The rains surprised us that day, now decades ago, although they shouldn’t have. It was late July, the monsoon season in the Chihuahuan Desert, and we had journeyed, like we had many times, to Hueco Tanks State Park. That day, the hot summer turned cold, and we were unprepared as the rock turned slick under our feet. We found shelter under a slight overhang. Shivering, my dad, my brother, and I pushed ourselves against the rock. It shared its warmth with us.
My father, who grew up in El Paso, loved spending time in Hueco Tanks when he was young. He would climb the rocks and explore the park, which at that time was far from the city limits. He took us there when we were little, whenever he could convince us to leave behind air-conditioning and the Super Nintendo. I always had fun outside, feeling free to run and discover just like my father had before me. I don’t remember ever encountering anybody else on the trails or in the park when we went. And even though we both loved being outside, we wouldn’t have considered ourselves “outdoorsy.”
After I had children, our family explored hundreds of miles of trails across the Southwest, and my son took an interest in bouldering. But last year, I realized I had never taken them to Hueco Tanks. I was surprised to find that entrance was limited and that seeing many parts of the park required reserving a permit or booking a guided tour.
Over the last two years, when COVID interrupted the normalcy of most people’s indoor lives, Americans flocked to national parks and state parks in record numbers, leading to long lines, overcrowding, and tensions between newcomers and longtime visitors. Seemingly, the outdoors were overdeveloped and underprepared. Paved paths, roads, and short hikes drew many to places they never would have gone before. The indoor crowd ventured outside. In the outdoors community, that was the problem.
One of the most well-known examples of this has been at Arches National Park. When we visited last summer, even with a timed entry system, the wait to enter exceeded an hour. The park made famous by the Instagrammable Delicate Arch and Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire brought people in droves. After the lines at the entrance, there were equally long lines to take pictures in front of the iconic arches. It seemed that the complaints of Abbey, who famously coined the phrase “industrial tourism” to describe the growing popularity of Arches and other national parks, rang even truer today: there were too many roads, too many people, too much everything, and the park was ruined. Abbey, an Easterner, made his way westward and would eventually write about much of the Southwest, including Texas. He didn’t care much for its cities or people, but he was drawn to the few empty spaces in the state. He had a knack for liking places and being disgusted by their human inhabitants. If you believed Abbey, as many in the outdoors community do, the natural areas of the Southwest had already been ruined for decades, since at least the 1950s. These past two years only quickened the pace of the change.
Overcrowding plagues Texas state parks and natural areas like Enchanted Rock, McKinney Falls, and Balmorhea. National parks like Big Bend, Rocky Mountain, Zion, and Yosemite have had problems too. More than just complain, many who have long visited these places with little trouble have sought a scapegoat.
The outdoors crowd that clings to Edward Abbey like a group of acolytes murmurs his chorus—too many people in their backyards and playgrounds. Too many crowd their beloved parks but haven’t earned the right to be there. They don’t deserve to be stilled by the awe of the natural world if they can’t “get out of the g—damned [car] and walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thornbush and cactus.”
Abbey and many of those who find resonance in his words see the paved paths of the Grand Canyon or Arches as an affront and the new visitors as invaders. Caprock Canyons and Big Bend are theirs. A price must be paid for the pilgrimage, they complain. An authentic outdoor experience must be inaccessible. It must be unthinkable and unreachable to the masses. Those who belong to this school of environmentalism tend to be white and affluent, and they claim the outdoors as an inheritance that belongs to them alone.
Abbey fancied himself an ascetic, seeking solace and escape. He wrote cranky screeds, complaining of the fools who spent their time consuming the overabundance of the American economy. He chugged beer and complained of the unwashed, the unknowing, the fools who failed to appreciate what he knew but didn’t want to share. There was no life to be made in a modern world with “ranks of fellow robots all wearing dark neckties and white shirts.” You could only break free from it, head out into the canyons, deserts, and mountains of the Southwest. There, Abbey could name the birds and the trees. He could make sense of the geology and the stories of the rocks. He could identify the problem with the world: “too many people in a shrinking world, not enough man-eating predators.” Today, many still take him as a prophet.
My grandfather couldn’t name the birds, nor could my grandmother, but he whistled their tunes in the desert morning air before work, and she taught all her grandchildren that the birds will lift their beaks and sing praises unto creation. Pajaritos cantan al Señor. Elevan sus piquitos en oración.
Going outside offered them a different kind of refuge, one deeper than the escapism that Abbey and his kin performed. There, if we listened, alabanzas filled the air.
Abbey spent two seasons in the desert. Afterward, he spent his lifetime bemoaning the people who went to see the places he believed were all his.
My grandparents raised a family in the desert. They poured their prayers into it with the faith that something good would grow. They spent not a season, but their entire lives.
