Somewhere in southeastern Utah I am looking down about two thousand feet into a canyon that appears candy-colored—pink swirls splashed against a white sandstone background. There is just the slightest evidence of a crooked creek outlined by green tamarisks. In the distance stand snow-capped mountains. Stunned by the beauty of this place, my wife and I discuss our descent while getting our two-year-old snug in his pack. We will spend eight days walking down the canyon, hoping the creek bed will provide water to drink. With just enough food on our backs, plus some rope and other essentials, we have stripped ourselves down to the basics, as we always do on such trips. Soon after descending, we will see ancient Indian ruins (entire communities that left behind only their houses for us to peer at), bizarre rock drawings on canyon walls that make little sense to us, cabins built by early Mormon settlers (abandoned out of hard luck), natural arches and bridges carved into canyon walls, and lots of red rocks. Most importantly, we will experience the sort of surreal solitude that few people get nowadays. This is the only place I can hear the wind blowing and nothing else. This is why we are here.
As usual, I brought a book of Henry David Thoreau’s writings with me. At night, we pitch camp, and I crack the book open, struck by Thoreau’s ponderings about the natural world. I wipe the sand from the pages and listen to Henry discuss the “art of walking,” explaining why he took off on long sojourns through the woods on a regular basis, something his friends never understood. The wild country reenergized Thoreau. He loved the “roughness of character” of those who had direct contact with nature. While anticipating Whitman’s celebration of the open road—the tough and macho culture of the frontier—Thoreau was something of a Victorian. His appreciation of the outdoors combined the animalistic with the intellectual and spiritual: “You must walk like a camel, which is said to be the only beast which ruminates when walking.” It was the “great awakening light” that he experienced out in the wild—the spiritual world of nature celebrated by his pal Ralph Waldo Emerson—that drew Henry back to the woods. Rumination, reflection, solitude, and thought—such were the ideals inspired by the natural world.
I appreciate the great transcendentalist more than usual as I trudge through this Southwestern backcountry and ruminate to myself that I need my Thoreau since I’m finding it harder to make these trips nowadays. It’s not the pain in my knees. It’s not the dehydration we face on the third day, desperately searching for water in a bone-dry stretch of the canyon. It’s not seeing a cougar’s tracks and wondering if he’s out there somewhere, greedily licking his lips in preparation for feast. It’s none of this. It’s what’s happening to the land out here in our new Wild West; its what we’re doing to those few stretches of wilderness we haven’t turned into condo housing units for the rich—to those places where we can actually experience solitude, escape, the gelling of our sanity away from the crowds.
Call me a Luddite and a crank, but I really cannot fathom how going to see something via foot is more elitist than tanking up a sport utility vehicle and driving there.
The first sign of bad things hits us on our fifth day when we run into evidence of automobiles. Jeep tracks have cut across the stream bed at one point, leaving behind smashed plants and spilt oil. The tracks come from local county commissioners who have gotten it into their heads that this federal land is theirs. After all, it’s in their backyard, as they never cease to point out. There was once a “road” that went down this canyon—a road open only to owners of high-clearance vehicles capable of making it through four-foot-deep water and over boulders and two-foot ledges. At the end of the “road” (really just the floor of two canyons) stands a majestic arch that tourists love. The National Park system thought about shutting this road down after too many people got stuck in the stream bed. They held public meetings to solicit input. The park system presented its case: 4×4’s were ripping up the desert ecosystem, which, unlike wetter environments, is more delicate, more susceptible to damage. Why not give the stream a break from tires and oil, park administrators and some locals argued. After all, there were other roads in the general vicinity. But the commissioners could not fathom this: why should their land be locked up by the elitist federal government? They pressed their case in courts; they cried for “access” for everyone: tourists mount the barricades! Only jeeps could move people into the backcountry, they argued. They sued, won, and now drive to the arch when they desire.
The logic of the commissioners strikes me as odd when traveling the land by foot. Call me a Luddite and a crank, as most would, but I really cannot fathom how going to see something via foot is more elitist than tanking up a sport utility vehicle and driving there. I’ve done the requisite cost analysis: my backpack, boots, and food cost around $200. The cost of an SUV capable of making it here costs around $30,000. I’m stumbling on the logic.
