10.02.2009

My Own Emotional Connection to National Parks


In a recent Philadelphia Inquirer article about his new miniseries on national parks, Ken Burns recounts his childhood trip to Shenandoah National Park. He was six, and his mother was dying; and that trip to Shenandoah represented a sliver of pleasure for him and his father in an otherwise emotionally tumultuous time. Burns recalls that when he returned to Shenandoah as an adult in 2003 for the filming of this miniseries, he wept at this remembrance.

Indeed, a main theme of the miniseries is people's emotional connection to our national parks. I have my own: national parks were, for my family, akin to family vacations. Love of nature, frugality, and a masochistic willingness to drive very long distances made national parks perfect settings for summer vacations. We went to so many that the memories blur together: achy legs, climbing rocks, finding walking sticks.

My grandparents accompanied us on many of our outings. In fact, it was their senior lifetime membership card, for some ridiculously low price of like $10 or $20, that got us into many of these places. They didn't accompany us on all of the hikes, but they did their share even at their advanced ages. And, despite language difficulties and a two-generation gap, it was one meaningful way my sister and I had a connection to them, a shared set of experiences we could have together.

And so I could not help but tearing up a little like Ken Burns did, as I watched some of the miniseries earlier this week. Recalling a time of innocence, when the only thing on the day's schedule was skipping stones and smelling redwood forest air, and the only worry in my mind was figuring out how my sister and I were going to pass the many hours on the trail or in the car. Being in awe of breathtaking natural spectacles, and of a nation that decides it is going to figure out how to safeguard those natural spectacles in perpetuity. And experiencing one more facet of grief over my mother's paralysis, in that it means my kids won't be able to enjoy national parks with her in the same way I did with my grandparents.

I have many more hours to go in the miniseries, but I am already spellbound by it all. If there is a practical thought in the midst of my wonder, it is this: I must figure out a way to connect my kids to this someday, in order that they too might better understand me, nature, and this incredible nation in which we live.
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