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.
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.
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.
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.
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,
Writing at KristinOkeefe.com