Of course, in the end, roads in this area are often cut for the pure sake of fighting wilderness designation. Declare wilderness in southeastern Utah, and anyone will tell you that there will be a bulldozer and road cutters out there in seconds. There doesn’t even need to be a promise of oil or minerals; it’s the damn principle of the thing. The concept of public lands and the idea that preservation should be weighed in any decision concerning them—these thoughts are anathema to local elites stoked by the voices of the “Wise Use movement.” While before, the locals might have appeared as renegade yahoos, now they have a cause and higher purpose. It’s harder and harder nowadays to know which arguments against environmentalists represent homegrown resentment against the feds (and easterners more generally) and which are nurtured by the new Astroturf movements of the national lobbying organizations.
The Wise Use movement has been hard at work since the 1980s. Its leaders come from institutions that barely cloak their libertarian predilections—the Center for Defense of Free Enterprise (CDFE)—or prideful regionalism—People for the West. Back in 1984, Ron Arnold, one of the most vocal Wise Users, rode the original Reagan backlash, seeing environmentalism as a thinly veiled form of communism. He explained to a pro-pesticide group: “Environmentalism is an already existing vehicle by which the Soviet Union can encourage the Free World to voluntarily cripple its own economy.” Socialism collapsed, as we all know, but that did not prevent Arnold from arguing in the mid-1990s that “the National Park Service is an empire designed to eliminate all private property in the United States.” People for the West uses these arguments to wage war against the enemies of mining companies. Most of their budget comes from mining companies, as it happens, but they like to think they’re just a citizens’ group fighting the good fight. It’s no longer the people versus the special interests; it’s the people defending the special interests against elitists in the federal government. It matters not that many Americans consider themselves sympathetic to environmentalism; this is all about whipping up the backlash.
As the journalist David Helvarg discovered and wrote about in The War Against the Greens, the Wise Users offer all sorts of assistance to those waging battles against environmentalism, mostly by proffering public relations campaigns. In the process, the Wise Users have discovered a cash cow. As Alan Gottlieb, the head of CDFE (which works both on anti-environmental backlash and against gun regulation), explained to Helvarg: “I’ve never seen anything payout as quickly as this Wise Use thing has done. What’s really good about it is it touches the same kind of anger as the gun stuff, and not only generates a higher rate of return but also a higher average dollar donation. My gun stuff runs about $18. The Wise Use stuff breaks $40.” That might just be because, well, there’s big money behind the desire to open up public lands to oil drilling and mining. As Gottlieb makes clear, Wise Use taps the pocketbooks not of small-gun owners but of the corporate elite hungry for public land.
The Wise Users and their industrial allies are not the only ones who want to get their hands on the West. The culture industry wants in too. Of course, since the 1930s, Hollywood has loved the backdrop of red rocks, and today it seems every car commercial must be filmed in the new Wild West. But none of this compares to the origins of Eco-Challenge, an event that had its kick-off just a few miles from where my wife and I are hiking. Eco-Challenge added hipness to the backlash—something it desperately needs to draw in the Gen X crowd who know little about the dreams of mining companies but do want their adrenaline pumped.
The wild country is now a space for competing. It is not a place for pondering existence but for disciplining ourselves against the terrible laxness that might sneak up and destroy our economic potency.
The event is the brainchild of Mark Burnett, a British-born veteran of the Falklands War. After Burnett expatriated to Los Angeles back in the 1980s, he sought a way to turn his military talents to entrepreneurial advantage. He hit upon the idea of a race in which competing teams would dash across 370 miles of Utah’s canyons—hiking, biking, horseback riding, rafting, and climbing. When he pitched the idea to MTV in 1995, the execs loved it. The future president of MTV gushed in a story about Eco-Challenge for Los Angeles Magazine: “This is MTV. It’s pro-social. It’s hip. It’s fun. It’s like we invented it.” They were off to the races. So what if environmentalists opposed the plan? So what if there would be damage to the area as participants chased horses and were chased themselves by camera trucks? MTV wanted it, and better yet, Eco-Challenge fit the spirit of the New Economy. This was the time when “team players” displaced the lone man in the gray flannel suit. And what could be more about team playing than having to go at it hard against the rugged wilderness in small groups? As Burnett himself hyped it up to one reporter: “An adventure race is continuous problem solving—just like in business.” MTV nodded its head, followed by the Discovery Channel and now its new host, the USA Network.
It’s not hard to imagine what Thoreau would have thought of Eco-Challenge. This was outdoors exploration, certainly, but by orchestration and planning, the sort that outlawed rumination. There’s no time for such hoity-toity stuff. The wild country is now a space for competing. It is not a place for pondering existence but for disciplining ourselves against the terrible laxness that might sneak up and destroy our economic potency. The wild country is no friend or ally or inspiration but our enemy. Beat it, Eco-Challenge tells us, and you can not only win the prize and learn new skills of team playing but also get on television. Scale the sucker, Burnett suggests to his enthusiasts, but don’t stop and think about the beauty of that stupid sand heap.
