I visited: Gateway Arch National Park in St. Louis, an area many people groups have inhabited over the centuries, including the ancient Cahokia settlement and the Illini Confederacy.* I had visited once before it was established as a National Park, so I’m calling this my 12th NP.
Until this year my perception of National Parks was that they represented untouched (or restored) natural wonders. There’s no denying this area’s historical significance, and the Arch itself is a breathtaking structure. But I visit National Parks in pursuit of silence and wonder, so my attitude for this visit was dutiful at best and cynical at worst. Visiting Gateway Arch was a matter of convenience—Steve and I passed right by it on our route to visit his family, so why not stop in to cross it off my list? While we quickly wandered the grounds, I reflected on my goal of visiting all the National Parks in my lifetime (a goal I set after visiting Shenandoah in 2018). I felt new resolve that visiting every park shouldn’t be an end in itself but rather a simple means to the ends of exploration and relationship and reflection, reflection on our history and our future and my place in it all.
In 2012 my brother and I visited and took the ride up to the top of the Arch, but this year Steve and I stayed on the ground. While we wandered I took pictures nearly identical to some I took in 2012. I couldn’t help it—I love the way that standing so close to the structure gives you perspective that warps and contorts it, making its simple, iconic shape nearly unrecognizable.
*Each time I write about visiting a National Park, I’m trying to get in the habit of researching the area’s original inhabitants. It’s proving to be much more complicated than I expected, in spite of handy resources like this interactive map. That’s because North America has many thousands of years of human activity and history and because understanding the complex land ownership progression of any given plot of land requires much more work than a mere Google search. Searching something like “original inhabitants of St. Louis” turns up a variety of resources from a variety of perspectives with their own interests, and even the search query itself betrays a simplistic expectation that I’ll find a straightforward narrative. What I am learning is that I can transform even a task as complex (and, I think, worthwhile) as trying to understand the fraught history of the United States and Indigenous peoples into another checklist item: Visit Gateway Arch National Park (check). Research original inhabitants (check). Purchase collectible pin for my collection (check). Itemizing work like that tends only to inflate my self-esteem. Transformation, which requires deep attention and presence and surrender, isn’t something I can squeeze into a quick detour.