Happy 105th Birthday, National Park Service. I am so happy for you.
Those words seem weak, lacking my true feelings in a commonly stated platitude. Sure, I could add an exclamation point, but even that comes up short. “Thank you” means nothing, compared to what you have done for me. You have changed my life; you redirected a lost soul with your majestic beauty and endless adventures. You let a dreamer have a place to dream and gave a kid who felt more at home walking alone in the woods a place to rekindle a relationship with his soul. You have taken away stresses and pain and replaced them with tear-jerking panoramas more stunning than any picture can capture. You saved me from a life of regret and pain and mistakes of my 20’s; you let me blaze a new trail for my life, passing through the purest wilderness in existence. You are my soul mate and it might be fucking cheesy to say it, but I don’t care. I owe you my life, National Park Service, and nothing I can do or say will ever repay you for what you mean to me.
I was seven years old when I first understood the fragile nature of our National Parks. It was 1988 and under the shadowy crater of Mount Saint Helens, I watched and wept at the fires burning through Yellowstone National Park. I had traveled to Yellowstone a year earlier, becoming mesmerized by geysers and bison, hot springs and jaw-dropping canyons. I grew up next to Mount Rainier, but that was my backyard. As a kid, the towering trees and glaciated mountains were all I knew, and I assumed that the whole world had the same backyard. Yellowstone changed that. The animals from my books that seemed so incredible were walking and grunting, passing mere inches from our stuffed-to-the-brim Ford Festiva. Once I saw Old Faithful in person, that silly hole in the ground that was in all my cartoons, I was hooked. The National Parks captivated my soul and there was no turning back. As the flames of the 1988 fires swept closer and closer to Old Faithful, I realized that our natural, national treasures weren’t permanent. In the blink of an eye, they could be gone.
I admit, I ignored you for years. I was distracted, blinded by the temporary, flashy things in life. You waited patiently, though, welcoming me back on my yearly trips with my family and dealing with me being a snotty 90s teenager. You still loved me when I had a bowl cut, and you still haven’t judged me for it. You have always been the one constant in my life that has never disappointed me or been disappointed in me. You have always been there to recharge my batteries, letting me work with you for a summer when I wasn’t sure if college was the route for me. You let me hike and camp, remembering what was important for my soul. You rewarded me in an onslaught of stunning sunsets and remote mountain peaks, wildlife encounters and panoramas that still make my eyes well up when I think about them.
I turned to the National Parks again in my early 30s after realizing that the daily grind just wasn’t for me. Nine to five and I didn’t get along. I needed nature and to have access to wilderness. I needed fresh air and sunsets and miles of walking to remote alpine lakes. Without it, I was a ball of stress, dependent on any number of substances prescribed to cheer me up. I needed my soul to be filled, and the only way I found peace was returning to our National Parks. I am most often found roaming the National Parks of the West, spending most of my days hiking in the always breathtaking Olympic National Park, out in Yellowstone or the Tetons. I have now dedicated my life to you, no matter where this all goes.
To just say thank you for existing for over 100 years is not enough. You are, for good or ill, the reason I exist. I can’t imagine how life would be without you and frankly, I don’t want to ever think that. You have inspired generations, made families closer with family vacations and saved souls who needed you. To me, you are the last pure lands in the country if not the world, unspoiled beauty for as far as the eye can see. You are where time is irrelevant and only seasons matter. You are paradise. And now the words once again losing meaning.
I can’t say enough about your importance, but I hope you appreciate my thoughts. I love you. You are family. I always have your back, and I will fight for you until my last breath. Thank you, National Park Service. I don’t deserve such amazing places.
As I wish you a happy birthday, I can’t help but worry about you. I want you to be around forever, accessible and wild, clean and beautiful. It has been 105 years of existence for you, yet you still aren’t as appreciated as I want. I hike to your mountain tops and sit in awe, unable to fathom how someplace as gorgeous as you isn’t fully funded and protected. I visit your lodges and see the need for repairs. I drive your roads and battle potholes. I circle parking lots looking for a spot to park, because so many people want to experience your beauty. I watch as your budget is politicized and reduced, forcing you to do more with less, as crowds continue to swarm at your gates. You’ll welcome them as you always have, and lives will be changed.
I just wish you were respected. I wish you could have a budget that would allow you to be innovated to handle the growing numbers of people who want to love National Parks. I want your creed on the Roosevelt Arch in Yellowstone, “For the benefit and Enjoyment of the People,” to hold true for all people in another 105 years. We will have battles with those who don’t cherish you; but I assure you, we will win if we work together. While I won’t be around for the next 105 years, I will do everything in my power to make sure others can be saved by you too.
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