Eco-Challenge helped spawn today’s “extreme sports” craze—the cultural pay-off for our New Economy’s elite. Today’s business leaders are donning not sack suits from Brooks Brothers but the fleece of Patagonia. Our robber barons no longer explore European towns, desperately buying the culture they could not find in America, but instead are whitewater rafting in Third World countries or mountain-biking in Moab, Utah. Big money now buys big adventure.
The underbelly of this craze became national news when four people died ascending Mount Everest in May 1996. The more details about that adventure came out, the worse it sounded. There were the stories of climbers tossing aside empty bottles of oxygen while walking over people who died on previous expeditions. There were the exorbitant sums people paid to make the trip (close to $100,000). Then there was the truly outrageous story told by Jon Krakauer about Sandy Pittman, the New York socialite who had already tried to ascend back in 1993 and came back in 1996. During her 1993 trip, Pittman brought not only a “duffel bag full of gourmet food” but also a “portable television and video player.” Pittman did not truck these things up the mountain herself; she let a Sherpa do it for her. When she ascended during the fateful 1996 trip, she had the Sherpa carry not only her junk but also her, latched on by harness. She had, after all, paid good money for this, and her friends really wanted her to make it to the top.
Market the hell out of this stuff, she suggests, just be cool about it.
If you read middlebrow cultural critics—a key source for the recent blather concerning extreme sports—you’d think this “Adventure Craze” was all about the “American character,” the inherent yahooness of people who moved to the frontier at the drop of a hat. In an article written for American Heritage, Anthony Brandt discussed his own ascent of Mount Rainier and then let his thoughts run wide about extreme sports. Of course, he admitted that much of the recent craze is due to “prosperity.” But sooner or later, the middlebrow refrain trumps any economic explanation. “Adventure,” Brandt explained, is “deeply embedded in the culture” of America. Or as Thomas Ricks put it in a story about Moab for the Atlantic Monthly, adventure is a part of the “wild new west” that goes back to all that frontier cowboy sort of stuff. The “American character”—the mythical invention of fifties historians—has now been updated for the Gen X crowd.
The middlebrows miss something. After all, MTV initiated a marketing strategy for Generation X when it picked up Eco-Challenge. In 1997, Brandweek, that installment bible for today’s image whores, pronounced the dawn of “The Extreme Generation.” The author, Myra Stark, a “director of knowledge management” at Saatchi and Saatchi Advertising, explained to her readers that extreme sports is also known as “alternative sports” and that one of its “folk heroes,” Missy Giove, “sports a Mohawk topknot with shaved hair on the sides, sometimes silver, sometimes purple, along with tattoos and body piercing.” Stark then warned advertisers of extreme sports, a bit absurdly, not to succumb to “advertising cliché.” Market the hell out of this stuff, she suggests, just be cool about it. Of course, the outdoors clothing corporations don’t have much to worry about; no one seems to have caught onto the excessive hype. After all, everyone’s buying the stuff. Columbia Sportswear’s earnings, for instance, were up 70 percent in 2000, its stock soaring. So how about that rugged American character? Sure seems resistant and self-driven, doesn’t it?
In the end, most of us know the area my wife and I are hiking through from America’s most famous pop culture icon—the car commercial, especially the more recent sort where a sport utility vehicle zips through red rock country, alternative music blaring as it bumps up and down, dirt flying everywhere. Thoreau once suggested walking west in solitude; today we are practically reprimanded if we don’t come here in our 4X4’s, ready to rip up some new roads, to celebrate the well-being provided by the New Economy but also to make clear that we have not become flabby in the process. This is why I’m finding it harder to come out here—it’s more difficult to cut through the bullshit, to ignore the utterly insipid messages that cloud the beauty and solitude of this place we’re hiking.
The old Wild West might have been a place for yahoos to burn down their farms as they moved along—devastating the land and slaughtering the Indians in the process. Today, the violence comes when one of the Wise Users loses it and sticks a pipe bomb in an environmentalists car (it has happened.) The damage is done when a team of mountain biking executives, reenergizing their management skills, comes barreling through, looking for new terrain to tear up. The land weighs heavy under this stress. The postmodern Wild West might have changed the imagery, but it has not changed the appetite for destruction.