Earlier this summer I took a trip to a national park — Yellowstone, to be exact. Yesterday, the birthday of the National Park Service, helped me think about my own relationship to wilderness and to the idea of our national parks. It is, perhaps, the one area where I feel a strong sense of patriotism, and even in that it isn’t all that strong. Still — our national parks and our areas of wilderness that have been set aside for people to enjoy in their own untrammeled and natural setting is something I take pride in — that back in our nation’s past some people had the wisdom to set aside land from being used for commercial enterprises, energy extraction, or something else entirely.
As a kid we were taken camping a lot. One of my first memories is of me imitating the way my father breathed when he carried a big container of water back from a spigot to our campground. I remember the hiss of the gas lantern he would light at night and those delicate filaments that would glow so brightly behind the glass after being lit. It was a little bit magical, to be honest. My father would take my brother and I camping a lot, especially after he and my mother’s marriage ended. I think it was partly his way of coping and partly his way of reaching backwards in his own life to something that he knew as a child and as a young man that also gave him comfort.
My father like to rent campers, attach them to the old Chevy station wagon (which eventually grew up to be a Ford) and off we’d go. On one trip we went to Mt. Rainier National Park and camped out. I forget the name of the campground but I remember my father waking me up at night and having me look out the camper window to the picnic table in our campground. Out there, on the table was a black bear, getting into our cooler and eating the food we had left there. Why we left it there over night I’ll never know, but we did. A few moments later that same bear ambled over to the trailer and began pushing on it. I remember feeling the trailer rocking back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. I wasn’t scared, just in awe, even as a little kid.
Another trip took us to another spot but I don’t know where. It felt like it was deep in the woods on some logging road with no one else around. I remember my father felling a tree with his axe, an axe that I now have. I remember that when the mountain thunderstorm began he knew just how scared I was of thunder and took me and my brother for a drive in the station wagon with the AM radio tuned to static so I could hear the “zap” sound in the static signifying the lightening strike. He taught me how to count from the crackle of the radio’s static to the sound of the thunder so I could get a sense of how far away the thunder actually was. It was comforting for me, a kid, freaked out about this stuff. Eventually the storm passed and we headed back to camp.
Later, as I got older, our trips included visits to Yellowstone National Park, Glacier National Park and on one trip, Grand Canyon National Park. The local ones we’d get to as well — Mt. Rainier, Olympic and North Cascades. I don’t think I fully had an appreciation of these accessible wild places until much later. While I was in Boy Scouts we’d go on these week-long hikes that would either go through a national park, be in one, or just skirt the edge. The night before one of these long hikes was always tough — I couldn’t sleep I was so excited to get going the next morning. I knew we were going to be out in the wilderness for days, carrying our gear and seeing some amazing areas.
My appreciation didn’t blossom in full until I became a young adult and went to work in a national park for a summer. Or I thought it would be just a summer (it turned from one summer to four). I took one term off of college to increase my chances of being hired in Yellowstone National Park with their concessionaire. At the time I was working two nights a week as a cook and so I applied to be a cook for this company, T.W. Recreational Services. I had no idea what I was getting myself into, all I knew was that I knew how to work a cook’s line and prep food for customers. I sent in my application and eventually I received a confirmation letter with a contract to sign. I signed it with the realization that I was going to go and live and work in Yellowstone. I would be sent to the Old Faithful location which suited me just fine (honestly, I didn’t know any better regarding locations there — I would have gone wherever they sent me). So, at the end of April, 1984, at 20 years old my father and stepmother dropped me off at Mammoth Hot Springs for my orientation.
It was here that I really began to appreciate our parks. Here I was, in this beautiful place, full of amazing natural things — hot springs, geysers, fumaroles and animals — so many animals. The park service rangers were all helpful, even to us seasonal concession employees. On my weekends I’d often go backpacking, sometimes alone and often with others. It is where I met some of my best friends — Kurt in particular. I met Kurt, Dave, John, Kelly, Cindy, and others with whom I am no longer in touch. I came to feel as if it were my “home.” I believe now that it is all our home, there for us to share, use, care for, and enjoy. Over time it has become a place where I can go in my mind when life gets stressful.
On my first visit back after I left for my final summer I remember getting the sense that not much had changed and in fact, I was right — not much had. It was a bit of a time-machine like experience where all of a sudden I felt 15 years younger and that the intervening years hadn’t really happened. Or perhaps it was simply a sense of possibility that lay ahead of me, once again — something I hadn’t felt in a long time.
This year I took my kids to Yellowstone for the first time. We camped out for three nights and took time seeing the thermal features and looking for animals. We spent a day with Kelly who still works there — it really is her home. My daughter became enthralled with Bison (she’s six) and each of them enjoyed looking through their binoculars for animals. They also completed their Junior Ranger packets and attended a talk by one of the rangers thereby earning their Junior Ranger patches. We watched Old Faithful erupt and learned how to predict the next eruption which we did a few times while there.
After arriving in the late afternoon and after eating dinner we went out to look for animals as the sun set — a purple hue dropping just behind a thunderhead. We could see the lightning in the clouds and hear the thunder and watched as the steam rising from the hot springs seemed to mix with the falling rain in the distance. The smell of hydrogen sulphide in our noses brought back so many memories for me, too. I was thrilled to be able to share this with my children. It was a magical evening for us.
So, Happy Birthday National Park Service. To my friends who still work there — thank you. Please keep up the efforts at preservation, education and providing the space where people can come and enjoy a touch of wilderness.