29: National Parks — America’s Best Idea

29: National Parks — America’s Best Idea

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Spirit of America

National Parks — America’s Best Idea

Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.

~John Muir, Our National Parks

I whipped the vehicle to the side of the road, put it in Park, and jammed on the emergency brake. I jumped out and joined about fifty other people along the banks of the Madison River. We watched a pair of trumpeter swans gliding gracefully through the ripples of water, guarding six cygnets. Although I had seen swans before, rarely had I encountered so many babies with their parents.

My excitement matched the other Yellowstone National Park tourists. I really wasn’t a tourist — I had lived at the park’s west gate in West Yellowstone, Montana for more than a year, and I had resided in the region for nearly seven years. Even though I was a local, each time I traveled to America’s first national park it felt like the first time.

Geysers, grizzlies, and mountain goats all fascinate me. Bison, eagles, swans, and elk stir my soul, and I love watching paint pots bubble and translucent water pools sparkle.

National parks are America’s best idea, preserving unique lands and conserving wildlife for the public’s enjoyment; Yellowstone was the first, set aside in 1872.

I began visiting national parks during the 1960s, when my parents and I drove from our Iowa home to the western states. Mom and Dad were like 1800s pioneers, envisioning vast landscapes and anticipating natural marvels; so we trekked west. Our family vacations were spent in Yellowstone, Teton and other forested and plains areas. I guess I caught the “park bug” from them for, after college, I moved to Montana and lived in Yellowstone country for more than fourteen years.

I took a job as a reporter for the West Yellowstone News, and within a year became editor. I witnessed and wrote about the release of wolves into the park, photographed bison and snowmobilers, and reported on the increasing number of tourists who traveled to this unique area. I hiked trails, took snow coach rides, and observed Sandhill cranes conducting their spring love dances. I even watched a pair of such cranes taking on a mama moose who was leading her gangly-legged youngster to a pond and must have ventured too close to the cranes’ nest. That led to amazing sights and sounds, from flapping wings to deep-throated bellows. Parents fiercely protect their young, no matter their species.

Yellowstone never ceases to surprise me: a golden orb of harvest moon in October breaking through the steam at a geyser basin; the sound of elk bugling in September as fountains of water shoot up; a massive, wooly bull bison taking a siesta under a pine tree — an even greater surprise when you unknowingly encounter that great creature as you round the corner of a walking trail!

The smells of America’s first national park are also incredible, from the sulfurous geysers to the fields of blue flax, yellow sunflowers, and purple lupine. Canvases of colorful wildflowers mingle with hues of greening grasses and all wave in the pine-scented breeze, stirring the senses as an artist stirs his paints. Yellowstone is magical, mystical, and vibrant.

Photographs from the early days of Yellowstone and other parklands speak to the acceptance of the world’s first national park and of the importance of every one created thereafter. From Yosemite to the Grand Canyon, from Zion in Utah to Glacier on the Montana-Canada border, each park represents a unique environment with different species of wildlife and plant life. From red-rock deserts to alpine glaciers, from ocean coasts to prickly-pear plains, these environs beckon humans to return to a historic time, whether that’s the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde or the rainforests of the Olympic Peninsula. Every national park calls to the human spirit.

Despite the vast numbers of people who visit, one can find solitude in America’s natural treasures. Perhaps that’s by a lake or on top of a mountain; perhaps that’s by the seashore or in a canyon. Sometimes the tranquility must simply be created by slowing down, even stopping, not racing through like one is driving an interstate.

The National Park Service turned 100 years old in 2016. America’s best idea — to preserve, to conserve, to welcome and to educate the people about their public lands — began with visionaries. It remains because Americans and others value and appreciate the concept, the outcomes, and the opportunities these landscapes provide for recreation, refreshment, and replenishment. Even before the Park Service was established as an agency, history notes those who saw value in setting aside lands for the enjoyment of all the people, not for simply a select few who could afford to buy vast lands.

Since that day on the Madison River in Yellowstone, I have spent time in many of our nation’s special parks. I’ve hiked dirt trails at Bryce Canyon in Utah, photographed fields of white bear grass in Glacier, and heard elk bugle during misty autumn mornings in Rocky Mountain National Park. I’ve camped in Olympic, fished in Teton, and picnicked at the Grand Canyon. Many generations have benefited from the visions and visionaries of 1872 and 1916, including me, and future generations will continue to do so. The spirit of America reigns in our national parks, for they remain America at its natural best.

~Gayle M. Irwin

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