Happy Birthday to America’s Very Best

August 25, 2016

Dear National Park Service,

Happy 100th Birthday! Two years ago today I wrote about my family’s visit to three of your parks in Utah. It was magic. Here’s that post. Hope to see you in Glacier next summer!

Kudos to President Woodrow Wilson for signing the “Organic Act,” which made you Park Service folks responsible for protecting the 35 national parks and monuments in existence in 1916.

You’ve been busy since then. You added 366 new sites; maintain and nurture them all on a tight budget. You’re even throwing your own party today: free admission. Cool events. And entry into places that blow the pants off the typical amusement park.

What does one get 401 national parks for their birthday? The only gift I can come up with (beside a financial one, and I’ll do that too) is my thanks. So here it is, fresh off our trip.

Fairyland Trail, Bryce

Fairyland Trail, Bryce Canyon

Thank you for Bryce Canyon National Park. Maybe you noticed my family approaching the canyon rim… one slightly grumpy thirteen-year-old, an excited but wary eleven-year-old, and two worn-out parents. (The day before included a 6am flight, Vegas, rental car snafu and an emergency Dramamine stop. You get the picture.)

And then we reach it: Bryce. Everything changes.

We inhale, hearts pounding, taking in what water, ice, and rock have wrought: two story chess pieces, a castle, a bridge. I’m overwhelmed watching my children (weren’t they just babies?), scrambling over rocks like sure-footed mountain goats, the youngest tracking lizards, the oldest resolute, leading the way. We are assaulted by beauty at every turn. Our vocabulary grows: hoodoos, fins. We are mostly alone; we see eight other people over a four-mile hike. Gallons of water, peanut butter sandwiches and scenery beyond compare sustain us. We leave grateful.

Chess Pieces at Bryce Canyon

Chess Pieces at Bryce Canyon

Our rainy hike along the Virgin River, Zion National Park

Our rainy hike along the Virgin River, Zion National Park

Thank you for Zion National Park, for park rangers like Adam, who taught us that the evening primrose (Oenothera longissima), prefers moonlight to sunlight, blooming at night then wilting and closing its buds in the heat of the day. (So evening primrose is the rule breaker of plants. We kind of like that.) We learned that tarantulas are best left alone (like all wildlife) but the bite is akin to a bee sting, which is comforting when your eleven-year-old decides to hang out with one. We hiked in hot sun and cool rain, rode patient horses and peeled off soaking socks. We met honeymooning Italians and read Counting by 7s out-loud on a bench overlooking the glorious red walls of Zion. Everyone was kind; the people who work there love their jobs. We saw connections everywhere. I leave considering a second career as a park ranger.

Me, Embracing Zion

And finally, thank you for Arches National Park, all soaring, perching, balancing wonder of red rock, the park that has the feel of a playground ruled by frozen giants (perhaps they play at night, hurtling boulders at each other). We see body parts in every stone; stubby fingers and fists, one making an “O” with its thumb and index finger, another with two massive hands cupping the ant-like people that dare to climb it. A squatting Jabba the Hutt hides in plain sight (Beware, Princess Leia). We’ll be back.

Arches National Park

Arches National Park

It wasn’t a perfect trip. The kids still fought. We whined about the wi-fi. There was a hike strike at the end. But that was all on us. You? You were pretty near perfect. Shuttles to cut down on traffic. Endless water for refilling. Free talks and walks with such cool people. Marked trails and and great hike advice. Even ice cream and a beer garden at Zion. It doesn’t get much better than that.

So thank you, National Park Service, for protecting and loving these parks as you do, and sharing them with us so very generously and thoughtfully. Maybe my bucket list needs to include the other 398 national parks and sites, though truly, I would be happy visiting these three year after year.

We’re with you in spirit on your birthday (It’s the first day of school for our kids so we’ll miss the candles). My wish? That my children—that all of us—realize we’ve been given 401 astonishing gifts by our country. And the best gift we can give our parks? It’s the gift every 98 year-old wants. Visit. Be with them. Care for them. Listen and learn from their stories.

Happy Birthday, National Park Service. Here’s to many more.

