America the Beautiful

Two bald eagles fall clumsily out of a tree and flap across the narrow river to a stand of cedar on the other side, disturbed by a much smaller bird.

“Whoa, did you see that!” says Adam, a Courthouse News bureau chief who lives in New York City.

A group of deer, two does and two fawns, have daintily crossed our path to the water hole and a duck and her ducklings are now bobbing across the surface in front of us.

I decide to jump into the cool, clear, green water and take a short swim. About 100 yards away on the other side of String Lake, which is simply a connector between two larger lakes, is a set of evergreens shortly giving way to bare slopes rising sharply up to the majestic Grand Tetons.

In the moment, it feels like the most beautiful spot I have ever been in.

Far from the short blocks, buildings and cars of the city, and the sturm und drang of national politics, I am reminded what soaring natural beauty exists in America, what majestic, stunning landscapes we can see.

With some help from the national park system. At the tail end of a trip to set up news coverage in Wyoming, we are driving to Jackson Hole for a flight out in the morning. Yellowstone was indeed magnificent, and the return of bison herds a surprising sight, but it is crowded with tourists.

China’s newfound wealth is evident in the buses that stop and disgorge visitors to tour the hot springs and view the waterfalls. But traveling south on U.S. Route 89, the tour buses, three-wheeled, brightly painted motorcycles and enormous SUVs miraculously disappear.

The Tetons thankfully do not have Yellowstone’s international cachet.

Freed of constant traffic, the surroundings become awe-inspiring. On the road is an occasional pickup with a camper on it. At stops to take pictures, I see coming out of conventional sedans an Asian couple with a young son and a French-speaking couple with their daughter.

It is at the tail-end of the day that I take my swim. As we leave, two women are taking a metal canoe back to their van, carrying it upside down on their shoulders.

I can’t see their faces inside the canoe, only their voices. One says something about the Asian tourists taking pictures of the deer. The other in a leap of logic says, well, what if we went to China and we had never seen squirrels, and we said, “Look, there’s a squirrel!” that would be just as weird to the Chinese.

While we both laughed at the conversation, Adam said it was kinda true. The two women then laboriously heave the canoe onto a well-traveled camping van while their companion, a fit young man, stands by and watches.

In a grand tour of Wyoming, Chris, our bureau chief based in the San Francisco Bay Area, Adam and I had gone from Cheyenne to Casper to Cody, moving from the Great Plains in the East to the mountains in the West. And it was clear as we went through a region with such great natural beauty that its environmental antagonist, the coal industry, was surging back to strength.

The reporter we hired in Casper said her husband was a welder and his shop was suddenly extremely busy, working round the clock, 7 days a week to make railroad cars to carry coal. On the highway getting there, we drove for miles past full coal cars standing still, waiting for an engine.

In a city where gas flares from a refinery are the most prominent feature of the nightscape and the town grows by adding new mini-malls further out along the highway, the general tendency of local papers to stay in tune with their local economy is evident.

The Casper Star Tribune’s main opinion piece describes the EPA as “an agency gone wild, filled with environmental extremists and deep state holdovers.” The editorial page’s balancing piece is by a woman who says that she is sympathetic with labor protections such as sick leave and overtime pay, but she thinks they should be questioned because “a lefty pro-labor platform might actually encourage firms to hire less labor.”

An article on page 2 notes that one of the largest coal operators in the nation, based in neighboring Montana, is now doing so well that it reversed a decision to sell the plant and has declined to cash in on a long-term loan offered by the Legislature.

Cody, on the other hand, relies on a different industry and the local editorial policy swings to a broader world view. Based next to the north Yellowstone entrance, where tourism fills the hotels and restaurants, the Cody Enterprise – “Founded by Buffalo Bill in 1899” – notes that Wyoming was the first state to give women the vote and should be the first to return civility to political discourse.

In response to complaints about overcrowding in Yellowstone, the newspaper’s editorial promotes hiking.

The wondrous road trip in just a part of the great West was a reminder that the song’s phrase “America the beautiful” is founded on a deep truth about the natural majesty of our nation. As it was of the grinding and fundamental conflict between those who would protect it and those who would exploit it continues unabated. And as well that those who would protect the amazing natural beauty of our land are losing right now.

 

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