Tourism Hiking Through the Colonial History of America’s National Parks
There’s a religious ring to the language of appreciating public lands in America. But, as a South Asian woman and a first-generation immigrant, I am not a welcome pilgrim.
I had read online that the Yosemite Valley is enchanting in spring. The sun begins to thaw the snow, producing a deluge that oozes from the lips of giant rocks. Sheer granite slopes burst into water songs.
“How long should we spend in there?” I asked one of my friends. I had recently watched a documentary in which the professional climber Alex Honnold spends months camping in Yosemite, training his mind and body, before completing a free solo ascent of the 3,000-foot vertical monolith, El Capitan. A part of me imagined feeling the dew of the El Cap meadows under my feet for many weeks.
“Two days are more than enough to see all the Patel Points and do one hike,” my friend said.
And so we—a small group of desi migrant workers in northern California—set out to visit Yosemite, or Yashomati, as we sometimes call it, over a weekend last spring. Covid-19 vaccines had been rolled out and some travel restrictions had eased. Given the ever-increasing visa problems—there has been a backlog on processing and renewal of work visas since, at least, 2017—every day in the US feels like living on borrowed time. It was now or never.
On the first day of our trip, we clicked photos in front of El Capitan, feeling judged by the rock’s stoic face, and watched the sun set at Tunnel View. Two Patel Points, must-see spots for any desi passing through the valley, were checked off our list. The following morning, we began our hike to the Vernal Falls, described by the nineteenth-century Scottish American naturalist John Muir as a “sheet eighty feet wide, changing in color from green to purplish gray and white.”
More than a century later, the water was not as abundant, and we saw no rainbows from the misted-up staircase cut into the cliffside. Still, at the end of a two-mile walk uphill and a thousand-foot gain in elevation, the cascade looked soothing, like the white cotton sarees my widowed grandmother wore at home; sarees that shrunk with every wash.
“You can’t bathe in there,” my partner said, disappointed by the rough boulder pile on which the water fell.
“No,” I said. “But I can tell what you are thinking of.”
He laughed. “The Liril ad.”
Growing up in ’90s India, we had watched a popular soap advertisement in which a Bollywood heroine wearing a green tank top and denim shorts bathes and jigs under a waterfall. Taking a shower all alone in the wild, she croons, “La-lalala-la.” That used to be our idea of freshness in the hot and humid country.
We had bumped into a lot of people while hiking the trail, but it was when we returned to the parking area that we were truly stunned. There was no room for our car, or any other cars for that matter, to reverse out. A long line of stationary vehicles had formed on the Southside Drive parallel to the Merced River.
Our group spent more than three hours waiting for the jam to clear—probably longer than we spent hiking. The shuttle that helps control traffic in the valley was not operating during that phase of the pandemic, nor was the reservation system regulating the number of day visitors. So tourists desperate to see Yosemite in spring had clogged its heart.
The big draw of America’s national parks is that they are relatively free of human presence and remain unsullied by human history. However, in the last several years, and especially during the pandemic, national parks across the US have experienced a considerable surge in traffic. We are collectively “loving nature to death,” say the op-eds and reports mourning the effects of overtourism on America’s public lands. The mission of the National Park Service, formed in 1916, is “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and wildlife therein,” and overtourism, a threat to the wilderness, seems to be at odds with this conservationist impulse.
But the love saga with nature that the national parks represent may have been deadly from the beginning. As historian Mark David Spence observes, “uninhabited wilderness had to be created before it could be preserved.” Scenic landscapes were depopulated through settler colonial violence: The National Park Service razed the last homes of the indigenous people in Yosemite in 1969. So successful are the national parks in effacing indigenous cultures, so triumphant in their celebration of their own environmental legacy, that today we see these lands as essentially wild, in need of a federal agency’s protection, when in fact the federal government systematically constructed the wilderness.
The love saga with nature that the national parks represent may have been deadly from the beginning.
I hazard visiting America’s public lands, notwithstanding their colonial histories and the crowds, because of what they gave me when I first moved to this country—a sense of belonging and community I couldn’t find elsewhere. On my way into the US, I had been subjected to secondary immigration check at the border. My densely packed baggage was opened and ransacked. From getting a sim card to opening a bank account, every small task was an ordeal that reminded me I had no business being here.
