Dear National Parks Service: I understand the dilemma, I do. Even emptiness has a price tag; solitude sometimes comes with flush toilets, and access roads, and safety barriers to protect the inattentive from themselves. I have seen for myself dedicated men and women in their distinctive jackets and hats continually making do with less and maintaining equanimity in the face of privations. But we can't rob Peter to pay Paul, we cannot keep people--the poorest, most wrung-out, and overwhelmed among us, especially--from the solace that is our natural heritage.
When my old life came to a screeching halt, when I died one May night and was carried out of my house to accompany my cold-dead-too-young-too-happy-too-soon husband's pale body, I had to leave. I had to escape the house he'd lived in and died in. I had to leave the town we'd come to together, or know that whomever I'd have to become could never call it home. I went to the National Parks, I went to OUR National Parks. You see, when you have been shattered into a million jagged little pieces, you need space to put them all together again. You cannot see where the curved edges meet, or where the shapes intersect to reveal a picture, without a lot of room to spread out.
On the trail to a glacial lake in Montana, one finds her smile at the side of the path. The bison of Wyoming can show a girl what it means to stand fast; literally, as they block traffic until they deem us to have learned the lesson of patience and see fit to amble off. The pitch of the Tetons leave calves and resolve sinewy and powerful, while the windswept hoodoos of Utah whisper the value of the long view. A skyline drive through Virginia puts a girl above history: the blood soaked soil where thousands died in the name of equality rekindles a will to fight for what's right. Those are "days in whose light everything seems equally divine, opening a thousand windows to show us God."* There is the divine in all of us, every one, and we need these timeless spaces to help us find it.
On my walks I met young families, inculcating a love of the outdoors in their children who might be too young to remember the details but would always smile at the smell of pine. I met a man--a boy, really--traveling his patrimony before going to Iraq. A young Japanese woman shyly asked for a photo with her father, on their very first trip together without other family members, against a backdrop suitable for the grandeur of their shared adventure. A French man gently grasped my head and turned it to show me the moose almost hidden before us when language failed us. A thousand windows. A thousand.
There are those who will say that to fund the Parks, we must allow industry there. These places must be made productive, they will say, in order to have value. But they are already productive. They produce civic actors of all of us by giving us a taste of the awe-inspiring country we live in. They are already extractive: placing your hand on a rock, shot up from the earth toward the skies above, pulls a feeling of humility and possibility from deep inside one's chest. These spaces are not untouched, of course. There are gift shops, and frothy coffee drinks, and key chains with a bear and one's name emblazoned on it. (There are those spaces too, the ones like the NPR-A, that exist beyond the edges of the imagination and let us dream of where the wild things are, and they, too, need our attention and protection.) But these National Parks allow those of us who have been battered, and bullied, and tossed about by the exigencies of 21st Century life to take the long view. They foster resilience, the steadfastness we so sorely need now as much as ever.
I know you are underfunded. If I could put a note on my tax check with instructions to apply it all to you, I would gladly do so and double the amount while I was at it. We should be funding these treasures from the treasury. We owe our land that much. But in absence of that kind of commitment, can we not instead sell daily passes rather than only weekly ones (The average American gets only 10 paid days off a year--if that--surely they don't spend every single one exploring the parks?) Can we not collect on unpaid oil leases: couldn't we fulfill our vow to protect these spaces by enforcing the promises made to us by private companies yanking riches from our soil?
Please, don't leave us standing outside the Park gates, unable to scrounge together the coins and crumpled dollar bills to stand at the side of a canyon to watch the sun rise. Don't close our window and deny us a glimpse of the divine.
* John Muir, "My First Summer in the Sierra" (1911)