I visited: Rocky Mountain National Park, an area originally inhabited by the Ute and Arapaho people, among others. This was my 11th National Park.
My friend Becca invited me to join her on a road trip headed west, and the trip wound up providing an adventurous celebration for the end of my part-time church apprenticeship and the beginning of my month-long work sabbatical. Originally we set our sights on Banff National Park in Canada, but the unpredictability of the border reopening narrowed our ambitions. Instead we sprinted through a series of parks and monuments—Rocky Mountain, Devil’s Tower, Custer, Wind Cave, Badlands—in one week and even managed to visit friends in Minnesota on the way back. It was an incredible trip with an incredible friend.
In spite of my aspirations of visiting every National Park in the United States, I was skeptical about RMNP. For many decades, generations of my family have spent weeks at a time in Gunnison National Forest in western Colorado. Gunnison feels like the closest thing we have to a home country, although none of us originated there or owns land there. Most of us live in Texas or Oklahoma now. As a child my dad slept with his siblings on the ground under the awning of his parents’ camping trailer in Dorchester. As a child I slept only a few miles away from those campgrounds in rustic cabins with my family, and now we sleep in much-less-rustic cabins a few miles farther away. In spite of each generation’s trajectory toward more comfortable lodging, we always spend our time there doing the same things: hiking, trout fishing, pitching washers, and asking each other why on earth we choose to live most of the year anywhere else.
So why, I wondered, would I want to visit a developed National Park with hordes of other visitors when I could return to the wilder regions of the state farther southwest? But we did, thanks to good fortune (and Becca’s good planning ahead) acquiring tickets from the limited pool the day before, and I loved it. A few years ago I visited Glacier National Park. The dramatic, swooping mountains took my breath away for seven days straight. They seemed altogether more graceful and lively than the stately, solemn peaks (albeit still breathtaking) that surrounded my childhood in Gunnison. I didn’t know Rockies could look that way. In RMNP the mountains present as a blend of the two styles, the grand southern peaks beginning to give way to the fluid northern shapes.
The crowds proved to be as dense as the headlines and social media warned they’d be. We scrapped plans for a morning hike near Bear Lake when even the massive parking lot for the shuttle bus had no open spaces. Admittedly the rapid elevation change made hiking difficult, anyway—just 24 hours before we’d been about 10,000 feet lower. Instead we took our time driving the Trail Ridge Road out and back, with Becca noticing my anxiety (sharp turns with no guardrails!!) and generously offering to take the wheel.
The overlooks were crowded enough that, on more than one occasion, I overheard people making banal observations that were almost verbatim to observations being made only a few feet away. Things like, “Oh no, someone dropped their hat down there!” and, “Ooh, look at that little pool!” Often at these parks I’ll hear myself make similarly trite comments and feel self-conscious about the unoriginality: How many people have stood in this exact spot and said exactly the same thing under their breath?
It had me thinking about the experience of wonder and discovery. We visit National Parks in order to experience wonder, but there is no discovery, at least not discovery that is new to the human race. There is nothing about visiting a well-worn paved overlook that accomplishes anything especially new or valuable, even if (like me) you find ways to chronicle or share the experience, or if it’s an objective in the larger goal (like mine) of visiting every National Park. Literally hundreds of people will do the same thing that very same day.
But of course the wonder is real, and the experience of it is self-evidently meaningful. It feels like discovery because it is new to us, and the unique circumstances of my body taking in this particular moment in time and space actually is a new development in history. I think the little voice in my head that squeaks questions about what we’re actually accomplishing here? is merely the echo of things like capitalism and social media. It’s also the voice of my insecurity about my life and career and choices, how I compare myself to my peers and their successes to fret about what I plan to do with my one wild and precious life, to quote Mary Oliver. In other words, it’s the voice that isn’t especially interested in my flourishing, just my dissatisfaction. Yes, a life spent escaping through novelty and experiences can wind up being a pretty empty life, especially if that escape involves mindless, unsustainable consumption. But I think the difficulty I face when I try to dwell in the present moment—a moment of wonder that accomplishes nothing—is a different kind of illness, an illness that can lead to a similarly empty life. I’m thankful this sabbatical is giving me room to face it.
In that light, National Parks serve as locations of shared wonder, where those who came before us literally paved the way for us to find it, and where we actively work to preserve it. (That so many of these parks occupy land inhabited by or even sacred to other people groups is a subject for a future post.) That the wonder elicits so little original thought—”Ooh, look at that little pool!”—doesn’t undermine its value, because the measure of wonder isn’t what it enables us to produce. The measure of wonder is something more like how attentively we meet it—a measure of our own capacity—and that’s what I’m trying to recover. At its best I think this is what religion offers, too, a series of traditions and sacred texts that serve as paved roads to locations of shared wonder, not to keep people out but to help them find it, to say: “You gotta see this!”
After driving most of the Trail Ridge Road, Becca and I managed to find parking near Bear Lake, and it was still crowded with people. We stopped to admire a family of ducks, and a few other families noticed us noticing and stopped, too. Later we sat on a bench, and Becca read a different Mary Oliver poem, “When I am Among the Trees.” I am here to tell you that in my thirty-two years of life, I have found few pleasures more heavenly than a good friend reading you a Mary Oliver poem by a lake after a long day at a National Park. In that poem, the narrator (who is “so distant from the hope of myself”) listens to the voices of trees:
‘It’s simple,’ they say,
‘and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
with light, and to shine.’
Soon we gathered our things to leave. A family was walking by, and we asked them to take our picture. Like you do, we then switched places so we could take their picture. Identical framing, identical backdrop, distinct faces.