Excerpt: ‘America the Beautiful?’

Blythe Roberson’s very funny book will make you reconsider everything you thought you knew about road trips.

blythe roberson, america the beautifl

In America the Beautiful? One Woman in a Borrowed Prius on the Road Most Traveled, Blythe Roberson quits her job in New York, borrows her stepfather’s Prius in Wisconsin, and embarks on a summer road trip. She drives west to Washington, down the Pacific coast, and through the Southwest before returning north. Along the way, she visits national parks and seeks to commemorate each visit with a stamp in her Junior Ranger booklet. We catch up with her in chapter 14, “The National Parks Suck Ass,” about halfway through her journey.

There comes a time on every vacation when you completely lose touch with the days of the week. And why not? “Days” may not be a societal construct—I’ll admit that the sun does appear and disappear on a pretty consistent basis—but “weeks” seem pretty random. Every seven times the sun comes up, that’s supposed to mean something to me? Why seven? Is it because of the dwarves? And each of the seven days has a different name and theme? I’m supposed to eat tacos on Tuesday for some reason? Once a week, a cat somewhere looks up from eating its lasagna to complain about the fact that it’s “Monday”? I can’t see any particular reason why we’ve all agreed to devote our lives to enriching billionaires five days out of every seven, as long as we get to spend two days straight going to the farmers’ market. Which is all to say: I’ve never been that good at telling a Wednesday from a Thursday to begin with, so by this point on my trip it was completely hopeless. When I arrived at the visitor center at Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, I was confused why there was a long line at 9:36 in the morning until I remembered I was in the country’s most populous state, it was summer, and—oh—it was Saturday.

Sequoia and Kings Canyon protect, as you might guess, giant sequoia trees, which are the largest trees by volume: in other words, the world’s swolest trees. Roughly one-third of the world’s naturally occurring thicc boi sequoias grow in these two national parks. Although technically they’re two separate parks, Sequoia and Kings Canyon have been jointly administered since 1943, so they’re not fooling anyone. They’re like those hip couples who have been together for thirty years and have kids together but who aren’t legally married. Cool! You’re proving a point, I guess, for sure!

Junior Ranger book in hand, I planned my route for the day. The swolest tree in the world as well as a big rock the ranger said was worth seeing were both to the south, in Sequoia, so I settled back into my beloved Prius to drive to them. The drive didn’t last long. I was barely into the park when I hit a roadblock: rangers were directing all cars to pull into the Wuksachi Lodge parking lot, leave their cars, and get on a shuttle.

I’m a huge fan of public transportation. I’ve seen those infographics that show how many vehicles it takes to move a thousand people, and it’s like 625 cars with five acres of parking on each end, or one subway. Making public transportation more widespread, more convenient, and more easily accessible does seem like one of the things we can do that might actually have an impact on climate change. But I won’t claim that when I saw the rangers telling us to ditch our cars, I started applauding and cheering and getting my fellow tourists to chant “PUB-lic TRANS-port, clap clap, clap clap clap.”

I parked my car dutifully, glanced at the chaotic throng standing in the hot sun waiting for a shuttle, and thought, Oh God, this is probably going to be a nightmare. After a long wait, a short shuttle bus pulled up, and all hell broke loose. I saw families about to murder other families for seats. It was like gang warfare, it was like a state of nature, it was like the scene where Billy Zane does reprehensible things to get on a lifeboat in Titanic.

I made it on, and after a short ride we transferred to another shuttle, packing in bodies in defiance of the laws of physics. Finally we were allowed to pour out of the shuttle, gasping for air, at the trailhead for the General Sherman Tree. Along with about thirty other women, I headed to the bathroom before beginning my hike. Granted, I didn’t particularly have to pee, but I have midwestern mom’s disease: those women who tell their kids to try to pee “just in case” every time they leave the house—that’s me. I pee before I leave the house even if I just peed fifteen minutes earlier. I pee so often that my friends ask me in hushed tones if everything is okay medically, and I tell them I’m fine. It’s just that if I think there’s any chance I’m going to need to pee later and it might be even the slightest hassle, I pee now. But peeing at the General Sherman shuttle stop was its own hassle: the facilities were covered in damp toilet paper and mystery liquids forming puddles so large they deserved to be named on a map. It seemed that Sequoia National Park was dealing with more visitors than it could handle. I went ghost mode in the restroom (left my physical body, tried not to touch anything) and then hiked into the large trees.

Standing in front of the General Sherman Tree, all I could do was stare at it, my gaze traveling slowly upward like the camera filming a hot woman in any movie directed by any man. I let my small body feel its relation to the massive thing I was looking at. It was 275 feet tall, with a trunk diameter of thirty-six feet, about as wide as the street I lived on including the cars parked on both sides. There are trees that are taller than the General Sherman and trees that are wider but none that are larger by volume, which they figured out by putting it in a bathtub and seeing how much water it displaced. It seemed so unlikely that we’d get to live in a world where plants could be this big, but we do, and here I was standing among them. The air around me felt special, sparkly, and I could see why a utopian socialist commune had been founded here in the 1880s and renamed the tree the Karl Marx Tree.

Back on the shuttle I dissociated until the bus spat me out at the park museum, where I found another atrocity-level bathroom and a ranger who could give me my Junior Ranger badge. The ranger checked over my work, which included a supplementary bingo game with things I had spotted in the park: a pinecone, a giant sequoia, a wildflower, a park ranger, a bug, that kind of stuff. “What was your favorite thing you spotted?” the ranger asked me.

“Oh, I love the giant sequoias,” I said.

“Oh,” he said, hurt.

