. Last year our national parks had 277 million visits, slightly more than our national population. But fewer than 1 percent of the visitors, 1.9 million, took out a permit to visit the backcountry. Only 5 percent stayed overnight in the parks in any form - hotels, RVs, or tents. The number of people who stay overnight in the parks has been in decline over the last decade, from 18.8 million in 1992 to 15.1 million last year.
Of the people who come to the parks, anecdotal evidence suggests that 80 percent do not leave the road at all, according to David Barna, chief of public affairs for the National Park Service. Barna said that in the 1960s, perhaps half of all visitors left their cars behind at least for a short walk in the woods. ''Most people want to see the sights to check those things off that you've seen in pictures sometime during your life,'' Barna said on the telephone. ''For all that people talk about how crowded the major parks are in the summer, you can go a quarter-mile outside of Yosemite Valley and be in the wilderness and alone.''
The White Mountain National Forest and the New Hampshire state parks within the forest have a tad more physical activity. Of the 6 million to 7 million annual visits the forest gets, officials estimate that about 25 percent do some form of walking or hiking. Roughly 10 percent of visitors are backcountry hikers.
That still means that four out of five visitors to national parks and three out of four visitors to the White Mountains do not bother to get behind the visage. Two years ago an uncle of mine in his mid-60s went with me on an overnight trip to Zion National Park. As someone who often takes 5-mile walks around his Las Vegas neighborhood, he was game for one of the more challenging day hikes, a trail that ends hundreds of feet above the valley floor.
Together we saw wild rock formations, glowing yellow and orange hollows in the cliffs, and then a dramatic view that was not for those with acrophobia. Two years later he told me that the view, complete with rock climbers scaling a sheer face across the valley, remains one of the most memorable moments of his life.
That is not a memory that can be gained from a car. Nor the sight of a lady slipper in the Whites, a golden eagle soaring within feet of one's head over a Sierra pass, the loon that is unafraid of a sole boat on a wilderness pond, or just silence, sweet silence. Barna said that a discouraging amount of national park planning goes into parking lots and trams and buses that shuttle tourists quickly from one spot to another. Barna said there is a story rangers seem to repeat more and more about a family that tells a ranger it has only an hour to see the park and wants to know what to see within that time.
The ranger responds, ''If you've only got an hour, you should go sit on that rock and cry.'' Now that the most momentous rock of New England has fallen, it might increase our appreciation if we were to go into the woods and walk until we stand at the altitude from which it fell. The view is sure to be even more glorious than anything to be gained from the road. The feeling in our legs and lungs just might begin to feel as if they indeed belonged to Titan.
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