Finding My Park

Mount Rainier National Park
Mount Rainier in 1998 – once known as Tahoma, Tacobeh, Pooskaus and Tacoma, it is affectionately referred to by locals as “The Mountain.”

In honor of National Park Week (April 18-26, 2015,) the U.S. National Park Service is encouraging people to share stories of their experiences with the Parks through the campaign “Find Your Park.”

My story is not so unique, not so unlike the many others that have been told already and the countless others that will be shared as more people discover the magic of the United States National Parks. It is a story that is still being written, much as the National Parks and our very planet is still being created (to witness creation, you need only pay a visit to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, where new land forms at each collision of molten lava and seawater.)

Mount Rainier National Park
The entrance to Mount Rainier National Park, and the beginning of a life-changing experience for me.

I found my park – my first park, that is – in 1998. I was just barely 14 years old (for an honest self-assessment of me at 14 and a funny story from this trip, read this post) and had never traveled more than a few states away from my home in Connecticut. My father, however, had lived for several years in Seattle and wanted to show me the beauty of Washington State. We stayed for several days in the city, then rented a car and drove southeast.

I vaguely recall being told, just prior to reaching the entrance of Mount Rainier National Park, that this would be one of the most beautiful places I would ever see, yet I arrived utterly naive, my adolescent brain ill-equipped to grasp the enormity of the place that enveloped me. My experience of this, my first National Park – my park – took hold of me in a way that can only be described as spiritual, being neither of mind or body but something far deeper, of a more primitive instinct. It felt, as so many before me have chronicled in their own stories of the Parks and of the wilderness that lay vulnerable prior to the creation of the Parks, like coming home.

Reflection Lake
The Mountain as seen from one of the Park’s beautiful reflecting lakes. Its elusiveness and frequent retreat behind the clouds has often inspired the question “Is the Mountain out today?”

Standing on the edge of the Wonderland Trail overlooking the valleys of wildflowers and glacier-fed streams, surrounded by more shades of green than I’d ever known existed, I became truly aware for the first time of my own smallness, my own brief and microscopic existence within the universe. This struck me oddly as quite a relief. The problems, the worries, the uncertainties I had carried with me to the Park could not survive there. For a moment, a moment I have returned to many times in my mind – I felt truly a part of this beautiful place, and of all places. I was the trees and the wildlife, the rivers and the glaciers, the rocks and snow and sediment. It was the kind of transcendence you may read about, in Emerson and Thoreau and Muir, but the kind you must must experience for yourself, in your own way, in your own places.

We visited other National Parks on this trip – Olympic National Park and North Cascades National Park – each possessing of their own magic and each with their own stories to tell, but there is something unforgettable about one’s first Park. Rainier was the one that first awoke in me a reverence for nature and fed a restless undercurrent that still drives me whenever possible to abandon all adult responsibilities and flee to the wild places.

Gettysburg Battlefield
It is unfathomable to think that historic places like the Gettysburg battlefields were once ravaged and in danger of being lost forever.

The memory of that trip has inspired me to visit other important places under the watchful care of the National Park Service, such as Gettysburg National Military Park, whose battlefields saw such profound loss that one can still sense it, 150 years later. I’ve joined a decades-old community of people on a mission to “collect” as many Parks as possible, including Acadia National Park, which, being local to me (8 hours away by car, and yes, I do consider that to be local) has become more my park as an adult. Even in a Park relatively small by comparison to others, after miles of hiking I have explored such a small percentage of its trails that many more visits are warranted.

The Beehive
My hiking boots, proud after climbing The Beehive, pictured in the background and photographed from Sand Beach.

I fell in love with the National Parks again upon my first viewing of Ken Burns’ documentary The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. Historian William Cronon, featured in the series, accurately and poignantly summarizes the enormity of the idea of the National Parks, the incalculable value they offer us and the responsibility that we all share for them. I’ll leave you with his words, far more eloquent than my own, and an encouragement – no, an urging – to find your own park.

Dorr Mountain
Self-portrait at the summit of Dorr Mountain, Acadia National Park

If you’re not in the U.S. or not near an official National Park, no matter – the world holds thousands of beautiful places. Just find a place that makes you feel alive. Find a place that makes you forget that there is or ever was anything else. Find a place – and once you find it, share it – that makes you feel like coming home.

“One of the things I think we witness when we go to the parks is the immensity and the intimacy of time. On the one hand, we experience the immensity of time which is the creation itself. It is the universe unfolding before us. And yet it is also time shared with the people that we visit these places with…We remember when our parents took us for the first time…And then we as parents passing them on to our children, a kind of intimate transmission from generation to generation of the love of place, the love of nation, that the national parks are meant to stand for.” – William Cronon

Mount Rainier National Park
My Dad, passing the Parks onto me

7 thoughts on “Finding My Park

  1. This is s great post. It was fun to be with you at the start of this journey. it wasn’t like I was taking you to a fancy beach resort but I was so happy that you enjoyed it. Your appreciation of the parks, your concern for them and the environment make us proud.

  2. I probably enjoyed it more than I let on at the time. Being 14, I think I expressed more of a love for cable TV, electricity and hair dryers than I did for nature, but it had a lasting impression on me nonetheless. It was the perfect age to plant a seed, and that seed has flourished.

  3. I love nature and since I am named after a bird, I feel connected with all living things. I embrace all faiths and feel nature is how we can all find a similar “thread” or “chord” that could be our saving grace. I like your nane, how you mentioned three great poet/authors and hope you may wish to connect through blogging someday. Until then, take care and hasn’t Autumn been so beautiful this year? ♡ ~ Robin

    1. You have a beautiful name! I agree that going into nature is one of our common threads; it’s my saving grace as a person and may well be for us as a species. I think we need one. Autumn has been beautiful and I’m hoping to be able to appreciate winter as well. That’s a bit tougher to do, so we’ll see 🙂

      1. Thank you for your comment about my name.
        I agree, it is challenging to find the beauty in winter when your fingers freeze as you take your gloves off to take a picture. Faith. The icicles, the sky and other unique characteristics of winter are worth bearing the cold.
        I breathed a sigh of relief, seeing we had written back and forth.
        I smiled at your having a Jack Daniels on the rocks today (maybe yesterday?) with your father. I like bourbon, whiskey or scotch over ice, too. Only about once in a blue moon, though. 🙂
        Take care and enjoy the summer, Faith. I go creek walking with my grandchildren. Sometimes splash pads, pools and beaches but the creek’s have their bubbling brook feeling. . . 🙂

  4. Nice to hear from you again, Robin! I think any day out in nature is good for us, whether you’re enjoying a day beside the brook, the ocean or the splash pool 🙂 Wishing you a lovely season!

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