When I was growing up in India, outdoor recreation did not play a major role in my life. I had not tried hiking to the waterfall in India’s Kodaikanal where the first Liril advertisement was shot. But within a month of arriving in Ohio for graduate school, I responded to a sign-up call for a day trip to Hocking Hills State Park. The trip was organized by a group that partnered with local churches and the university to welcome international students. I was so anxious to join that I emailed the organizers twice to make sure they had my name. At the time, I deluded myself into thinking I was eager to explore a new place. Now I know I was simply looking to be around people on a weekend.
During my first trip to Hocking Hills, I was not at ease boulder-hopping and hiking trails, but I was content to be among other international students who shared my struggle. My graduate school peers who had been raised here visited friends and families for holidays and long weekends, but as a first-generation immigrant on a graduate student stipend, I had no one to see and nowhere to go. I would join groups of international students for hiking and camping trips—all budget outings—to escape isolation.
One summer, I camped out in Hocking Hills with a bunch of desi undergraduate and graduate students. We bathed under a waterfall and swam—I took a photo in denim shorts and an emerald-color top, splashing water in front of the waterfall, close enough to re-creating the Liril advertisement.
That camping trip was overenrolled. We did not have enough tents, and some of us volunteered to stay out in the open. I was nodding off by the campfire when another student asked if I would consider settling in the US after grad school. I said, “Depends,” and I have never felt any other way.
There’s a religious ring to the language of appreciating public lands in America. Reverend Thomas Starr King compared Yosemite to a “prophet.” Muir thought, “The Valley, comprehensively seen, looks like an immense hall or temple lighted from above.” But, as a South Asian woman, a first-generation immigrant in the contemporary US, I am not a welcome pilgrim.
Five years before the trip to Yosemite, during a summer off from grad school, I was visiting Yellowstone. The National Park Service was celebrating its centennial that year. They had released keepsakes—travel guides and brochures advertising special monthly features for the year—some of which included the Wallace Stegner quote declaring national parks to be “absolutely American, absolutely democratic.”
I remember strolling on the boardwalk around the Old Faithful geyser. My partner, excited about a newly purchased camera, was trying to time a photograph with me and the geyser’s eruption. A man—white—standing next to us, and with his camera pointed at the geyser, asked, “What language are you both speaking?”
“Bengali,” my partner said.
“I wouldn’t know,” the man said. “And you speak English too! Where are you from?”
In those days my partner liked to point out that “India is the second-largest English-speaking country in the world”—a thoroughly worthless fact to throw at someone with no real interest in knowing.
Our interlocutor went on, “That’s just the population. Where I live, there are lots of Indians—not from different places, but straight out of India. Their mothers come from India when they have kids. Entire families walk small children in strollers. All their marriages are arranged. Are you guys arranged?”
I remember responding with an emphatic no as clearly as I remember the chilling rain seeping through my disposable poncho.
“Statistically, arranged marriages last longer,” said the man. The geyser erupted while I tried and failed to picture this man’s neighborhood, that slice of America where migrant desi families multiplied and lounged around with no inhibition.
When I stopped to get coffee that afternoon, the customer behind me asked, “Girl, where is home?” I pretended not to hear. He nudged me again—“You . . . where from?”
I said, “Ohio,” and he looked at me the way we sometimes look at birds in water.
As soon as my Iranian-origin colleague and I got out of our car at the parking area of the Horseshoe Bend, a white woman yelled, “Oh my god, you hit my car.”
“What? Where?” I asked.
“Here, here,” the woman said without pointing anywhere.
My colleague spoke into my ears but very loudly, “Is she crazy?”
When I visit the outdoors with other migrants such as my colleague, I feel connected. I think I can go on living this way. It takes only an encounter with white aggression, normalized in the history and culture of the US, to overturn that feeling.
One of the first white men to enter the Yosemite Valley was also responsible for its name Lafayette Houghton Bunnell became enthralled by the “stupendous rocky peaks of the Sierra Nevadas” while searching for gold nearby. In Discovery of the Yosemite , Bunnell recalls how the indigenous people living in and around the valley were becoming “troublesome to the miners and settlers.” When an influential white trader learned that local tribes were planning to wage a war against the white miners, he issued a threat: “If war is made and the Americans are aroused to anger, every Indian engaged in the war will be killed before the whites will be satisfied.” José Juarez, chief of the Chowchilla Indians, believed that other white men would not come to rescue the gold diggers in the mountains, but after the white traders’ businesses were attacked, a volunteer militia came to suppress the Ahwahneechee and the Chowchilla. Thereafter, in the middle of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln signed a bill to make Yosemite a “state-owned park,” to protect the wilderness from people. But the people in question were not only new settlers encroaching on the land but also those for whom the valley had been home.
