We didn't see anything that bothered us until we began heading west. An enormous cattle feedlot in Greeley, Colorado. My girlfriend and I were in the midst of a 9-week cross--country road trip, visiting 32 national parks and four weddings--a pair of environmental majors out to connect with the land. This feedlot seemed to stretch on for miles, only thinly veiled from the highway by a shabby row of trees. After passing through miles of open country for the better part of three large states, there was something ominous about all those cows clustered together. The fenced facility was out of place, and it set the tone for environmental problems to come.
We headed into the Rockies looking forward to visiting the high country of Rocky Mountain National Park. But Estes Park, Colorado was so full of traffic, overweight tourists and chintzy knick-knack and knock-off shops that we didn't even consider stopping. We preferred actual wilderness to the idea of purchasing a "been there, done that" T-shirt.
The park itself preserves high alpine environments where weather can be dangerous and cold even at the height of midsummer. But the place was unnaturally tame. Animals weren't afraid of people or cars, and tourists stood and gaped at the "wildlife" as if they were at the local zoo. While we were there, we heard that the high alpine ecosystems are suffering due to pollution from visitors and airborne pollutants blowing up the mountains from the highly developed Front Range cities. It was a beautiful park, but with the SUVs and overstocked coolers, the experience felt practically suburban.
The next planned stop was Great Basin National Park, on Nevada's eastern border, two states and 10 hours away. I was thrilled by the opportunity to see Great Basin. I'd been trying to get there for years, since my time living in western Nevada on the shores of Lake Tahoe. The Lehman Caves in the park are amazing, but they had been abused since the time of their discovery. People have collected souvenir stalactites and stalagmites for about a century, used the caves as a dance hall and generally left their mark all over the place. Even the bats no longer roost there. Our guide told us we'd leave a belly button full of lint in the cave before we left.
The mountains in the park are amazing, but they hide a historical crime. One of the world's oldest living things was killed here. "Prometheus," a 4,900-year-old bristlecone pine tree, was cut up and...