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Putting things in perspective
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Forsyth County News
My wife, Beverly, and I just had the delightful experience of visiting Yellowstone National Park in winter. We had visited the park a number of times previously, but always in summer – when it’s easy to move around and teeming with tourists.

Winter is special. It’s cold, but the park, empty of people, still abounds with animal life, and the geological wonders (pools, geysers, mud pots, etc.) take on a special appearance in the ice and snow.

There are two options to travel in, one by snowmobile or the other by snowcoach. We did both. In each case, a park-approved guide takes you on a fixed route and provides background on what there is to see.

As far as visiting the major geological attractions, both trips provide similar results – these features tend to stay put, and when you arrive, the guides provide excellent explanations. The animals are a different story as their wanderings are often a function of the weather conditions, and one has to hope that their paths come close to the roads.

But “getting there” is a totally different experience. On the snowmobiles, you’re constantly watching the road, enveloped in noise, and unable to focus much on the possibility that the distant fields or woods hold all sorts of exciting critters. You need to keep your camera batteries warm, warm, making it difficult to whip out your camera to snap a hasty picture. You are unable to communicate with your guide (let alone your back-seat partner), and you only end up stopping where the guide spots something (usually as the result of advanced information). It can also be cold and windy.

The snowcoach, on the other hand, is warm, you can spread out a bit and keep camera equipment handy, you can ask the driver/guide to make a quick photo stop, you can focus on the scenery and spot animals in the distance, and you’re in constant communication with the guide – or more likely, the constant recipient of his/her knowledge, experiences, and, most importantly for the purposes of this article, with his political views.

I have written a number of articles on our National Park System. Started under the administration of Ulysses S. Grant, it has grown to be one of the great accomplishments and legacies of our government. If only all the other governmental programs were as meaningful and successful. But I’ll save the wishful thinking for another day.

What struck us dramatically were the thoughts expressed by one of the snowcoach drivers. Fortunately, we were able to get over initial impressions and got to know him fairly well as the day went on. He came across as an intelligent and worldly man who knew a lot about his surroundings and cared a great deal for them. But as we drove up to the park entrance, his anti-government sentiments were expressed so stridently that they completely overshadowed everything else – to the point that everyone in the group seemed extremely uncomfortable.

He started by comparing the entry gates to Checkpoint Charlie, a key crossing point in the Berlin Wall which divided East and West Germany during the Cold War. At first, it drew smiles – obviously a humorous comparison. But as he continued, it became clear that he saw evil in the attempt by the park service to control entry to the Park and to restrict movement. He did not address the issues relating to preserving the Park’s wonders for the future, but saw this as an attempt by government to restrict the rights of citizens to exercise their free will. The more he talked, the more angry he became with “our totalitarian government” (not just the present administration – government in general – i.e. he was an equal opportunity basher) which he equated to that of East Germany and the Soviet Union during the period following World War II.

The park gate was his initial target. From that he extrapolated his unhappiness with government to almost every phase of its operations. We marveled at the fact that here was a man who made his livelihood as the result of government action to preserve this natural wonder, and yet could not see "good" in anything that was being done.

If you have been an occasional or frequent reader of my columns, you know that there are many aspects of our government that I believe need to be changed. But this type of emotional negativism will not accomplish anything constructive. And, unfortunately, a lot of it exists.

In recent months, I have been involved (as we all have been) in numerous discussions over the state of the economy and national trends. It is clear that one of the problems is the lack of trust in the institutions that should be providing leadership, and. as a result, a lack of confidence in the future. The latter is probably the most important factor in determining how quickly this nation will recover its economic and social health. People are not willing to invest and take risk (in both financial and personal terms) unless they have a positive outlook.

And so, as we traveled through only one tiny part of the visual magnificence of this nation, it was hard to reconcile what we were seeing with what we were hearing – and particularly coming from and individual who had spent a good deal of his life living in and learning about the immediate world around us. Somehow we’ve got to find a better way to bring things into perspective. People who have concerns should make them known, but instead of building one negative thought upon another, until a volcanic eruption occurs, the intent should be to channel that energy into addressing problems and attempting to resolve them. These need not be issues on a national scale – but I wonder how much better our guide would feel (and how much better all of us in the snowcoach would have felt) if he had spoken about an issue or problem that he had with a Park Service policy or practice and how he had helped bring about a positive change.

Dr. Melvyn Copen lives in both Georgia and Arizona. He is an educator and businessman who has worked and lived in many foreign countries and provides consulting services throughout the world. His column appears every other Wednesday. Please share your comments with him via email at melcopen@hotmail.com.