When I visit the outdoors with other migrants, I feel connected. It takes only an encounter with white aggression to overturn that feeling.
What astonishes me, reading Bunnell’s narrative, is the total absence of qualms about forcefully settling in a place to which, he recognizes, he and the other white men are “immigrants.” It is unthinkable to him that the indigenous population does not want them there.
In the photos accompanying his account, clicked by J. T. Boysen, the interplay of light and shade on colossal granite formations makes the terrain resemble the moon with its giant craters. A shot of the Overhanging Rock, which juts from a cliffside thousands of feet above the valley floor, is taken from a low angle and without a human figure in it, compounding the feeling that the spot is as remote and inaccessible as the celestial object. Only occasionally do pioneers surface in gaping abysses. These images represent the colonial fantasy of discovering uninhabited land and claiming it, and they keep out of view the violent conflicts and resistances to colonial land grabbing.
The dramatic shots of Yosemite filtered of human presence, complementing the various nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century nature writings, could also be today’s Instagram posts. Whereas the picture of the Mirror Lake that illustrates Muir’s writing shows empty surroundings reflected in the lake’s water, my photo shows a barren hole—the lake was dry during my visit. Frustrated tourists were scattered along the edges, resting under the warm sun, and eating protein bars. I left them out of my shots. Muir had faith in the stubborn endurance of wildness. About Half Dome, he wrote, “Tissiack would hardly be more ‘conquered’ or spoiled should man be added to her list of visitors.” That is simply not true. What remains unspoiled between the pioneers’ visits and mine is not the wilderness but the grammar of its representation.
To obviate the presence of others on the trails, armed with cell phone cameras, we edge closer to the precipice. A couple of desi migrant workers and travel bloggers, who moved to northern California in 2018, plunged to death at the Taft Point, another of Yosemite’s Patel Points, while attempting to take a selfie. Their Instagram handle @holidaysandhappilyeverafters archives several photos of the woman with bright pink hair standing alone in vast swathes of emptiness. In one picture, the frontierswoman is at the edge of the Grand Canyon’s North Rim; in another she is marveling at a natural arch in Monument Valley.
Having descended from people who were colonized and protested colonial oppression, I am vigilant about the meaning of my own movements. America’s public lands still persist as sites of intimacy in my memory since I was brought to them by my desperate need for companionship in a new country. Like the idea of wilderness itself, my fond memories are to some extent curated, and they start to collapse when I tally up the moments of belonging with the experiences of ethno-racial aggressions. Yet they are enough to prevent me from being cynical about what trips to state and national parks can mean to new immigrants.
I am hardly unique in this respect. A contributor to SAADA Road Trips Project , a digital project that archives decades of desi travel in America, recounts a family trip to Yellowstone. “I remember a tour guide correcting the way my parents said ‘geyser’—Guy-zer, not Gee-zer. We happily disregarded this. Old Faithful didn’t care what it was called,” writes Ankita Chatterjee. Captioning a photograph taken in Mount Rainier National Park, the author Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni notes, “I remember that some of the waterfalls and peaks had been given Indian names by the Transcendentalists, from our Vedas—that was so amazing.”
When my friends and I call Yosemite “Yashomati”—a play on the name of Lord Krishna’s mother—it is to evoke kinship, but naming is a convoluted undertaking. As Delaine Fragnoli observes, Yosemite is a “palimpsest”: “a Miwok word for a people effaced by an American name for a place through Bunnell’s nationalizing and naturalizing discourse.” The name Bunnell chose for the valley was initially thought to mean “grizzly bear.” Linguist Sylvia Broadbent later translated Yosemite as “some of them are killers.” This is how the Miwok groups living just outside the valley probably referred to the Paiute people in the valley.
The Paiute people called themselves the Ahwahneechee. Their name for their home—Ahwahnee—endures as the name of the famed hotel sitting in the middle of the national park. Erected where there used to be an indigenous settlement, the Ahwahnee’s grand dining room with its high ceiling and wood beams had felt uncomfortably familiar to me. The Ahwahnee, I knew, inspired the hotel in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining , but it was not the film that came to my mind when I stepped into the building. The Ahwahnee reminded me of the affected grandeur of the hotels and retreats constructed in the Indian subcontinent during the British Raj. My sense of familiarity came from recognizing a colonial edifice across time and place.