Depending on what circles you travel in it is pretty hard to forget that the National Park Service turns 100 this year. Ads and promotions for it are ubiquitous. This is great for the cause and kind of not great if you are trying to get lost in a park and show up on a free admission day. With the NPS anniversary in mind I thought it might be a nice time to reflect on what the NPS meant to Melly and I, and what it means to me now.
There are 58 national parks and 122 national monuments. About four years ago Melissa and I decided that we were going to do our best to see as many of each as possible. We managed to get to 18 national parks and 36 national monuments together. That may sound like a lot, maybe too many to remember, but I can tell you that each and everyone was special, was life changing. In addition to these 54 spots, we experienced countless more spaces equally as fantastic but not officially designated for protection. As I reflect on our life together, these trips are the memories I draw from most.
We made or pilgrimages by car, filling the long hours between points on the map with music and conversation. I have thousands of pictures of Melissa because of these trips. I have millions of laughs to draw from because of these trips. Life goes by too fast too often. By forcing ourselves to get in the car and take back roads for days at a time we were making a conscious decision to hit pause. These were our vacations, designed to exist in a space based on geologic time, a metaphorical middle finger to modern life.
The beginnings and endings of the trips were the hardest. I was often guilty of trying to pack too much in. Any delay out of the gate would cut in to our budgeted schedule. Coming home often meant having to catch up on emails, phone calls, or tutoring schedules. That first day back you tell yourself a million times that is was worth it, but question if it was truly the case. I can tell you now with perspective that it was worth every blown deadline and then some.
The history of environmentalism is littered with stories of personal tragedy. John Muir had to go blind for six weeks before his eyes were opened to the wonders of the world. Gifford Pinchot created the field of forestry after his fiancé died suddenly. Teddy Roosevelt found his soul in the Badlands after his wife and mother both passed separately on the same day. The power of the natural world is the power to transform and inspire your spirit. I hope that it can continue to do the same for me.
Melissa and I first met in college back in 2001. She was a graduate student in English writing her thesis. I was a 3rd year engineering student with a head full of books but not much common sense. We met at a party in late June that summer. A friend of mine had dragged me along so she could watch her friend's band play. Melissa's friends had taken her along for similar reasons.
I had been telling my friends that summer that I knew how to play the bass. This was an out and out lie, I have zero musical talent. Somehow this white lie made it to Melissa. She came up to be to say I should join the band and play few songs. I acted cool and said maybe later, could I get her a beer first instead?
We ended up spending that nigh huddled in the corner of the kitchen talking about her Master's thesis. It was a study of perspectives on nature in literature; comparing Thoreau's transcendentalist Walden to Leslie Marmon Silko's view of the nature through Native American religious traditions. If your eye glazed over with that sentence you are probably in the wrong place. It was fascinating to me. Here was this beautiful girl with an equally beautiful mind. It was definitely love at first sight.
I can't say we lost our love for the natural world, because we didn't. We just lost track of it in the pursuit of building a life together. That we rediscovered it a few years ago, with enough time to build so many memories is something I am grateful for.
Early on in my grieving I made a resolution to myself that I will continue on in our tradition of being in the world. I will continue to see and hear and experience the wonderment around us, sanctioned parks and otherwise. These connections to nature are a connection to her, a way to keep her life forever unfolding and together with mine.
Our last road trip together was to my sister's wedding in Fredericksburg, TX. We could have easily saved time by flying in to Austin. We instead elected to drive through southern Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. We resolved that this would be our last trip together before Matthew would be born, a short hurrah before we would welcome him in to our lives.
Our drive that first day took us through the Chiricahua Mountains near Wilcox. It was not a planned stop, but it was a place I had long heard about and dreamed of visiting. We pulled off the road in Wilcox at around 3:30p in the afternoon and resolved to 'make it work'. It would mean getting in to Las Cruces after midnight, but so what.
The Chiricahua's were more amazing than either of us could have imagined. We were virtually alone in the monument at sunset. Set to our own devices within this cathedral of standing rock, we got to exploring. We kept our hikes short and light, owing to her being five months pregnant, but we got a feel for our place in the natural order. On our journey we found a secluded bench at a trailhead, on which we sat and watched the sunset. As the sun went down and the world became quiet we were able to hear a second world come to life. This transition of day for night taught me to stop, to listen. When all is quiet things can be the most loud. That is when there can be the most life.
As we were leaving I leaned over to Melly and joked that she now had a new favorite place. She smiled and laughed. I realized I also had a new favorite place. I have been thinking on that moment a lot these past two months. Her birthday is coming up in a couple of weeks. I can stress about it, or I can think of that sunset. I can be excited that I can share that place with her again on that day, and on any day I choose. That is what the national parks mean to me. That is what preserving the natural world does for all of us.