Public Life In The Parks

20160813_133957I visited Carlsbad Caverns over an August weekend, and there’s nothing like exploring our National Parks system for instilling a sense of wonder, history and gratitude. Just when I think we’ve destroyed all of nature, that we’ve polluted the entire world, slashed and burned and dumped and drilled the environment into oblivion, I get outside and see we haven’t quite. Not quite yet. Which makes me realize that for my strong identification as an urbanite–Manhattan being my spiritual home, the place I feel most alive and centered–I need to sense the natural world. I crave the astonishing beauty of Mother Nature, and the feeling of integration with the environment, my place in it, and the humility it brings. I feel so connected and astonished and shriek! Tommy, stop that right now! Shriek! Well, nothing ruins a moment in the park like people who don’t know how to act in public. 

I’m torn. On one hand I love seeing people enjoy our parks. I love seeing new generations get out into nature, away from screens and electronics. I love knowing nature still matters enough to people that they choose to be in it. I believe very strongly that nature, and our parks belong to everyone, and exist for equal enrichment.

On the other hand, the worse part of me can’t stand it when people break the silence, or get too close to “my” area, or choose to explore and enjoy in a way different from what I deem appropriate. How dare they…I begin to think, before the better angels of my nature wrest back control and remind me the Great Outdoors are for everyone. And exactly who are you to decide, they remind me, and I get my shit together.

I was tested again and again in the Caverns, during an unusual episode where the elevator to the center was broken. The lack of a people-mover meant everyone who wanted down or up took to the path, streaming past each other in droves. When I reached the Big Room, the deepest level available to tourists, I was ready to explore in the quiet reverence the park rangers had tasked us with maintaining. I was ready to move with the respectful caution they urged on the wet, slippery concrete. It seems as though their entreaties fell upon deaf ears, however.

It was a shitshow. Children ran in all directions, hollering and shining headlamps in every direction, mostly into my eyes. I hastened to the loop trail, hoping to get some relief from the chaos centered around the souvenir stand. Let me be the first to say I’m not a parent, and so who am I to say anything about parenting or how children should behave? Well, I am a person in society who comes into contact with others, and maintaining a certain social decorum, especially in spaces where people gather is important to creating a positive sense of public life. I did not see enough of this in the Caverns.

What I saw were exhausted-looking people around my age and older, struggling to keep their kids in hand, or others not bothering. I heard parents speaking as loudly as their children, their adult voices ricocheting off the walls, resounding through the cave. I flattened myself against railings when packs of pre-teen girls raced past me, screeching, heedless to their own safety, not a responsible adult in sight. I was forced into the wall in a tight passage as adult men walked two abreast toward me, oblivious, bowling me over. I came to dead standstills again and again as people obliviously blocked the path, stopping traffic as they attempted the perfect group selfie. Groups followed so closely on my heels I was sure someone was going to step on and rupture one of my Achilles. All around me I saw people of all ages acting as though they and their group were the only people there, the only people in the world. It was difficult to be around. I felt more claustrophobic immersed in a sea of rude people than I did from the fact I was more than a thousand feet below the desert floor.

Look, I get it. Kids have a lot of energy, and they’re learning to become people and what’s appropriate, and they struggle with impulse control. But, they come with adults, and there is zero excuse for the bad behavior of grown adults I saw there. I gritted my teeth and reminded myself over and over that when the child misbehaves it’s the parent’s fault. I gritted my teeth and reminded myself over and over that nature is for everyone, and everyone is free to enjoy it in their own way. How can someone whose motto for vacation is “no rules” be so concerned with them? How, exactly, does that work?

I spent much of the drive back to Phoenix pondering these contradictions, and discussing them with my male companion. He’d felt as pissed as I underneath the earth, and that his enjoyment was also hampered by the self-centered behaviors we witnessed. We were especially disappointed by a moment when we came across a grotto of softly colored stalactites inset and perfectly framed by a small cave, and a family that was in lock step with us ruined the display with their loud chatter. Their nine year-old son pushed past us to get a closer look, and his parents followed, essentially stepping in front of us, edging us out. Out came the cameras and selfie stick as they posed for shot after shot, blocking the view. The young man leapt and shouted and his parents responded warmly to his antics, egging him on. We walked on, the moment over. The rangers informed every single group that made the descent that a normal speaking voice would carry up to a quarter mile below, so you can imagine what an “outside” voice sounded like. It was as though the Cavern and all its beauty existed for the sole consumption of this one self-involved family. The sole consumption of all the self-involved groups, really. Why?

Dismissing humanity for sucking or hating people aren’t options for me (this extreme extrovert is heavily reliant on her fellow humans for life-sustaining energy). I couldn’t use the easy mantras (people suck, I hate people) to self-soothe. I settled on an idea that we’re losing our ability to be in public with each other, losing our sense of public life. I believe the reasons for this crisis are two-fold. One, our screen and device obsessed ways are degrading our ability to connect and maneuver together in the physical realm. Since we live in an age where we’ve become more comfortable looking down into a screen rather than up into a stranger’s eyes, we are losing our sense of public life. Two, any place that attracts visitors from diverse locales brings with it folks who don’t have a sense of public life. If you live in a place where you drive everywhere, primarily passing people in the aisles of stores or in parking lots, you lack a sense of public life. I need to believe all the grossly self-centered behavior I witnessed isn’t because people are dicks, but because they don’t have skills.

Perhaps I need to take a more relaxed attitude toward people in spaces where we gather. But then I think about the small ways I play up my manners in public, because it makes everyone feel more comfortable. I think about the ways I study the maneuvers of others when I’m away from home, hoping to emulate good behavior, smooth the crush. I wonder how I can help others, because surely my seething, disdainful energy isn’t really addressing the problem. It certainly isn’t solving it.

In the end, I couldn’t leave the Cavern quickly enough. It was too many people being too disrespectful for me to truly savor the moment. My male companion and I hauled ass back up to the surface and walked away from the crowds for a while to regroup. I knew I needed to deal with my attitude before the headliner–the dusk bat show–went on. I wasn’t going to be doing myself any favors by allowing the cries of babies, the restless movements of children, the careless whispers of adults to ruin it for me. You see, I can’t control the behaviors of others. All I can do is model what I wish to see, knowing I’m doing my part to create a positive sense of public life.

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