Eventually, Abbey grew to believe the earth was overpopulated and, more so, overrun by the wrong kind of people. People like my abuelos. He believed that immigrants and people of color were to blame for the earth’s decline. They were devouring the earth’s bounty, eating its produce to the roots like the ungulates of the New World, draining its rivers and lakes with their unquenched and unearned thirst. They even dared to enter his backyard, walk his tracks, visit his beloved national parks. They overcrowded and ruined the parks, the land, the world he wrote about. They were destroying the natural world with their presence. “Am I a racist?” he asked. “I guess I am. I certainly do not wish to live in a society dominated by blacks, or Mexicans, or Orientals.”
In the neo-Malthusian carrying-capacity rhetoric of 1970s and eighties environmentalism, he explained that Mexican and other immigrants were responsible for American environmental and national decline. In 1988 he wrote, “It might be wise for us as American citizens to consider calling a halt to the mass influx of even more millions of hungry, ignorant, unskilled, and culturally-morally-genetically impoverished people. . . . Because we still hope for an open, spacious, uncrowded, and beautiful—yes, beautiful!—society, for another. The alternative, in the squalor, cruelty, and corruption of Latin America, is plain for all to see.”
Abbey’s ideas about who belonged in the outdoors are echoed by those who espouse the Great Replacement. I wonder if Abbey would be okay with trading away the National Butterfly Center or the saguaros in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument for the border wall. I don’t think he’d see a problem with the fact that there is no refuge for Mexicans and Mexican Americans in Hueco Tanks or Walmart.
It brings me joy when I see viejitas and viejitos walking slowly in the outdoors. I have heard the held breath when a señora sees Bell Rock or glimpses the Grand Canyon for the first time. It brings me joy because I know that, for many, after lives of daily work, of providing food and food service, of providing homes and home cleanings, after spending lives in service to so many, they near the end and are able to relax and see the world anew and in awe. The short walks they can take into the outdoors are treks into a world of mystery that they couldn’t afford to explore before. Arthritic knees and bent backs find comfort in errands into sacred lands.
Yes, there is an issue of overcrowding. More people want to go outside, and that is a good thing. But land is a natural resource made artificially scarce. State and national parks in Texas and all over the nation are underfunded. For decades, the Texas Legislature raided funds meant for state parks to plug budget gaps elsewhere. In the largest state of the lower 48, only 5 percent of Texas lands are public; the state ranks thirty-fifth in the nation for state park acreage per capita. In order to keep up with population growth, Texas needs to add nearly one million acres of parkland by 2030, which adds up to one new park each year. In two decades, only three have been added.
With so few opportunities to go outside, the outdoors should have fewer gatekeepers and wall builders. Communities of color are three times as likely as white communities to live in “nature deprived” areas. The “nature gap” contributes to the fact that nearly three out of four outdoor participants are white. In Texas in 2010, Hispanics made up only about 11 percent of park visitors, even though they were nearly 40 percent of the population. Longtime visitors tend to be older, whiter, and without kids.
To those who complain that they can no longer find a campsite after generations of visits, those who moan that their favorite paths in national parks are overcrowded, those who grumble about long lines at state parks: maybe your turn is up. If your family has enjoyed a place so much that it has become part of your lore, you must remember that you don’t own it. If there is any scant justification for why we recreate on stolen land, it is because it is shared (even if it is not). For those who complain about new families coming after you have enjoyed hiking trails or camping spots for generations, you have taken more than your fair share. If you haven’t learned to share these shared lands, you’ve failed to learn the lessons that the park, the land, and its bounty were trying to teach you. That makes you worse than the neophytes.
Yes, the new visitors have a learning curve. Many in the U.S. believe that nature is durable and everlasting. They believe it can’t be damaged. They don’t understand that a banana or orange peel will not just easily disintegrate in the desert. They ignore the evidence of the Anthropocene. But state and national parks are often Americans’ first introduction to Leave No Trace principles. Plaques, like those in the Muir Woods that show how the giants lasted millennia and were slain in a century, awaken people to their impact and how they change the world. In shared land, we should learn our shared responsibilities to it and to each other.
At the entrance of Arches National Park sit the Three Gossips. Next to the road, the sandstone cliffs stand over three hundred feet tall, heads held high, hands resting at their waists, chatting with one another. I imagine my grandmother would have enjoyed their prominent perch. Las Chismosas, she would have called them, if she ever had the chance to see them.
I won’t pay mind to the gossips who complain about people like my family. But I will nod my head to Las Chismosas as we leave Arches, bidding them que dios las bendiga, just like my abuelos would old friends.
It was on patios and banquitos with my grandparents and family when I was young that I first noticed how the Franklin Mountains met the stars. It was at rest stops and picnic areas on the side of the highway that I glimpsed the Davis Mountains. But they seemed so far away. In Hueco Tanks, I could finally put my feet upon the rocks and feel the possibility of the unknown beneath them. The small outside spaces that were available to my family eventually opened up to wider ones that set me onto paths they never had the chance to trod. I share those trails now with my children.
While they have not visited the place my father took me, they have hiked in the Sierra Nevadas, the San Juans, and the Sangre de Cristos. The park and its sacred rocks shared its warmth with me so many years ago; it will continue to welcome newcomers for years to come. Patiently, we will wait for our turn.