Windshield Wilderness: Autos and the National Parks

Windshield Wilderness: Autos and the National Parks

(Originally posted to Virtual Blue Ridge’s Blue Ridge Parkway Blog, February 26, 2009)

I apologize for the long delay in offering any new postings for “A Historian’s Parkway.” Readers will have to have patience with my infrequent contributions for a while. To be honest, I have taken on too many obligations and am struggling to keep up. So I’ll be here now and then, but not as often as in the past. Meanwhile, other members of our community are doing their part to keep the conversation going!

Today I’d like to offer a few quick thoughts on a wonderful book I’ve just read about the history of three National Parks in the state of Washington: Mt. Rainier, Olympic, and North Cascades. David Louter’s 2007 Windshield Wilderness: Cars, Roads, and Nautre in Washington’s National Parks (Univ. of Washington Press, which I’ve recently reviewed the NPS publication CRM: Cultural Resources Management) sheds some new and interesting light on the Blue Ridge Parkway’s history and future.

Louter, a historian with the National Park Service’s Pacific West Region, looks at the evolution of each of these three parks, formed at different moments in the twentieth century, with an eye to how the parks accommodated roads and automobiles.

Mt. Ranier, established in 1899, admitted cars in 1908 and developed during a period of enthusiastic park road building championed by first NPS director Stephen Mather. In the 1920s and early 30s, Mather and his successor Horace Albright “transformed parks into landscapes for the highway in nature” (p 36) partly by relying upon landscape architects to fit park highways carefully to the land as part of “master plans” for each park. Nature and wilderness were scenic or visual (rather than ecological) qualities; preservation occurred if the roadside picture appeared natural and roads blended into the landscape.

Mt. Ranier, a product of this period, featured a number of scenic drives, including the Mather Memorial Parkway (completed 1932), by which citizens experienced the park.

Olympic, developed after the late 1930s, reflected a newer notion of wilderness areas as roadless and thus did not feature roads in the park. However, visitors viewed the park mainly via the Hurricane Ridge Road, a scenic route developed with NPS support just outside the park boundaries.

North Cascades, meanwhile, was established in the late 1960s, in the context of the modern environmental movement. The park itself was roadless “wilderness” (by then an official category under the Wilderness Act of 1964), but the adjacent “national recreation areas” contained the familiar scenic roads by which visitors enjoyed the park.

Surveying this history, Louter argues that Americans’ ideas about what National Parks are have been formed by seeing parks through the windshield of a car. The national park system and our automobile-driven highway landscapes grew up together. And although the growth of the environmental movement through the mid-twentieth century brought the notion of roadless “wildnerness” more strongly into the American consciousness and into park management policy, it cannot be denied that most Americans have come to know their parks by driving to, through, or around them.

Thus, although there were always some who considered it an intrusion, for most Americans, the automobile has been an enabling technology, and it has seemed possible that, in parks, automobiles and nature could coexist in harmony. “Cars,” Louter writes, “have been in national parks for more than a century, and it would be hard to imagine parks . . . without cars” (page 164).

All of this is especially interesting as we think about the history of the Blue Ridge Parkway.

First, it casts doubt on the perennial assertion in many a popular publication that the Parkway somehow represented a bold and untested new idea. It’s simply not so. As much as we love it, our beautiful park is product of the great era of scenic road building (1920s/30s) that had already produced many other spectacular park roads like Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park, Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park, the Wawona Road in Yosemite, the Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway in Zion, the Rim Drive in Crater Lake, and Skyline Drive in Shenandoah.

The Parkway’s first landscape architect, Stanley Abbott, came from a long line of landscape architects and engineers who followed Major Hiram M. Chittenden (engineer who supervised road construction in Yellowstone from the 1880s to 1900s) in believing that park roads should be carefully fit to the land to present a carefully-orchestrated series of panoramas.

But the Parkway was in one respect different from these other park roads: while they wound through parks, the Blue Ridge Parkway is the park. The road is the destination.

This presents an interesting conundrum as we consider the crushing environmental impact of cars and begin to see the dawning of a post-automobile age (or at least a post-gasoline-powered automobile age). We can’t make the Blue Ridge Parkway roadless; if the road disappears, the park as we know it disappears. But can we consider whether our Parkway experience must always be mediated through a windshield to retain its value? Are we tethered forever to the idea of “windshield wilderness”?

I don’t know the answers, but the questions are worth thinking about as we try to imagine the Parkway for the next 75 years.

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