There is good reason to be suspicious of the U.S. national park system. You can start with its origins.

In 1864, an act of Congress seized the first parkland for the federal government, evicting some homesteaders from the Yosemite Valley and directing the state of California to administer the place. In the context of the Civil War, maybe one more little bit of federal usurpation hardly mattered, but things went downhill from there. Barely twenty-five years later, the feds decided they didn’t like the way California was running things, and grabbed Yosemite for themselves.

That they did this at the urging of John Muir, sappy Scottish pantheist and the original California flake, is another reason to be suspicious. Muir had little faith in omnipotent deity, but a lot in omnipotent government: God had preserved the trees so far, he wrote, but “only Uncle Sam” could save them now.

As you might suppose, Muir admired Thoreau and Emerson, and maybe someone can explain to me sometime why New England individualism—even when transplanted to California by a Scot—always seems to lead to expanded federal power. Anyway, as a promotional movie about Yosemite now says, with no trace of embarrassment or irony, “the [federal] parks were our first massively endowed works of art.”

Of course, if it comes to a choice between Yosemite and Piss Christ, there’s no question which side I’m on. Still, it was with a jaundiced eye and a readiness to be unimpressed that I drove from the Bay Area up through the California gold country last spring. Yosemite expects three million visitors this year, and my wife and I were off to be two of them.

It was dark when we got there, so we didn’t see much on the way in. Most of our fellow tourists at the lodge were giving off hearty emanations of the backpacking sort, so much so that I was secretly pleased when the young couple ahead of me at the store bought a carton of Camels, a six-pack of King Cobra malt liquor, and a pint of peppermint schnapps. Party time.

Given my political and cultural misgivings (to get to the point), you can imagine my surprise the next morning when I was completely captivated by the place.

There’s more to it than natural beauty—although of course the place is beautiful, especially with snow still on the peaks and the waterfalls at full freshet. But I’ve seen beautiful: Greek islands, Cornish cliffs, Italian lakes, Javanese volcanos, fern jungles in Jamaica, rice paddies in Orissa. . . . I’ve been lucky, and I can place-drop with the best of them. Yosemite, though—well, it moved me, in a way these other gorgeous places never did.

I came away puzzled about that, but ready to ignore my anti-statist principles if that’s what it takes to keep college boys from painting their fraternities’ letters on El Capitan, or some Trumpoid developer from building a gated resort that we common folk can’t visit.

A couple of months later, these heretical thoughts were reinforced at the Grand Canyon, which we visited on our way back to North Carolina.

We’d driven from Palo Alto down to Bakersfield, where the music on the radio, the accents in the filling stations, and the general seediness of the roadscape made me feel right at home. I regretted that we didn’t have time to stop for an Okie Girl beer and a prayer meeting at a roadside tabernacle, but we pressed on past borax works and Joshua trees into Arizona.

Now, when it comes to desert scenery, I’m afraid I’m pretty much tone deaf. Most of what we were driving through looked to me like West Virginia after the strip miners got through with it, and as we approached the Canyon I was ready with observations like “This would take care of our landfill needs for a century.”

Once again, though, I was confounded by a remarkable place. In the event I sounded like Richard Nixon at the Great Wall: “This really is a . . . grand . . . canyon.” I didn’t find it beautiful, exactly—in fact, it was sort of appalling. But it was moving in much the same way Yosemite had been.

Later, driving across Kansas, I had a lot of time to think about this. What was it about these places that knocked the smart-aleck right out of me?

It wasn’t the “wilderness” angle. From time to time as a teenage spelunker I stood where I was certain no one had ever stood before, and, sure, it was a kick. But this was a different, more subtle thrill.

I remembered the year we lived in Jerusalem, and the time we took a visiting friend, an American Protestant, to the Holy Sepulchre. She was almost literally sickened by the incense and candles and images, by the Italian Franciscans gliding about, the creepy-looking Greeks and sinister Armenians, not to mention the shabby Copts and Syrian Jacobites, and the ragged Ethiopians in their mud huts on the roof.

None of this had much to do with her image of the hill far away where the old rugged cross stood, and she was relieved to discover “Gordon’s Calvary” and the so-called Garden Tomb, located in a quiet, sunny park outside the Old City’s walls. These spots have nothing to do with Good Friday and Easter (“Chinese” Gordon’s crackbrain theories notwithstanding), but she found them “much more like it was, don’t you think?”

Well, yeah. But I prefer the traditional sites. Even if they aren’t where Christ died and was buried, they are holy places. Centuries of piety have made them that.

Just so, I realized that, for me, the appeal of Yosemite and the Canyon lay largely in the fact that so many had stood there before. What I liked most about those ancient rocks and rivers was their quite recent past, the fossil evidence of excursion trains, tent villages, and pseudo-Indian lodges, reminders of tourism in the Age of Steam. What moved me was the thought that Teddy Roosevelt and the ubiquitous Frederick Law Olmsted and old John Muir and millions of others had marveled at the same sights I was seeing.

In a sense, even I had been there before. Those sights were almost cliches, familiar from postcards and home movies and my boyhood stamp collection. When I saw Yosemite’s Mirror Lake—which is now Mirror Marsh, inexorably on the way to becoming Mirror Meadow—I thought, damn it, that’s not right. That’s not what the stereopticon slide looks like. That’s not what Teddy Roosevelt saw. Let’s get in the Corps of Engineers and dredge that sucker.

So virgin wilderness may have its charms, but give me a worldly old courtesan of a place, where I can think about those who’ve been there before me. Given my choice of mighty redwoods, I’ll take the one people used to drive Model T’s through.

You know, it’s funny, but going to the Grand Canyon and Yosemite made me feel like an American, just as visiting the Holy Sepulchre made me feel like a Christian—part of a tradition. Caressed by a hundred million eyes, mere natural wonders have become national icons, part of our cultural patrimony. My libertarian friends will disagree, but it seems to me that maintaining these secular holy places is a pretty good thing for the federal government to do.