Carmen George

Love letter from a ranger’s daughter: 10 gifts for you from 100 years of national parks

A group of children happily run up the side of a granite dome in Yosemite National Park’s Tuolumne Meadows, and all is right in the world.

This high Sierra paradise, fed by a crystal river and protected by granite peaks with names like Cathedral and Unicorn, looks much as it did a century ago, and that’s something to celebrate Thursday on top of Pothole Dome during a junior ranger walk celebrating the centennial of the National Park Service.

Yes, it’s the Park Service’s 100th birthday year, but we get all the gifts. Here’s a list of 10:

1. OMG, it’s so beautiful!

You could argue that we could end this column right here, but there are a few more things to talk about. Of course, take one look at a place like Yosemite Valley, and it’s pretty easy to understand why national parks exist.

As John Muir once said in his writings about Yosemite: “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike.”

Emma Kraft, 12, of Mammoth Lakes, told me something similar: “Nature is like back to the beginning. Everybody is so busy, and they are going to work, and they have a really busy schedule, but if they are in nature, everything is slow and calm and maybe they can learn to take a moment from their everyday life and their busyness and their stress and stuff, and they can calm down.”

2. Parks remind us of our ‘shadowed histories’

Then there are our protected places that are not so beautiful but are just as important.

One of my favorite writers, Terry Tempest Williams, was in Yosemite Valley to speak during a special breakfast for Park Service employees, and she later talked with me about how parks also hold our “shadowed histories.” One park featured in her new book, “The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks,” is the César E. Chávez National Monument in Kern County.

“I think America’s national parks aren’t only our best idea, but an evolving idea. … I think this is an example of the evolving idea,” she says of the monument established in 2012. “That a black president who was a community organizer would choose to honor another community organizer and remind us of the struggles and triumphs of the United Farm Workers.”

One of the most important to me is Manzanar National Historic Site in the Eastern Sierra – one of many camps where Japanese Americans were interned during WWII for no other reason than their heritage. I’m one-quarter Japanese, and I would have been forced into one of these camps if I had been born a half-century earlier. My Japanese American grandfather was spared, but only because he’s from Hawaii, where a majority are of Japanese descent.

He later became a master sergeant in the U.S. Air Force and raised four children with my grandmother. Two became lieutenant colonels in the U.S. Air Force – responsible for major advances in meteorology and GPS technology – another is a college director of retail services who served in the U.S Army Reserve, and my mother, a Yosemite park ranger. Her son, my brother, works on an ambulance saving people’s lives.

We likely would not have been able to give back in these ways if we had lived in California during WWII. We would have lost our homes and sat as prisoners in camps. Manzanar helps me remember that, and how important it is that we never repeat this shadowed history against any group of loyal American citizens ever again.

3. People help you

National parks are full of people who want to help point you on your way and open your eyes – especially park rangers. My compassionate mother is like a homing pigeon – she cannot get lost – and on every hike together, I learn new names of birds, mountains, plants and stars.

These names help me pay attention and return to the present moment. Being able to identify one living being from another is a step toward developing greater understanding and love for our world. Park rangers help with that.

(By the way, did you know 11 bears have been hit by cars in Yosemite this year, and bears never have killed or seriously injured a person in Yosemite? Park ranger Salli Lundgren knows, and she shared this with me and a group of junior rangers.)

4. Inspiration

These crown jewels of our nation are inspiring. Just listen to Williams as she describes a trip to the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias in Yosemite: “To stand before those sentinels of deep time in their millennial standing was such a gift. Humbled is the word that comes to mind, to stand before a tree like the Grizzly Giant. The tree reminded me of this many armed Shiva, with all that kind of power, and there was this low-level drone of bees, almost as if they were guardians, and it was so silent, you could hear that hum.”

5. Adventure

Inspiration leads to wonderful things, like adventure. Adventures come in all shapes and sizes, and national parks are great places to have them. One of my favorite to witness and write about was Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson’s ascent of El Capitan’s Dawn Wall, widely considered the hardest free climb ever attempted. Jorgeson said the most beautiful moment of the journey wasn’t reaching the summit. It was a quiet, intimate moment watching the sunrise on the last day of their climb.

6. New friends

I’ve met a lot of great people in national parks. These places of beauty and history draw some really interesting people – and creatures. There is one particularly handsome marmot on the top of Half Dome. Say hi to him for me the next time you’re up there.

7. Save money and support jobs

The best $80 I spend each year is for my pass to get into national parks and federal recreational lands. All you need is a water bottle and some good shoes to take full advantage of the priceless joy. But chances are you’ll also spend a little money on food and gas, or a campsite, or motel room, and when you do, you’re helping people earn a living. Win-win.

8. Remember what needs help

One summer day in Tuolumne Meadows, I filled a wheel barrel with chunks of asphalt that made their way into the river and along the shore. As I picked up that litter in my favorite place, I was appalled.

Solly Rigg, 9, of England sums it up well: “I think they should keep that (paved paths) for some places, but a lot of the places in the (Yosemite) Valley … they’ve made it not adventurous.”

Strides are being made, like the restoration of the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias, but officials in popular parks like Yosemite – which receives millions of visitors each year – are now facing more challenges than ever in protecting nature while also providing for visitors.

For the sake of the generations to come, I hope our parks will inspire us to become better human beings. As I recently listened to one of my little cousins cough uncontrollably due to asthma, I thought of what 12-year-old Emma told me on top of Pothole Dome about why she likes Yosemite: “The air is really nice.”

9. We are connected

Park ranger Lundgren played a game Thursday with a group of children to explain how an ecosystem works. At the end, she tossed a foam ball decorated like Earth carelessly around the circle.

“Some feel (Earth) is a toy, a beach ball, but I think Earth is more like this,” Lundgren says while pulling out a ball of glass. “Very fragile, very special and not to be treated like a toy because we are all on here somewhere.”

10. You belong here

These places are protected by the National Park Service, but they belong to us. Or, a better way to say that: We belong to them. Yosemite is as much my home as the house I live in down the mountain and for that, I am immeasurably grateful.

Carmen George: 559-441-6386, @CarmenGeorge

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