Sunday, September 27, 2009

The National Parks

A small taste of the Appalachian Trail in New York (not a National Park, just where I was today).

This evening, after hiking a portion (a very small sliver) of the Appalachian Trail, I took a hot shower and settled into my couch to watch the first installment of Ken Burns' new documentary, "The National Parks: America's Best Idea". Full episodes can be found online or you can check for local times here.

As always, spending a day in nature put me in the mindset of wanting to explore more, see more, be restored more frequently by the serenity of life away from cars and crowds and technology. The coincidence of having the opportunity to watch the first episode of Ken Burns' documentary on the National Parks was fortuitous as I was able to sink into my couch with aching calves and remind myself of a little goal I have had lurking in the back of my mind for a while - it even made my 100 list - to visit all 58 National Parks.

Near the opening of the film, an on-camera historian said the following without attribution, so I'm going to assume they are his own words which so poignantly spoke to me.
What emerges in the middle of the 19th century is this idea that going back to wild nature is restorative. It's a way of escaping the corruptions of urban civilized life finding more innocent self, returning to who you really are, returning to a kind of authenticity. And if you want to know God at first hand the way to do that is not to enter a cathedral, not to open a book but to go to the mountain top. And on the mountain top, there you will see God as God truly is in the world.
-William Cronon, historian

All my life, the times I have felt the most at peace and the closest to God are when I am sitting on mountain tops gazing on panoramic vistas, marching along rocky trails and reclining on boulders in the midst of rushing water. I am able to achieve a clarity of spirit when I escape the more civilized world that is difficult for me to achieve amid the distractions of traffic, television and teeming crowds. Meditation is no longer an effort and prayer becomes reflexive as I thank God repeatedly for allowing me this gift - the sights, the smells, the textures.

More than anything else my parents gave me, I am grateful to them for introducing me to the wonders of nature before I had words to thank them for the gift. Each summer we spent multiple weekends and 1-2 week stretches either in our 6-man Springbar tent or our trailer. When the weather cooled enough that camping was not comfortable or time was limited, we took drives up nearby canyons, went on day hikes and had picnics that got us out of the city and into the mountains. Even as each of us entered our teenage years when family vacations were less desirable, we made requests to invite friends to help us endure rather than opt out completely.

And National Parks were always central to our expeditions. Yellowstone and Zion are especially intertwined in my personal history with family traditions that span generations crawling up each side of my family tree.
(Top left, working clock-wise) me with Malcolm in Yellowstone; (top right) Erin and me in southern Utah somewhere; (left middle) my Dad and me at the Grand Canyon; (right middle) all my siblings and me in Yellowstone; (bottom right) me on my log in Yellowstone; (bottom left) siblings at Yellowstone Lake; (left middle) me at Arches; (right middle) my brothers, cousin and me in Zion.

In Yellowstone we camped at Fishing Bridge next to the lake and attended fireside chats with uniformed rangers about the habits of hibernating bear and the geothermal activity of the ground beneath us. We played cards on picnic tables and toted pocket reference books to help us identify wild flowers and trees. We encountered moose and buffalo and bear and ribbed each other when driving through the most sulfurous areas of the park. We ate ice cream cones from the Lodge as we waited in wonder to see Old Faithful erupt and swam in Yellowstone Lake to the amazement of other tourists strolling along the black sand beaches bundled in layers. We cooked dutch oven meals and indulged in treats that were in more abundant supply when we camped. We listened to Dad re-tell the stories of the things he saw and did in these very places when he was a kid and asked him to once more tell us about the time Grandpa threw a fish at a bear. We mourned the destruction of the great fire of 1988 and feared what would never be the same, even as we were grateful for the opportunity to know it so intimately before the fires. We have also been lucky enough to watch the park regenerate itself from charred black trees to a thriving wilderness.

We went to Zion and heard Mom's amazing stories of playing in the tunnel and peering out the carved windows we could only catch glimpses of as we whizzed by in the car. We hiked to Emerald Pools over and over and took our shoes off to wade in the Virgin River at the mouth of the Narrows. It was our time in Zion and Bryce National Parks that pulled me south for college where I fell in love with these parks more deeply to where I almost feel territorial over them.

In other words, I cannot think of my childhood and upbringing without envisioning my family traipsing through the woods somewhere or sitting around a campfire mesmerized by the flames, content with the world. Which is why I loved the film's closing quote so much:
The tendency nowadays to wander in wilderness is delightful to see. Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home. That wildness is a necessity and that mountain parks and reservations are useful, not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.
-John Muir

Today I hiked with a variety of people, a couple of whom had never stepped on a trail in their lives. They are experiencing it all for the first time cautiously, with questions and concerns. But I have no memory of a learning curve; for me, wildness has always been a necessity and the mountains will always be a going home - a return to self, a fortification taken from the fountain of life.


Tiffany said...

My brother lives next to a cemetery, and in the cemetery is a headstone with an epitaph that states, "Remember, the benefits of parks and recreation are endless." Beautiful, huh?

Brian said...

Actually, the Appalachian Trail IS a unit of the national park system and has been since 1968--not one of the Big 58 Burns features, but the longest and skinniest park out of the 370 or so.

john gordon said...

I think the National Forests and all of Nature should be preserved, especially in areas where the building has gone out of control. We need some trees and "green" stuff around...or we will go totally mad.

Soul-Fusion said...

Good to know, thanks Brian! I realize there are more national parks than the core 58 (although I believe Burns inexplicably leaves out about 5 of those), but I did not realize that the Appalachian Trail is one despite some of my google research on Sunday. Although I did assume it is national forest land. Thanks!

KimmyGoat said...

Beautiful post, Alyssa! We have also enjoyed the PBS series and watching for our favorite parks (which, happens to be all of them we have visited)!

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