A pit stop in America’s public lands: the world’s best hotel

After 15 hours of near straight driving, I was verging on the hallucinatory.

The road reflectors were taking on distinctly human forms and more than once I found myself startled to see, what I believed to be small gnomish men lining the sides of a desert interstate.

Traditionally, that’s how I know it’s time to pull over and get some sleep. Often that’s meant curling up in the backseat of a car in a parking lot, trying to ignore the sounds of passing traffic.

Not this time, though. I’d just passed through Salt Lake City, en route to northern Arizona for a week of desert hiking, climbing and relaxing. I was on my own, having opted to do the 20-hour drive instead of flying.

Luckily for me I was in Utah, a state that is about 65 percent public land. Using Google Maps I found the nearest National Forest — Fishlake National Forest — got off the interstate and drove 10 minutes on Forest Service roads until I found a flat spot to pitch my tent.

Soon, I was asleep amidst the silence of a desert night. I awoke with mountains at my back and a panorama of desert scrub land outside of my tent. It was better than any hotel room I could afford.

Dispersed camping, as it’s called, is a wonderful way to save money, be outside and enjoy America’s public lands. The federal government owns about 640 million acres, or 28 percent of the 2.27 billion acres of land in the United States. The majority of that land is in the West.

About 30 percent of Washington state is federally owned while 70 percent of the land in Idaho is federally owned.

The arguments for public lands are numerous and range from the scientific — they protect forests that sequester atmospheric carbon dioxide, for instance — to the ephemeral —public lands are American’s heritage.

I propose yet another reason public lands are important and worth protecting.

They’re fundamentally egalitarian.

All too often, true beauty and elegance are reserved for the rich. The country’s nicest hotels are out of reach for the majority of Americans.

Not so for America’s public lands. While the outdoor gear industry may like you to believe that $300 tents are AN ABSOLUTE NECESSITY, the truth is they’re not. You can car camp. Or buy an $80 tent at Walmart. Or sleep under the stars.

So, if you’re lucky enough to live in the West, the next time you’re traveling consider staying in the largest, cheapest hotel around.

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