For the past ten years, I have worked to create a documentary on the history of the national parks. My team and I shot more than 800 hours of footage and stuffed file cabinets full of amazing stories. (Who knew that Rudyard Kipling was a huge fan of Yellowstone?) Yet what impressed me most about the national parks was not the lore or forgotten facts. It was how utterly American they are. That's not as obvious as it might sound. In its early years, America was plagued by great insecurity. We were a new nation, untested and without history. We had none of the monuments or cathedrals of Europe. What we had instead was nature—lots of it—that was spectacular in a way Europe could never match. And we held it dear. Wilderness became part of who we were, at once a point of pride and a mark of national character.
When Lewis and Clark returned from their expedition in 1806, they sat down with Thomas Jefferson (yes, explorers could get an audience with the president in those days) and told him of the wonders they'd seen: the Rocky Mountains, the Missouri River, the plains that stretched for countless acres. Jefferson was amazed. He believed it would take hundreds of generations to fill up such an enormous land. He was wrong. By the end of that century, the Indian Wars were nearly over, the Transcontinental Railroad was complete, and Buffalo Bill had introduced the world to the Wild West—ironic, since the West by that time contained very few buffalo. Then, in an 1893 speech at the Chicago World's Fair, historian Frederick Jackson Turner declared the American frontier closed. The infinite expanses we'd come to think of as a birthright were suddenly endangered. Luckily, scores of determined people, Muir and Teddy Roosevelt among them, rushed into action.
To save these places, they came up with a completely novel idea. In effect, they took the Declaration of Independence and applied it to the wilderness. They resolved to take the nation's most legendary landscapes and place them in the hands of ordinary Americans to be governed by the people, for the people, and for all time.
Anyone who's been to the Yosemite Valley knows that it's impossible to forget your first glimpse. My initial exposure was in May 2003 on our film's second shoot. I had driven east from San Francisco until I found myself on California 120, a two-lane country highway. As you enter the park you run through a few switchbacks, past some unremarkable forest, and then, without warning, the Valley just opens up. Some wise traffic-safety planner has provided a pullout for any driver whose heart is still beating. I remember standing beside my car with the afternoon sun at my back, tears in my eyes.
Over the next few days my crew and I filmed all over Yosemite. We climbed to the top of Nevada Falls and I shot facing down over the plume, leaning out so far my producer had to hold me by the belt (not recommended). We packed in equipment by mule to backcountry camps. We sucked in all we could from dawn until well after dusk, but couldn't see everything.
On the last night I should have been exhausted, but I couldn't sleep. Instead, a memory came rushing back. I saw myself as a young boy, my mother dying of cancer and my father seldom at home. And then something bubbled up that I had forgotten: the weekend my father took me to Shenandoah National Park.