Monday, September 9, 2013


Lightning used to be the number one killer of tourists in Bryce Canyon; but after an intensive campaign of education by the rangers, tourists have gone back to being killed by each other’s vehicles more often than by the storms of the monsoon season. Still, it’s hard to convince a visitor of the urgency of seeking shelter during a thunderstorm. Some are so used to industrial tourism resort vacations with comment cards and comp’d meals that it seems an awful inconvenience to have to work their vacation around the weather. Surely the park would have some countermeasure in place to bar access to every exposed cliff and lightning rod pine tree during a storm, and the rangers have cut a deal with the bears to stay away from the campgrounds in exchange for half price pizza at the lodge; and if the worst should happen the unlucky charred or mauled visitor would at least expect a refund of their entrance fee and a free night’s stay at the lodge.
The expectation of what is perceived as fair is rarely met by the reality of the park. Whether it’s trails blocked by rock falls, roads closed to protect prairie dog towns, or even overwhelming crowds at the best viewpoints when all those kids were supposed to be back in school; it’s the price you pay nature in exchange for those unexpected moments of beauty when the sun first peeks over the distant hills in the morning or the clouds finally clear after sunset to reveal the milky way stretching overhead.
Lightning strikes near the parking lot outside the visitor center, so close that it shakes the building and sounds like a canon firing. The next couple that walks through the doors comes straight up to the info desk and asks the location of the nearest church. A tourist that had been lingering in the bookstore seeking shelter from the rain outside comes to the info desk and asks me if the weather will be better tomorrow for a hike in the canyon. I tell him that he can expect a storm much like this one some time between the hours of 1 and 8pm the next day and every day after. “Then I should hike in the morning”. “There are thunderstorms in the morning sometimes too”. “Well what can I do to be safe hiking if there’s a thunderstorm?”. “Stay in your car” He doesn’t like this answer. “Well what if I’m hiking and a storm comes up while I’m down in the canyon? I know not to stand under a tree, I can just wait in an alcove for the storm to pass right?” “Actually that’s worse than being under the tree, the hoodoo is taller than the tree and the lightning that hits it would rather take a shortcut through your head than trace a path around that alcove.” “Then where am I supposed to stand?” He’s getting frustrated as he starts to realize there’s no good answer to this question. “Get to a low area away from trees and squat with your feet close together”. “And what if it’s raining?”. “You get wet”. He likes this even less and exhales meaningfully as he folds up his map and walks off to look at a rack of postcards showing the canyon lit by the fire of perfect sunrises.
It’s a paradox of the national park; he’s frustrated by the inconvenience but the inconvenience is the very thing he’s come 1000 miles and paid $25 to see. It is the mission of the national park service to preserve that inconvenience for all to enjoy. The inconvenience of mule deer and prairie dogs nonchalantly crossing the road, rock falls and trees blown over on the path and even the afternoon thunderstorm. He should be happy to be so inconvenienced; for one weekend he isn’t expected to trudge through a storm to the grocery store or get up early to shovel his driveway so he can get to work. He’s free to be delayed without penalty. It’s only the residual stresses of his non-vacation life that are making him view his vacation as a mission that this storm is preventing him from accomplishing. I should have told him to go up to the general store on the rim and buy a big pretzel and as many 3.2% beers as it takes to sit back on the patio and enjoy watching the clouds roll off the edge of the plateau. During which time he can think about all the things he could be doing but isn’t and perhaps he might even start to enjoy it. 

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