For all these things, I am grateful.

I woke up this morning thinking of this day two years ago. A hike up Mt. ‘Alava in the National Park of American Samoa highlighted my day. The temperature soared into the high nineties. Even Samoans wiped their brow and complained about the heat. Despite substantial shade over the 3.5-mile climb through a tropical forest, I struggled with the intense sunlight and humidity. Over the small summit area, a communication tower shares space with a gazebo. The concrete pad and railings adjacent to the tower serve as the summit overlook, commanding the harbor of Pago, Pago and the island of Tutuila’s backbone, a steep, dark green forested ridge leading away in two directions and dropping precipitously to the sea on both sides. As I took in the enchanting view, “flying squirrels,” Samoan fruit bats with 2-3-foot wingspans, glided overhead moving from tree to tree. The bats seemed to covet mid-day shade as much as I did. At dusk, thousands of these surprisingly majestic creatures fill the sky with their graceful aerial acrobatics.

The National Park of American Samoa stood as the last of the then-59 national parks as designated by Congress, and the 416th out of 417 National Park Service units, on my quest to see them all. The rangers in Pago, Pago overwhelmed me with kindness and assistance, motivating the line in Chapter 39: The Last Lap, “…I believe the staff here manages the kindest national park.” I wrote those words, and the full passage covering the park, during my final day on the island, seated in the small viewing room used to screen park films. The park service set me up with a desk and furnished reference books from their library to enhance the perspective. The park experience, the place and people, blessed me. The National Park of American Samoa underscored an inescapable point of my composite park odyssey with a flourish. The one thing that exceeds the island’s natural beauty is the human beauty exuded by the islanders themselves. Again and again, I found this to be true at parks across the country, but few overwhelmed me with this sentiment as did American Samoa.

As I stood on the island ridge, a familiar feeling overpowered me, the same one experienced in the shadow of 300-foot redwoods and at the Teetering Rock above Lake Clark’s Upper Twin Lake. I felt small yet connected to something infinitely large in harmony with the world around me. I felt rich beyond measure and forever thankful for this opportunity, a moment of total serenity, of peace without animosity or grief. The stress of our flawed human world melts away in this space, overwhelmed by a stronger, more durable force. These moments stay with me. My heart is full with gratitude. This is the lasting gift the parks have given to me.

A view from the ridgeline of Tutuila in the National Park of American Samoa

Beside the Teetering Rock above Upper Twin Lake in Lake Clark National Park.