I am overdue in wishing the National Park Service a happy 100th birthday, which they celebrated back on August 25th. Apparently it is more properly the centennial anniversary, but whatever. My own love affair with our national parks dates back to my childhood, and I don't see the passion ending anytime soon.
Growing up in Oregon, we did not have many national parks or monuments in the 1960s and 1970s, but I found my way to them anyway. My father enjoyed driving, and made sure to get me to Oregon's scenic wonders like Crater Lake and Oregon Caves. Through the Boy Scouts (traditional and Explorer Post) I also explored other areas like Newberry Crater in central Oregon. In 1990, long after I left Oregon, the crater became Newberry National Volcanic Monument.
At the end of my junior year of high school, my mother took me on a cross-country vacation to visit relatives and friends in St. Louis, Missouri, New York City, Washington, DC, and Florida. Obviously, we hit a number of national landmarks along the way. One highlight I still remember vividly was visiting Everglades National Park. Before we embarked from Oregon, I tried to secure a permit to collect insects in the park, or at least a visit to the Archbold Biological Research Station. Neither of those things happened, but it did not diminish my experience.
We took a route through Homestead, Florida to the park entrance there, and then headed for the Anhinga Trail. Ironically, the Royal Palm Visitor Center there had a wonderful insect collection on display. Outside the door, an armada of dragonflies was engaged in a swirling feeding swarm over the lawn. Strolling the boardwalk, I remember thinking it was just like Wild Kingdom, the television show hosted by Marlin Perkins. You could see fish, the occasional alligator, birds of every description....There was even a soft-shelled turtle basking right beside the trail.
Since I could not collect inside the park boundary, we drove just outside, where I found a pair of Eastern Lubber Grasshoppers, huge insects that, though harmless, are still intimidating to a kid from Oregon who is not accustomed to such giants. I saw a big Black Ratsnake, and mud dauber nests coating the underside of a bridge. This remains, however, one of only two times I have stopped collecting or observing insects....because of insects. Biting flies were whining incessantly in my ears, and I was sweating off repellent by the gallon.
Most recently, my wife and I visited Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona. We entered on the South Rim. Thirty dollars buys you seven days of sightseeing there. That may sound exorbitant, but trust me, it is worth it, if not downright underpriced. No sooner had we left to kiosk where we got our visitor's pass than we almost collided with a coyote that was about to cross the road. Not even one hundred yards later, another car had pulled over, the occupants enjoying a view of a small elk herd.
The Grand Canyon gets a lot of hype, but it backs it up. The scenery is indeed spectacular, but the wild flora and fauna are plentiful and engaging. No one is in a bad mood. Few people are loud. The park literally creates a silencing awe and commands respect that transfers over into interpersonal relations with other tourists. It is the United Nations of nature.
That's it! The national parks are our parks, yes, but they also belong to the world, and people come from all over the globe to experience them. They are also treated, usually, to the best in American hospitality. The lodges and restaurants in our national parks are magnificent structures, offering comfort, cheer, and familiarity. Our servers in Grand Canyon were both from Thailand. That may seem insignificant to us as U.S. citizens, but what a great joy it must be for visitors from Thailand.
Knowing how underfunded the National Park Service is, it is remarkable how well it does what it does, overcoming obstacles both natural and political to deliver once-in-a-lifetime memories for millions each year. This, this is the face the U.S. we want people everywhere to see. Something we have done right, arguably better than any other nation on Earth, and inspiring other countries to do the same, or at least similar.
Were I ever, by some quirk of fate or destiny, empowered to save only one federal government program, the National Park Service might just be it. It is too impactful on our nation's heritage, freedom, and sanity to allow it to wither due to lack of a robust budget. Meanwhile, here I have been living in Colorado for nearly five years and I have yet to visit Rocky Mountain National Park. Shame on me.