With the utmost gratitude,

Kristin O’Keefe

Kensington, Maryland

Writing at KristinOkeefe.com


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18 Responses to Happy Birthday to America’s Very Best

  1. Dede Brownlee August 25, 2014 at 11:22 am #

    You are a gift KTO! Your writing is fantastic and I am definitely inspired to plan our trip out West!!

    • Kristin O'Keefe August 25, 2014 at 11:44 am #

      Thank you Dede! I want everyone to go; it’s so very wonderful.

  2. Elizabeth Homan August 25, 2014 at 1:37 pm #

    Lovely tribute… I want to rush and hug a national park today!

    • Kristin O'Keefe August 25, 2014 at 2:30 pm #

      Thanks Beth. I’m sure any park would welcome your hug 🙂

  3. Michele Russ August 25, 2014 at 1:53 pm #

    Love this post and couldn’t agree more. Our National Parks and park rangers make US and foreign visitors feel like privileged guests. Hoping to visit Glacier next year!

    • Kristin O'Keefe August 25, 2014 at 2:30 pm #

      Michele, good point–lots of foreign visitors, sometimes outnumbered Americans. Many international travelers know about our parks. Glacier is on my list! Supposed to be amazing.

  4. Susan Gottschalk August 25, 2014 at 5:37 pm #

    I’ve never been a camper or hiker, but you sure make it sound appealing. The pictures make it even more so. Thanks, also, for the mention of the book. I’m checking it out for my granddaughter.

    • Kristin O'Keefe August 25, 2014 at 10:20 pm #

      How old is your granddaughter? If she’s in the 9-11 range, some other wonderful books: Wonder by RJ Palacio and The One and Only Ivan by K. Applegate. And we love anything by Kate DiCamillo.

  5. Christine Spain August 25, 2014 at 6:54 pm #

    The article was inspiring and brought fond memories back from when I was 10 years old. My family traveled to the Grand Canyon and many other places with our extended family and had a fabulous time!

    Thanks for sharing!

    • Kristin O'Keefe August 25, 2014 at 10:17 pm #

      I hope Charlie remembers this trip… same age! Glad it brought back memories. 🙂

  6. Sarah Jones August 25, 2014 at 9:57 pm #

    I love it! We are on the other side of the planet exploring everything we can, but when/if we return, we could spend many lifetimes and not see all the wonders of the “Lower 48.” We went to Yellowstone before we left the U.S., but in two days only saw a fraction. Thanks

    • Kristin O'Keefe August 25, 2014 at 10:21 pm #

      I love seeing your adventures on Facebook–and now O’Keefes is on my short list.

  7. Terry Bierbaum August 26, 2014 at 8:30 am #

    Way to go Kristin!! This was so beautifully written and articulated perfectly. Made me feel like we were right there!! Great work!! Thx for sharing! You should send this article to a travel Magazine!!

  8. Judy Weldon August 26, 2014 at 8:35 am #

    Your family reminds me of ours when the kids were younger. We had 3 of them, all 3 years apart, 15, 12, and 9. We went out west visiting the national parks all the way to California from Georgia. It was the most rewarding trip of our lives. Since they have left home, we have continued visits using my husband’s get in free senior card. I think it cost about 25 dollars.

    • Kristin O'Keefe August 26, 2014 at 10:38 am #

      Hi Judy–Thanks for sharing. I love that you still go to the parks; my parents do as well. I also love the idea of the cross country trip; just wish my husband could take the time off. It sounds unforgettable. My post before this one was about a year I spent traveling/working abroad in my 20’s, so memorable. Travel’s good for the soul. Cheers, Kristin

  9. Sally Carlton August 30, 2014 at 8:16 am #

    We visited all those places and more (6 National Parks) last summer. When I got home, I had difficulty describing the amazing things we encountered. I may just refer people to your blog from now on! Thanks for sharing!

    • Kristin O'Keefe August 30, 2014 at 1:09 pm #

      Thanks and please share, especially if it gets more people going there–did you notice how many of the visitors were European? Need more Americans to discover and love our parks. I could go every summer. and as much as I love Maryland, I’ve been overwhelmed lately to go west. So magnificent.

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