October 2nd, 2009


The National Parks

So I have been watching the latest documentary on PBS by Ken Burns on the history of the National Park System. He is such a skilled documentarian that he could probably do a 10-hour show on the history of poop and make it spellbinding with the right music and historical footage. I guess this show is hitting home because the national parks are so much a part of how I got to where I am today. It was a long and circuitous route where I never really touched the Park Service, but it was influential in so many ways. And like the Park Service itself with its contradictory message of preserving what is wild while at the same time making it available to the public, I have had a love/hate relationship with the parks for somewhat similar reasons.

I guess the story starts in the mid-70's. My dad took the traditional 2-week Summer vacations from work. We would explore some part of this great country. I'm reaching back for 30-year old memories here, but I do remember bits of the Florida Everglades and fog-shrouded, white-knuckled driving through the Shenandoah Nat'l Park of Virginia. Of course these were the days of the last Apollo missions. The first clear memory I have was of a trip to Glacier National Park. I was given a gift of my very own camera, a 110-cartridge, where I could document my own experience. I still have the pictures to this day. I could tell you the exact room we had at the East Glacier Lodge. I could tell you the movie that was playing in the lodge basement since there was no t.v. (it was "The Flim Flam Man" starring George C Scott.) I remember playing par-3 golf on the lodge front lawn. I can recall sitting in the atrium with a Rand McNally road atlas tracing the path of the Appalachian Trail, dreaming of the day when I would hike the entire length from Maine to Georgia. I just wish I had better appreciated the opportunity I had to sit in the cab of a Great Northern diesel which was waiting for the Empire Builder to arrive which would clear the block. You could say that the trip left an indelible mark on me.

Fast forward a few years to my freshman year in high school. My aunt had just bought a new car and wanted to take a road trip across country. Nowadays I cringe at the thought that she had traded a '64 Impala convertible for a 1980 Chevette, but that's a different story. I planned a route using my superior mapping skills, and we were off on the excursion of a lifetime. We even made a stop in Albuquerque to visit some friends of hers who had moved here to avoid the harsh Winters of Chicago. It was then when I first experienced the joys of green chile, but I digress. We hit places like the Grand Canyon and the Petrified Forest. After visiting relatives in California we drove through Yosemite. Something clicked in me. This was something I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I really wanted to be a Park ranger. I wanted to study geology and pass on that knowledge to the public in one of our great parks.

Over the following years we took a few more trips out West. We hit Sequoia, Lassen, Redwoods, Olympic, Rainier, North Cascades, Arches, Canyonlands, Bryce, Zion, Glacier, and Badlands. My calling was in the West. I loved the landscape. I loved the scenery. I wanted to live here!

When college rolled around I still had that dream of being a Park Service naturalist. The problem I encountered was that no one seemed to have the foggiest idea as how one goes about getting such a position. I stumbled into an office in our university's "leisure studies" (NO JOKE!) department. I was shown a pile of papers that had job offers for camp councilors and such. In that pile, however, I found a brochure for the Student Conservation Association. Ah ha! They provided volunteers for the National Park Service! This was my way in! I whipped off an application and waited. Finally I got a call from the Bureau of Land Management. WHO?!? They wanted someone with a geologic background to conduct a survey of vertebrate paleontology in SE Oregon. *LOL* WUT?!? No! I want a national park! I interviewed, but I was really hoping for a callback from Glacier National Park. That call came the next day! WHOOT! I sooooo want this! They wanted me until mid September. But....but...graduate school started in August! Sorry. No deal. I was crushed. I called the folks in Oregon and told them that I would take the job with them.

As things turned out, it was one of the greatest Summers I have ever had. My boss ended up being someone I consider to this day as being my "second mom." I had incredible experiences in some of the most remote places in the lower 48. It was then that I discovered that there were other great places in this country not under the control of the National Park Service, and there were few rules and regulations dictating how you could enjoy it. Thus began my break with my love affair with the Park Service. Where in a national park you had to camp in a certain place and follow a long list of rules, on lands administered by the BLM and Forest Service you had much greater freedom to do whatever you wanted to do! My eyes were opened to the less glamorous segments of public lands, but they could be just as spectacular!

My longing to get a permanent job with either the Forest Service or the BLM eventually led me to the USBR, which wasn't exactly what I was looking for, but was still pretty darn interesting. I guess I would still like to pursue that avenue, but I fear that I have already headed down the USBR path. That's not such a bad thing, but I'm getting to the point where I start to wonder about paths I did not take.

So now back to my current feelings about the National Parks. In the show they talk about how an experience in a park could bring about life-changing experiences. I laughed at that since I have been to parks very recently and they are usually teeming with people. It's not exactly the experience John Muir had when he walked through unspoiled landscapes at the turn of the last century. The parks ARE great places, but it's so hard to find a place (IMHO) where you can find an oppotunity to have such a religious experience. Of course I'm saying this and yet I probably DID have such an experience as a teenager with probably just as many people around.

Perhaps I'm coming around again to my own love affair with our country's truly great places. Next weekend I hope to be spending a glorious time at Chaco Canyon, exploring some of this country's greatest archaeological sites. I have set a goal to fursuit as many parks as I possibly can. I'm already up to 8! Maybe next year I will fulfill a furry dream and fursuit Yellowstone as Quewe (and maybe even get arrested or at least tranq darted!) Just look at my icon. I had a truly memorable experience with overzen at Arches National Park in fursuiting one of this country's greatest natural landmarks. We also had a great time hiking around and enjoying one of the greatest parks in the world!

So in conclusion you should watch the PBS series. The bottom line is that national parks are a truly American phenomenon which is one of the most tangible signs of democracy. They are lands set aside for ALL peoples to enjoy. On the other paw, they are to be protected to a point where the experience may not be as enjoyable as say other public lands where one can shoot guns and blow shit up as we have done in the recent past. They are landscapes that every American should see and appreciate. Hopefully you can have some sort of epiphany, like I had, that can guide/direct you on your life path.