Greetings! My name is Guy McClellan, and I'm a PhD student at the University of New Mexico. I study the 20th century American West, with a particular interest in urban, environmental, and spatial history.
Each summer, I work as a ranger in Yosemite National Park. This sparked my current research interest: the ways in which national parks mirror the cultural landscapes beyond their boundaries.
National parks are often considered refuges, sanctuaries from the world outside their boundaries. Parks are places for recreation, contemplation, exertion, relaxation, and--most importantly--family bonding. Historians have also argued that national parks share an intimate connection with national identity, especially during around the turn of the nineteenth century. Grand, sublime, and incomprehensibly scenic areas like the Grand Canyon inspired a new kind of awe, one that reinforced the primacy of nature and emphasized an American landscape that distanced the country from its European past.
At work in Yosemite, I see a less mystical version of this narrative. For many visitors, the park's boundaries symbolize a division between nature and civilization. On a busy day in Yosemite Valley, however, that divide seems nonexistent. Cars slither by, glinting in the sun. The valley echoes with camera clicks. Tourists stream into grocery stores and souvenir shops. The post office sorts mail and the dentist cleans teeth. In short, Yosemite Valley is little different than a small town. The American West is defined by wilderness but dominated by cities. Yosemite Valley, the park's population center, exemplifies the tension between the two.
Edward Abbey (RIP) termed this phenomenon "industrial tourism." Rather than a plague upon our parks, I see it as a wonderful opportunity for study. Let's assume for posterity's sake that Yosemite does in fact resemble some kind of city. How did this happen? When? Why? These daunting questions need answering. Rather than grapple with the philosophical angle straight away, I propose to use pre-existing tools of urban analysis to peer into Yosemite Valley's built environment. How is its road system structured? Where are its residential neighborhoods? How do they relate to commercial districts? What are the dominant traffic patterns? Despite its mystic stature, Yosemite can be navigated like any other landscape. I aim to liberate the park from its historiographic and spatial quarantines.