My first park was Lettuce Lake Park.
Boardwalks, alligators, back flips off the swings.
Then it was Nye park.
After school programs, capture the flag, that rickety old spaceship slide that burned your buns in the hot Florida sun.
Then it was Medard Park.
Dirt hills, football, frisbee.
You could always find my brothers and me on any small piece of land with trees and streams causing trouble in our unique ways. For me it was searching under rocks and logs for lizards and snakes. For others it was starting fires. To each their own.
Growing up in Florida, my concept of national parks was sparse. I was always outside in the woods, but the only National Park units I saw were monuments and battlefields. The woods were thick and there were no high points, so the concept of scenic views was reserved for the beach.
This first changed on a trip to the Blue Ridge Mountains in South Carolina. Seeing waterfalls, throwing rocks off cliffs, and climbing to a watch tower where we could look out on three states! The introduction of topography was a game changer. The trees were still thick, the air thicker, but the adventure was new.
It wasn’t until the seminal road trip to the west that a true concept of capital P, Parks, took shape. This was before the internet, even before Encarta, shit, even before 90210, so we previously had to rely on books to learn about the West. Sitting on the library floor looking at pictures of mountains and bears and weird deep sea fish. Always dreaming bigger than humidity.
After a mind numbingly treacherous four days driving through Texas, the West began to take shape. We eventually made it to Arizona where the disappointment of Petrified Forest National Park hit us full force. So what your telling me is that this a national park for these little rocks on the ground? I thought this was going to be a forest of rocks! Where are the rock trees! How can you call this a forest if you can see more than 20 feet? Oh, check out these cool pueblo buildings!…
But upon leaving, we met the painted desert. Then the Grand Canyon. The west had won.
From there my life began to be measured in road trips.
Joshua Tree National Park. Where the rocks were piled high, but the adventure existed within their cracks. Where the cacti that looked the softest often required the most effort to remove the spines.
Zion National Park. Where the size of the canyon walls were only surpassed by the size of our smiles while exploring them. Finding new levels of fear on the edge of Angel’s Landing.
Then Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks. Where when driving between we not only learned of the glory of dashboard cured deer jerky, but also experienced the Rocky Mountains for the first time. The scale of the wildlife was dwarfed by the scale of the mountains.
We traveled far and we traveled wide. My mom pushing the limits of the odometer to show us the diverse beauty of the Earth. Probably pushing the limits of her sanity trying to keep us content between stops.
I think she knew we needed to run, so we always ended up at a park. Camped under the stars. Hiding in the shadows of trees. Running circles around common sense. Finding ourselves. Making connections to the earth that would guide each of us along our future path.
And then, once I was unleashed into the freedom of adulthood the seeds of my youth began flowering into one trip after another. Finding a career path as an intern at Yellowstone. Finding my appreciation for plants as a seasonal at Craters of the Moon. Falling in love with the desert while working at Joshua Tree. Along each stop exploring the surroundings. Returning to my old favorites and exploring the nooks and crannies of everything in between. Chasing the ghosts of Abbey, Kerouac, and Muir.
This year marks the 100th Anniversary of the National Park Service; the protector of sacred land; America’s Best Idea. For it’s centennial birthday the park has challenged you to Find Your Park. You have 410 NPS units to choose from if you want to limit yourself. But the challenge is simpler than that. Find Your Park is an existential experience. It’s that outdoor place that makes you feel at home. The place where your blood pressure drops and the corners of your mouth rise. Your breathing softens and you become grateful for your place. Where you develop a better understanding of how you fit into time, space, and history.
For some this designation is easy.
For others it may take some thought.
Or is it Zion?
For some of it, it’s a smaller place. Closer to home. Somewhere without national recognition. A place where your experiences are endless and will never leave your soul. Even if it’s just down the street.
The Santa Rosa Plateau.
For me, the focal word in Find Your Park is not PARK. The park is the destination. For me the focus is FIND. The Journey. The Adventure. The New. The Familiar. The Undiscovered. The Right Around the Next Bend.
So get outside. Go search for something. Go find something. Go get lost in wonder.