This OpEd originally appeared in National Parks Traveler on November 6, 2019
Our community of park enthusiasts are avid counters and collectors, of parks, passport stamps, pictures, pins, apparel, and any number of other things. All of us collect experiences and memories. Ask any serious park system aficionado how many parks they have visited, and you are likely to get a reflexive answer, given with the same depth of thought that goes into providing a name. Hi, my name’s Dave, by the way. I am one among fewer than a hundred people known to have claimed visits to all 419 current National Park Service units. We are a small group. But despite devoting much of the past seven years to exploring our nation’s park system at every opportunity, I often feel as if I’ve barely scratched the surface. The more I know and see, the more I must accept the vast unknown and unseen.
Some park goers might be surprised to know I’ve never completed a junior ranger program, have taken barely a half dozen entrance sign photos, and can count the number of times I’ve navigated our parklands down a river with both hands. Some might consider a park unvisited without these activities. That’s not to say I don’t appreciate them. When my park friend Carl, another of the intrepid explorers to visit the 400+, showed his junior ranger badge collection to me, I reveled in the experience, the perseverance, and the pure joy of the accomplishment. I have my own, decidedly more modest collection of badges, all given to me by rangers who wanted to offer a token in response to my love of the parks. My collection is to Carl’s what a high school baseball player is to a major league star. Still, they mean something to me for the emotion behind the gift. Likewise, I smile when I pass others posing for their entrance sign photos. As the slogan goes, I brake for brown signs, too. As for the people that make these or other activities a mandatory element of the park experience, the thing is, they’re right.
A group that openly struggled and debated this question, the nonprofit group of devoted NPS fans in the National Park Travelers Club (NPTC), arrived at the only practical answer long before I discovered and joined their ranks five and a half years ago. The members proved such a delightful, fascinating and knowledgeable boon to my own park experiences, I became the membership director to help spread the membership’s uncompromising love of our parks, the tie that binds. The NPTC decided to leave the definition of a park visit up to the individual, according to their own judgment. Visits are recorded by each member on the honor system. Any hypercompetitive person tempted to betray that trust for the sake of a number and bogus claim cheats themselves out of a priceless life experience.
That isn’t to say the members don’t have strong opinions on the topic. The problem is, there are almost as many answers to the question as there are members. The most common basic expectation, shared by nearly all, is to physically be inside a park’s boundary. Most have more expansive expectations, though these can be hard to satisfy at remote units.
If the park visitor is seeking an entrance sign photo at Cape Krusenstern or Aniakchak, I’ve got some bad news for them. To me and many others, the experience of studying the nuances of the tundra and gazing up to the Igichuk Hills, or flying through the Gates of Aniakchak to land on Surprise Lake, climb a hillside, and stare at the six-mile wide caldera with the still smoking Vent Mountain testifying as to the Pacific Rim of Fire’s awesome power, is worth a hundred entrance sign photos. Enough visitors seeking out the sixty-one national parks as designated by Congress wanted an entrance sign picture for Kobuk Valley National Park, the NPS in Kotzebue ordered blue rally towels emblazoned with the park’s name for those chartering a plane to the park’s famous dune fields and river valleys. And yes, I posed for a picture on Kobuk’s dunes with the rally towel, alongside my travel companions Chris and Bill. Our pilot, Jared, who’s been to the park countless times, must have been thinking, “Tourists! At least they put food on the table.” Nor would there be a park sign photo op in Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve, though the Ambler River’s mosquitoes did try to make an example out of me in a tireless pursuit that would have made Count Dracula proud. It took the miracles of modern science, in the form of DEET, to save my pilot, Mike, and me at Yukon-Charley’s Coal Creek. The old gold dredge standing idle near the airstrip commands a flying blood donor crew that could be mistaken for a flock of small birds. Did I visit these parks? Technically, yes, but in terms of exploring their vast expanses, only as much as a scratch changes the shape of a car. The mosquitoes vote “no” and ravenously await my recalcitrant return.
The quest to see them all left me so moved by what I hadn’t seen, I created a working document for my wife, Kareen, titled, “Unfinished Park Business.” The first draft contained thirty-four park excursions to quench the never-ending thirst to explore. For Kareen, it’s a vacation list to browse, with adventures including a high probability of being eaten left to me alone, thank you. This is the woman who asked if I had life insurance while I hung a thousand feet over the Colorado River. No captive to sticky sentiment is she. We whittled a dozen items off the list in the first year of its existence. But I added ten new ones. The hopelessness of it leaves me undaunted. Like Sisyphus, I am compelled to roll the stone up the mountain. Perhaps, in the effrontery of suggesting one could ever see all these places, I offended the gods, too.
All this brings us back to the question at hand. What is a park visit? The answer lies in the nature of the parks themselves. These places, of both the human and natural worlds, exceed the complexity and diversity of the people that visit them. Possible connective threads between park and person are as endless as the depth of grandeur and understanding. We each come to that place on our own terms, built upon our own experiences and personality. It is as it must be.
The parks guided me to a better person, more aware of the world around me and its fragility, the precious life that shares our orbiting rock, and the enormous sacrifices made by humankind along the way. The parks continue to give the gift of inspiration and the aspiration to exit stage left having offered more than I took. They heal me when I am broken, and remind me that we can all strive to be a better human being. A park is visited when it speaks to our heart, and leaves something more in it than we had when we arrived.
Adieu, park explorer. Time is short, and I must tend to my stone.