email a friend iconprinter friendly iconAmerica's Ultimate Parks 2009: Ken Burns' The National Parks
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It was 1959 and I was six years old. I remembered climbing into the car before dawn, the long drive to Front Royal, Virginia, the way the Skyline Drive carved slow arcs through deciduous forest. I saw the cabin that would be ours for two glorious days, and felt the exhaustion of long hikes on small legs. I could hear my father telling me about the trees and lizards and butterflies. I could feel his hand in mine.

Was this a religious experience? "Nature with a capital N," as Muir and Emerson called it? Maybe. I can't say. But every person I interviewed, every figure whose writings I researched, and every member of my crew related a similarly transcendent or life-changing experience in one or another of the parks. All felt dwarfed by the landscapes yet somehow bigger for it. All came seeking solitude but left with a sense of kinship. And all departed believing they'd been privy to something incredibly important.

When we think of history, it can seem distant and abstract. John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt may have lived in a different page, but they were not so different. America's landscapes stirred them the same as us and compelled them to act. Since then, the parks have been built, expanded, and reconceived on the backs of little-known but equally passionate individuals.

Thank George Melendez Wright, the wildlife biologist who fought tirelessly to protect parks as habitats—glimpses of primeval America—rather than glorified petting zoos. Thank Marjorie Stoneman Douglas, who didn't actually like the Everglades but recognized the significance of that swamp when the rest of the country couldn't have cared less. Unlike the great castles and cathedrals of the Old World, America's natural treasures are works forever in progress; they continue to shift and grow over time. Today the Park Service administers rivers and trails, battlefields and monuments. In a place like Manzanar, the Japanese internment camp of World War II, it even administers a site of great shame. It's a measure of a nation's maturity when it can admit such mistakes.

People always ask me if after a decade spent in the company of rangers and RVs, I'm done visiting the national parks. I tell them that in recent years, my oldest daughter and I rafted the Colorado just before she got married. My middle daughter and I retraced my childhood trip to Shenandoah—sharing the "practical immortality," as Muir called it, of trans-generational experience. My youngest and I visited Zion and Bryce and Glacier. In a few months we're heading to Yosemite, and after that, who knows.

So no, I'm not done with the national parks. Far from it. In these troubled times it's nice to know they're out there. By the people. For the people. And for all time.

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