served the trees so far, he wrote, butn”only Uncle Sam” could save themnnow.nAs you might suppose, Muir admirednThoreau and Emerson, and maybensomeone can explain to me sometimenwhy New England individualism —neven when transplanted to California byna Scot—always seems to lead to expandednfederal power. Anyway, as anpromotional movie about Yosemite nownsays, with no trace of embarrassment ornirony, “the [federal] parks were our firstnmassively endowed works of art.”nOf course, if it comes to a choicenbetween Yosemite and Piss Christ,nthere’s no question which side I’m on.nStill, it was with a jaundiced eye and anreadiness to be unimpressed that Indrove from the Bay Area up throughnthe California gold country last spring.nYosemite expects three million visitorsnthis year, and my wife and I were off tonbe two of them.nIt was dark when we got there, so wendidn’t see much on the way in. Most ofnour fellow tourists at the lodge werengiving off hearty emanations of thenbackpacking sort, so much so that I wasnsecretly pleased when the young couplenahead of me at the store bought ancarton of Camels, a six-pack of KingnCobra malt liquor, and a pint of peppermintnschnapps. Party time.nGiven my political and cultural misgivingsn(to get to the point), you cannimagine my surprise the next morningnwhen I was completely captivated bynthe place.nThere’s more to it than naturalnbeauty — although of course the placenis beautiful, especially with snow stillnon the peaks and the waterfalls at fullnfreshet. But I’ve seen beautiful: Greeknislands, Cornish clifiFs, Italian lakes,nJavanese volcanos, fern jungles in Jamaica,nrice paddies in Orissa. . . . I’venbeen lucky, and I can place-drop withnthe best of them. Yosemite, though —nwell, it moved me, in a way these otherngorgeous places never did.nI came away puzzled about that, butnready to ignore my anti-statist principlesnif that’s what it takes to keepncollege boys from painting their fraternities’nletters on El Capitan, or somenTrumpoid developer from building angated resort that we common folk can’tnvisit.nA couple of months later, thesenheretical thoughts were reinforced atnthe Grand Canyon, which we visitednon our way back to North Carolina.nWe’d driven from Palo Alto down tonBakersfield, where the music on thenradio, the accents in the filling stations,nand the general seediness of the roadscapenmade me feel right at home. Inregretted that we didn’t have time tonstop for an Okie Girl beer and a prayernmeeting at a roadside tabernacle, butnwe pressed on past borax works andnJoshua trees into Arizona.nNow, when it comes to desert scenery,nI’m afraid I’m pretty much tonedeafnMost of what we were drivingnthrough looked to me like West Virginianafter the strip miners got throughnwith it, and as we approached thenCanyon I was ready with observationsnlike “This would take care of ournlandfill needs for a century.”nOnce again, though, I was confoundednby a remarkable place. In thenevent I sounded like Richard Nixon atnthe Great Wall: “This really is a . . .ngrand . . . canyon.” I didn’t find itnbeautiful, exactly — in fact, it was sortnof appalling. But it was moving innmuch the same way Yosemite hadnbeen.nLater, driving across Kansas, I had anlot of time to think about this. Whatnwas it about these places that knockednthe smart-aleck right out of me?nIt wasn’t the “wilderness” angle.nFrom time to time as a teenage spelunkernI stood where I was certain nonone had ever stood before, and, sure, itnwas a kick. But this was a different,nmore subtle thrill.nI remembered the year we lived innJerusalem, and the time we took anvisiting friend, an American Protestant,nto the Holy Sepulchre. She was almostnliterally sickened by the incense andncandles and images, by the ItaliannFranciscans gliding about, the creepylookingnGreeks and sinister Armenians,nnot to mention the shabby Coptsnand Syrian Jacobites, and the raggednEthiopians in their mud huts on thenroofnNone of this had much to do withnher image of the hill far away where thenold rugged cross stood, and she wasnrelieved to discover “Gordon’s Calvary”nand the so-called Garden Tomb,nlocated in a quiet, sunny park outsidenthe Old City’s walls. These spots havennothing to do with Good Friday andnEaster (“Chinese” Gordon’s crack-nnnbrain theories notwithstanding), butnshe found them “much more like itnwas, don’t you think?”nWell, yeah. But I prefer the traditionalnsites. Even if they aren’t wherenChrist died and was buried, they arenholy places. Centuries of piety havenmade them that.nJust so, I realized that, for me, thenappeal of Yosemite and the Canyon laynlargely in the fact that so many hadnstood there before. What I liked mostnabout those ancient rocks and riversnwas their quite recent past, the fossilnevidence of excursion trains, tent villages,nand pseudo-Indian lodges, remindersnof tourism in the Age ofnSteam. What moved me was thenthought that Teddy Roosevelt and thenubiquitous Frederick Law Olmsted andnold John Muir and millions of othersnhad marveled at the same sights I wasnseeing.nIn a sense, even I had been therenbefore. Those sights were almost cliches,nfamiliar from postcards and homenmovies and my boyhood stamp collection.nWhen I saw Yosemite’s MirrornLake — which is now Mirror Marsh,ninexorably on the way to becomingnMirror Meadow — I thought, damn it,nthat’s not right. That’s not what thenstereopticon slide looks like. That’s notnwhat Teddy Roosevelt saw. Let’s get innthe Corps of Engineers and dredge thatnsucker.nSo virgin wilderness may have itsncharms, but give me a woridly oldncourtesan of a place, where I can thinknabout those who’ve been there beforenme. Given my choice of mighty redwoods,nI’ll take the one people used tondrive Model T’s through.nYou know, it’s funny, but going tonthe Grand Canyon and Yosemite madenme feel like an American, just asnvisiting the Holy Sepulchre made menfeel like a Christian — part of a tradition.nCaressed by a hundred millionneyes, mere natural wonders have becomennational icons, part of our culturalnpatrimony. My libertarian friendsnwill disagree, but it seems to me thatnmaintaining these secular holy places isna pretty good thing for the federalngovernment to do.nJohn Shelton Reed writesnfrom Chapel Hill, North Carolina,nand has never hugged a treenhe wasn’t climbing at the time.nNOVEMBER 1991/45n