The same illusions created for us at Disney World and Busch Gardens-nature fully childproofed, sweetened by predictability-are increasingly being applied to the last of the Rocky Mountain wilderness. These are the days of seasoned guides and outdoor leaders quitting the business by the dozens, saying how over the past decade more of their clients have become insolent, angry in the face of nothing more than the day turning cold and the sky sending rain. "Ten years ago trip marketing began gearing toward the Outdoor Material Culture," explains celebrated rafting guide Brad Dimmock. "Now it's the yup-scale deluxe cruise, the predictable and comfortable wilderness experience. Expectations mutated. Suddenly there were complaints, more trivial than you can imagine." Others talk of a growing trend in their clients to show up on the trail or the river with all the latest equipment-not so much for reasons of comfort or safety as because displaying the best gear is part of how they communicate their station in life, the power of their success.
At the same time, Dr. Carl Mitchum at the University of Chicago writes, "Technology is increasing the knowability of wilderness. The sense of discovery and mystery, so much a part of the experience, is utterly lost." Helicopter rescue of hikers in the Rockies has gone up dramatically in the past decade-often arranged by the hikers themselves using cell phones-some telling frustrated rescue crews that rather than being injured, they were just "really tired." As James Gleick pointed out several years ago in his book Faster, the growing expectation to be in control, to be entertained, shows up in every corner of our lives. Park rangers talk about the modern visitor's amazing level of impatience when it comes to watching wildlife. "On the Discovery Channel," explains one Yellowstone naturalist, "you're guaranteed drama from the start of the show. Out here if people don't see that kind of action within five minutes of getting out of their cars, they either pack it up and head off to another location or drive over to the IMAX theater in West Yellowstone and watch it on the big screen. I call it animal ADD." In short, over the past several decades we've come to expect from nature both predictability and immediate gratification-ironically, the two things people most counted on the Rockies to keep in check. It becomes ever more difficult for us to see mountains the way the theologian and naturalist Thomas Burnet saw them-as wellsprings of the pleasures that come when imagination expands in the presences of "wild, vast and undigested nature."
Yet on any given day, at least in the highest reaches of the mountains, somehow the old dreams still seem close at hand. Here the world tosses back and forth between the opposing fantasies that energized the Rocky Mountain dreamscape for 150 years: the first being to transcend utterly the terror of nature, the second to become one with it. More than anything else, residents of the Rockies use this sublime grandeur as a balm for their concerns about gentrification, as a means of wrangling some small relief from hordes of visitors obsessed with ever more disconnected demands. Residents of Jackson, Wyoming, for example, facing more than 3 million tourists annually descending on their tiny town at the base of the Tetons, have for years been running off on nights and weekends to secret places tucked into the hills of the surrounding national forest.