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Kristof: America's 'best idea' meets its 'worst idea'

During an August vacation with my family, I enjoyed lodgings so spectacular that not even Bill Gates or Warren Buffett could ever buy or rent them.

The scenery was some of America's finest: snowcapped mountains, alpine lakes, babbling brooks. The cost? It was free.

We were enjoying some of America's public lands, backpacking through our national patrimony. No billionaire can acquire these lands because they remain — even in a nation where economic disparities have soared — a rare democratic space. The only one who could pull rank on you at a camping spot is a grizzly bear.

"This is the most beautiful place in the world," my 15-year-old daughter mused beside a turquoise lake framed by towering fir trees. She and I were hiking 200-plus miles on the Pacific Crest Trail, joined for shorter bits by my wife and sons.

We imbibed from glacier-fed creeks, startled elk and dallied beside alpine meadows so dazzling that they constitute an argument for the existence of God. At night, if rain didn't threaten, we spread our sleeping bags under the open sky — miles from any other human — and fell asleep counting shooting stars.

You want to understand the concept of a "public good"? It's exemplified by our nation's wilderness trails.

In some ways, this wilderness is thriving. Cheryl Strayed's best-selling book "Wild," about her long backpack on the Pacific Crest Trail, has inspired hordes of young women to try the trails. Reese Witherspoon is starring in a movie of "Wild," made by her production company, and that will undoubtedly send even more out to feed the mosquitoes.

The talk of the trail this year was of a woman named Heather Anderson who shattered a record by backpacking from Mexico to Canada on the Pacific Crest Trail, without support, in 61 days. That's nearly 44 miles a day over tough terrain. She says she graduated from high school at 200 pounds and found purpose — and lost 70 pounds — on the trails. On this trek, she had encounters with five rattlesnakes, eight bears and four mountain lions. (For more on Heather Anderson's extraordinary journey, visit my blog at kristof.blogs.nytimes.com.)

Yet America's public goods, from our parks to "Sesame Street," are besieged today by budget-cutters, and it's painful to hike some trails now. You see lovingly constructed old bridges that have collapsed. Trails disturbed by avalanches have not been rebuilt, and signs are missing.

"Infrastructure is really crumbling," Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, herself a backpacker, told me. She notes that foreign tourists come to visit America's "crown jewels" like Yosemite and are staggered by the beauty — and flummoxed by the broken toilets.


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