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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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