“Was I supposed to say something else?” I racked my brain. The sequoias were the whole point of the park, weren’t they? Maybe there was some sick bug I had missed?

“We like it when people say their favorite thing was the park rangers,” he answered. I assured him I loved him, too, very much.

Blythe Roberson sits down with Alta Live on May 24, at 12:30 p.m. Pacific time.

Moro Rock, where I headed next, is a big old granite dome that looms over the park at 6,725 feet above sea level. The park road takes visitors up most of that height, but the trail to ascend the last bit is all climb, over 350 steps. I passed people who were standing aside panting, because while I was not in professional athlete shape by any stretch of the imagination, I am famously not a “management consultant,” “investment banker,” or “Kylie Jenner,” and therefore cannot afford to live in a building with an elevator. Climbing 350 steps was basically what I needed to do anytime I came home. The only time I stopped was when Yaedra, the blond woman hiking in front of me, kept blocking the entire trail with a pose that she forced her boyfriend to photograph. (I learned her name when her boyfriend suggested she let the dozen people queued up behind her pass, and she responded by yelling at him for taking “just one photo” when clearly she needed options.)

None of it mattered when I reached the top. Everywhere I looked there were mountains. I walked out to one end of the narrow, handrail-enclosed viewing area: to my west was wilderness and the snow-capped peaks of the Great Western Divide. To my east, the mountains sloped down until they opened up into the San Joaquin Valley. I took some photos, and when I turned around there was a line of people waiting to do the same. I had become the Yaedra.

Near Moro Rock was an oddity I wanted to see: the Tunnel Log, a tree you could drive through. Unlike those famous old-timey images of cars driving through standing sequoias via tunnels that maimed and eventually killed the trees they were cut through, this tunnel was cut through a sequoia that fell onto a newly constructed road. The log was too big to move easily, so the Park Service just cut a truck-sized hole out of it. When I got there, a man was taking a photo of his family, standing inside the log. I told him I’d take a photo with him in it, and he asked if he could take one of me in return. “Sure!” I said and kneeled down in the tunnel, my hands together in prayer.

“Are you sure you don’t want to stand normally?” he asked.

I got happily lost on my way back to the park museum, pausing often to consult my trail map against the scant signage I passed. Around the third or fourth time I stopped dead in my tracks to figure out where the heck I was, a lone man walked by me. I said hi. He said hi. And then I noticed he was carrying a sequoia pinecone.

All five weeks of my Junior Ranger training flashed before my eyes. Though there are exceptions—some parks allow limited berry foraging, and usufruct rights were guaranteed to Indigenous nations in treaties—a general rule of thumb is that you are not allowed to remove anything from a national park. This was especially important for sequoia pinecones, because sequoia seeds have such an uphill battle to germinate at all, requiring the cones to drop their seeds, the seeds to not get eaten, the young trees to get the perfect amount of shade…basically this tree needed all the help it could get. One guy stealing one pinecone probably wouldn’t matter, but more than 1.2 million people visit Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks every year, and it’s easy to see how quickly things could get dire. I weighed all the Junior Ranger oaths I had taken, in which I swore to share what I had learned with others, against picking a fight with a jacked man with no one around in shouting distance.

“Have a good one!” I said and let him pass.

The extent of my failure as a protector of nature went beyond failing to stop one guy from stealing one pinecone. Given the obvious downsides to over-visitation, I began to worry that not only was I doing something bad by adding my body to the mass of tourists, but perhaps I was doing something worse by writing about the national parks. Maybe it’s human nature to want to experience breathtaking natural beauty, throw your toilet paper on the floor, stop too often for pictures on the trail, and steal a pinecone. Maybe that’s in our DNA! But did I really need to add to the problem by putting out a book about how much I loved my own journey to these places? This was the flip side of my thinking at Yosemite about how artists could inspire people to protect nature: artists could also inspire more industrial tourism, more visitation by people who didn’t care about fossil fuels or climate change. Was my moral duty as an environmentally minded America instead to write a book about how the national parks suck ass?

Writing about places inspires people to go there. This is not some unintended side effect: it has been a primary aim of travel writing throughout United States history. When the US government wanted to encourage Anglo settlers to journey westward as part of the campaign of Native dispossession, it sent John C. Frémont on “mapping” expeditions and had him write about his adventures. Before Frémont, only about a hundred people had traveled the Oregon Trail. After his Report On an Exploration of the Country Lying Between the Missouri River and the Rocky Mountains was published, thousands did so over the following few years. Jealousy is real, and it works!

It used to baffle me when people I knew who rode the rails—hopped freight trains to travel around the country—wouldn’t talk openly about it. What’s with all the secrecy? I thought. As a writer, I had come to believe that experiences congealed when you talked about them, either with friends or in writing. To tell stories, you have to think about the significance of things that happen to you and their causal relationships, so that by recounting the events of your life to someone else, you reveal those events’ meanings.

But now that secrecy felt less rude, less like in middle school when the skater boys told me I couldn’t “really” be a fan of Nirvana based on my general appearance and personality. I was beginning to see people’s reticence to talk about their experience of nature and travel as an admission that so little in our world can be ethically scaled up. If you talk about riding the rails, pretty soon a bunch of Kerouac wannabes start freight hopping, which leads to more policing, which leads to no one being able to do it. If everyone tries to go to Walden to live a quiet, deliberate life, pretty soon you’ve got the bustling Walden metropolitan area.•

Excerpted from America the Beautiful? Copyright © 2023 by Blythe Roberson. Reprinted here with permission from Harper Perennial, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

Blythe Roberson is a comedy writer and the author of the books How to Date Men When You Hate Men and America the Beautiful?
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