History is a funny animal. People can get lost in the mists of time. We’ve tried to rescue the diverse and untold stories of the people who have been central to the parks’ salvation. While presidents Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt and tycoon John D. Rockefeller Jr. were powerful supporters, the parks’ authentic story is really a bottom-up one of those from every conceivable background—race, creed, and color; male and female—who fell in love with a place and heroically dedicated their lives to save it.
There was Lucy Peabody of Denver, who, as the quietly determined vice regent of the Colorado Cliff Dwellings Association, broke away from a publicity-hungry group led by the charismatic and complicated Virginia McClurg. The group wanted to make the prehistoric ruins of Mesa Verde “their” park—a women’s park—rather than “our” national park. But Peabody wholeheartedly believed that only as a national park could Mesa Verde be saved for future generations, and for those efforts, we salute her.
There was Capt. Charles Young, who was born to former slaves in Kentucky. His father had escaped bondage during the Civil War to enlist in the Union army, and Young followed his father’s example of military service, becoming only the third black man to graduate from West Point—and the first to be put in charge of a national park. He commanded the African American Buffalo Soldiers, who guarded Yosemite, Sequoia, and General Grant parks from vandals and illegal sheepherders in the 1900s. Young served with distinction, and his troops loved him.
There was also George Melendez Wright, the brilliant biologist whose field notes on Yosemite brought greater awareness of its wildlife, and Lancelot Jones, who opted to sell his personal property to the government rather than to developers, to help create Biscayne National Park in Florida. To this day, we’re enjoying the fruits of all these labors.
Naming my favorite national park would be like discussing a favorite piece of music. So many different pieces work on me in so many different ways. Ultimately, though, it would have to be a combination of Yosemite and Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. It was my experience as a filmmaker at Yosemite that awakened my then-45-year-old dormant memory of the time my father took me to Shenandoah when I was just six, the first and only trip we ever took together as father and son.
My mother was slowly dying of cancer, and our household had become a grim and demoralized place. The trip was a two-day oasis in my childhood. We saw a bear, I think. We turned over rotting logs and caught a bright-red salamander, and my father named every butterfly and tree we came across. I remember lying awake at night during that trip to Shenandoah, as I would do many years later in Yosemite, thinking how great it was to be in this magical place, just my dad and me.
I, in turn, eventually took one of my daughters, Lilly, to Shenandoah when she was about 13. This time, I most definitely saw bears. And I’ve taken my two other daughters, Sarah and Olivia, to national parks as well. Each time I go, I have a new experience.
During the Depression, the parks thrived. They not only enjoyed the first stimulus money from FDR’s New Deal—shovel-ready projects, to use the current terminology—but they brought more than a paycheck to the workers. They brought Americans closer together. Attendance at the parks actually went up; they enjoyed a heyday.
Even after working on a film and a book for the better part of ten years, the most pressing questions I ask myself are: How soon can I see the Grand Canyon again? How quickly can I travel to Alaska? When will I get back to Yosemite? I am so passionate about the parks that when I was at Yosemite just recently, it transformed me once more. It rearranged the molecules, so to speak. The parks have done this for others as well. Just last week, a woman who had seen a short clip of our film came up to me and said, “You need to get this out to all the churches in America.” She had felt that spiritual dimension. This is the power our parks have.
Assuming we’re still counting our pennies this year and next, there would be no more cost-effective way to spend our money than a) here in the United States and b) at these magnificent lands. I can only hope to share the gift that’s at our disposal, and that Americans put down their video games, log off Facebook and the Internet, and go out and see the real world we live in.