I was shocked and amazed during a recent visit to Yosemite, the “crown jewel” of America’s National Parks, that there were no other Americans there. All of the other guests at the little motel in Lee Vining, CA were from Europe. Would my wife and I be allowed in the park at all? How is it possible that the ban did not make the news—especially during an election season? Perhaps I should not be surprised since other important issues such as the ongoing destruction of America’s middle class are not in the news much either.
Well… I discovered that US citizens are not actually banned from Yosemite, but it sure seemed that way. This post is not intended to be anti-foreigner. I actually enjoyed talking with the folks from overseas a great deal, and the euro women are almost universally slender. There was one Asian fellow near Vernal Falls who urinated beside the path less than 100 yards from a restroom, but other than that there were no cultural issues.
The absence of other Americans did surprise me and I think there are several reasons why Americans were not present in large numbers.
1. Lack of money
2. Lack of time
3. Lack of interest
4. Poor physical fitness
What I saw at Yosemite was another symptom of a failing middle class. There were a few white Americans present, but I only saw two black people the whole time I was there and judging by his accent one of them was from a different country. The absence of black people might be partially explained by a lack of interest since black people will travel to NBA games. Mexicans were also poorly represented in the crowds at Yosemite in spite of their large numbers in California. This might also be explained by a lack of interest, but the fact that large numbers of white Americans are staying away suggests that something is seriously wrong. So let us contrast the white American experience with the white European experience as it relates to the ability to travel to Yosemite.
1. Lack of money. At first glance it would seem that the American middle class is wealthy, but perhaps middle class white Americans have less discretionary income than people from overseas. Student loan debt is a huge non-bankruptable burden on many Americans under 40. The US does not allow or discourages tracking and actively encourages people to take on mountains for debt to attend University. Many other nations track their students into vocational training and a smaller percentage attends University in these nations. House debt is the other American financial black hole. The cost of a house in a neighborhood with “good schools” has risen dramatically. Another American cost is automobiles since the US does not have effective mass transit. Pay 15,000 USD or more for a car every few years when you are only making 30,000 USD per year after taxes and you do not get ahead financially. Many might suggest that the national health plans popular in other countries are a factor since people from those nations do not pay directly for health insurance, but I suspect that any savings is minimal or non-existent. I am not suggesting that the US should enact single payer health plans or mass transit on a large scale, but it is interesting to look at the lifestyle consequences of these issues.
2. Lack of time. Most Americans are lucky to get a single week of vacation time and many don’t get that much. In many Euro nations it is common to have several weeks off work to go on holiday. This may change in the near future as Euro nations embrace austerity, but at least the European people had free time to enjoy themselves as their governments spent money recklessly. The national health plans are a factor in the ability of a person to take time off work. In the US a person usually loses all health coverage if he quits his job or takes a leave of absence. Health coverage may be purchased through Cobra, but it is expensive. Americans, who often pride themselves on individualism, have a difficult time starting a new small business or taking time away from work to do much of anything,. Most of the Americans that I did see at Yosemite (I admit there were a few) were either retirees or young people. Yosemite was a grand destination for middle class and middle aged people at one time, but that time is in the past.
3. I do not think a lack of interest is keeping white Americans away from the national parks. The environmental movement is alive and well. Lack of interest could become a bigger reason in the future. A person who has never visited a national park or who does not know anyone else who has done so has little reason to care about the parks.
4. Lack of fitness probably explains part of the phenomenon that I witnessed. Many Americans do not like to get out of their cars. The people I met were on trails through Sequoia groves and steep climbs to waterfalls. These activities are fun for people who are in shape from walking a lot every day, but many Americans are no obese. So it is possible that a lot of US citizens do go to Yosemite, but I did not see them because they were hidden in cars.
I became rather despondent watching the Republican convention a few weeks ago. Every speech was full of rah rah patriotism and all about American exeptionalism and how great the USA is. We can do anything! Except visit our national parks, go on vacation, buy a house, or afford to have babies. More government is not the answer, but it would be nice to see some discussion of the falling standard of living during the election year.