Read The National Parks: America’s Best Ideas for more.
You and I, and everyone else in America, own the most stunning oceanfront property, the most amazing mountain ranges, the highest free-falling waterfall on the continent, and the most spectacular collection of geothermal features on the planet. I knew the national parks were beautiful and that there must be interesting human stories behind their creation. But I was unprepared for how they touched some of the deepest emotions I’ve ever felt.
The parks can be simultaneously humbling and ennobling. We’re aware of our insignificance, yet we feel part of the larger order of things. It’s a spiritual, transcendental experience—give it whatever name you want. It’s why people sometimes use biblical references to describe Yosemite, first set aside in 1864, or Yellowstone, our first truly “national” park, or the Grand Canyon, essentially a geological library and the greatest canyon on the face of the earth. My crew and I have been literally brought to tears as we worked on this project, as have many other people over the years. As one man encountering Yosemite Falls for the first time said to his companions, “Now let me die, for I am happy.”
The historical figures we studied, the consultants who helped us understand those men and women, and the people we’ve been sharing the parks with today have all had that moment when suddenly they felt connected to everything else in the universe. That ain’t bad for a day’s work.
The real secrets of the parks are their little-known places and unseen wonders. When we were floating down the Colorado River during filming and going over those dramatic rapids, every little side canyon that we didn’t have the benefit of seeing from the rim of the Grand Canyon had its own wonders. The way the light struck in the back, the way the water fell, the way new waterfalls sprouted up in the spring because the melting snow needed a place to go—for me, the most marvelous point about the parks is their hidden and beautiful layers.
Every park is like an onion. The layers are sometimes very subtle, and each layer takes time to explore. A very nice old ranger at Zion told us, “You could be a ranger here if you knew the answer to three questions: Where’s the bathroom? How far is it to Las Vegas? And what’s the fastest way out of here?” But the tourist who has the casual “windshield experience” by driving to Yosemite’s Inspiration Point can still take a picture that looks awfully like an Ansel Adams shot. The person who parks the car and hikes half a mile in has a better experience than the person who drives through. The person who hikes two miles in gets an even better experience. And the person who backpacks in and spends two weeks immersed in the high country is, of course, delivered an ecstatic religious experience on the par of naturalist John Muir’s.
Muir was, to me, the most colorful character in the history of the parks. A Scottish-born wanderer, he fell in love with Yosemite when he first walked into it, and for a while he worked there at a sawmill. Muir could have become a titan of industry, but the backpack of civilization slipped off him, to paraphrase Ralph Waldo Emerson. He became an apostle, a prophet, of a new kind of Americanism. Muir woke us up to the fact that all this beauty would be lost to development unless it was championed.
The man did unbelievably bizarre and rapturous things in California’s High Sierra in the name of the national parks. He would claw his way up into a big pine tree in the middle of a raging thunderstorm to find out what a tree felt like during a storm. He would soak sequoia cones in water and drink the purple liquid that seeped out so he could become tree-wise and “sequoical,” as he put it. He would watch a lichen on a rock for an entire day; he would contemplate the life of a raindrop. He would climb mountains with very little equipment to speak of, except perhaps for nails hammered into the soles of his shoes, and he would think nothing of covering 50 miles in a two-day excursion with just crackers, oatmeal, and tea for nourishment. Everywhere he turned, Muir believed he was witnessing the work and presence of God. So enspirited was he that I think he must have struck people, as William Cronon, the historian, says in our film, as “an ecstatic holy man.”