This year the National Park Service celebrates its 100th birthday. This is really, really exciting, especially if you're a national parks buff like myself. I grew up resisting the outdoors—that was my dad's territory, and once my parents divorced, blind loyalty to my mother meant eschewing anything that happened where we couldn't watch TV. And then I grew up and out, rebelled against mom and dad, came back around to understand that parents are just people with their own baggage, and spent a decade or two figuring out what I like. Turns out, I like being outside, and a great place to be outside is inside a national park.
It started for me when I was living in New Orleans but had gotten a job offer for the following fall at UMBC. I won the time lottery: I could basically phone it in at the old gig and didn't have to work at the new one for nine months. This good fortune translated into weeks upon weeks of waking up early, getting the bare minimum of work-for-pay completed, and then riding my bicycle around all afternoon. When I'd get home I'd smoke just a little bit of weed and then settle in with Ken Burns documentaries before turning in.
I fell in love with Ken Burns and his slow fade in/fade out. And the music—Ashokan Farewell is the sound of the Civil War to me. Burns has the music composed before he makes the film, that's how much he understands the role of music in storytelling. First up was his 12-hour (yes! 12-hour) documentary, "The National Parks: America's Best Idea." It's a hard thing to watch totally sober, but a little bit high? This thing is magic. John Muir is going on and on about nature, the soul, the slow roll of grasses and the hard edges of craggy mountain outcrops. Teddy Roosevelt is being an imperialist abroad, and brings it right back home. The politics of the park pit workers against rich tourists against evil corporations who want to build a dam across the Grand Canyon against guys like Ranger Sheldon who tumbles off a bus from Chicago at the gates of Yosemite and finds himself. For a nerd like me in an altered state, this stuff was inspirational.
I started visiting parks. I got myself one of those National Parks Passports on a trip to Barataria Preserve outside of New Orleans in October 2007, and I was off, collecting my cancellation stamps and building all my vacations around the next park. Fast forward to the big NPS birthday year and the love is still real. My ladyfriend knows this well, so this past month meant a couple of field trips to area parks to celebrate.
First up was a surprise trip to Harper's Ferry. The ladyfriend wouldn't tell me where we were going that day, but I of course knew it was the NPS birthday bash in DC, and I expected we were headed there to be part of the giant human rendering of the NPS shield they were doing on the Mall. That would have been awesome, but instead she took me to this perfect park in West Virginia to attend a naturalization ceremony before hiking up for a good view of the point where the Potomoc and Shenandoah rivers meet.
I'm as cynical as they come about U.S. nationalism. I understand that this country is founded in colonialism and slavery, and its promises all carry asterisks, so I was surprised to find the ceremony so moving. I could have done without the overwrought videos about how we're a nation built by and for immigrants—I'm pretty sure those being sworn in could testify better than I ever could that this is not always a nation of open arms—but the joy in the space took over all that. And when the deputy director of the park service gave everyone year passes to Harper's Ferry—"You own this now!"—my cold, dead heart melted just a little bit. In spite of it all, I'm idealistic, and I believe in the ideals of real democracy, even as our approximation is so deeply flawed. And Harper's Ferry, site of John Brown's raid, was integral in the final push to end slavery, and it is hallowed fucking ground. Go there, learn that story, and don't let anyone tell you something different. We all own that, and some of us should still be paying the price for it.
Next up was a different kind of trip. As beautiful as Harper's Ferry is—and it is breathtaking—Shenandoah National Park was a whole different show. We drove out to Virginia with the rest of the Labor Day traffic and as soon as we took the turn onto the famed Skyline Drive, we were in the different world only a national park can create. If this weren't protected, it'd be all McDonald's and combo KFC/Taco Bells. I love a nacho cheesy Chicken Gordita as much as the next guy, but oh boy am I grateful for a few days break from capitalism always trying to sell me something. Nature creates desires all on its own, and it was a magic weekend hiking, watching, and listening, a chance to, in John Muir's words, "wash my spirit clean."
But I'm myself, so of course I did some learning while I was there. Shenandoah was built to give east coasters easier access to a national park than having to go all the way out west. Folks were living and farming in what would become Shenandoah, and they were forcibly removed, their way of life ruined and traces of them largely erased from the landscape. And this doesn't begin to reckon with the people who were here before settler colonialists violently invaded. These parks have their own ugly histories—Barataria, for example, is part of Lafitte National Historical Park, named after a rogue slave trader. But here's the thing: I don't love our National Park System because it's clean—there's no clean living in racial capitalism—but I love it for the space they've made for me to be curious and to explore, on so many levels, what it means to be myself, and "American."