George Will once wrote about Ken Burns’ film, The Civil War, “If better use has been made of television, I have not seen it.”
I have come to the conclusion that Burns’ craft, his art–is creating masterpieces of democracy. His skills as a documentary filmmaker are legion and as I write this, I’m watching his latest on The National Parks: America’s Greatest Idea.
My own fascination with National Parks began when I was about 9 years old. We lived fairly close to Gettysburg, PA and my father fed my fascination with the Civil War. He’d bring me books, read me stories and eventually, took me to Gettysburg. My whole family was there, but I felt that the trip was for me, somehow. I still remember it with the clarity of a young boy’s memory: the diorama, Devil’s Den, the Peach orchard, Little Round Top. Hallowed ground that was the site of the decisive battle in the American Civil War. Three days of slaughter and blood that proved that even the brilliant and crafty General Robert E. Lee was no match for the grinding machine of the Union infantry and its junior officers.
Later, during the stormy time of my parents’ first separation, they took me to Antietam Creek, site of yet another terrible battle between north and south. In less than two days, some 25,000 men fell at Antietam. I waded in the creek and got my feet wet there, where the water ran red they say when the battle was over.
When I was 18, my dad moved to Southern New Jersey, transferred from California by the company for whom he worked. Dad grew up in Pennsylvania and for whatever reason, did not want to live in the state again, so he made his own crossing of the Delaware on a train, not a boat, and settled in Lindenwold, N.J.
But his office was in downtown Philadelphia and though I later went to live there, I first visited him and he encouraged me, while he worked, to go tour Independence Hall. I walked across Chestnut Street and took the tour. I stood in the room where John Adams pontificated and Thomas Jefferson sat quietly. I saw the green walls and the furniture, spare and simple, where the founders debated issues that led to our Independence. I climbed the stairs to the bell tower and I was hooked. History would be my passion and reading would become my escape.
As a teenager, I was fortunate enough to visit Bryce and Zion Canyon National Parks with my church youth group. I went to the Grand Canyon for the first time at 16 and sat at Bright Angel trail with my friends watching thunderheads roll toward us from the distance, their rumblings cracking open over our heads just in time for bed that night. I walked Canyon de Chelly and marveled down the alien carvings of villages out of bare rock under a relentless sun.
Later, when I was married, before our daughter was born, my wife and I drove from our home here in Ventura County across the west to the western entrance of the grand-daddy of them all, Yellowstone National Park. We were transfixed for three days by the otherworldly geography, the sulfurous smells, the radiant beauty and unending majestic mountains. We stayed in a cabin by Old Faithful and each night, I read as much as I could about the park, the history, the geography and the science. On our way out of the park, we drove the distance from the western end through the mountains up above 9000 feet and into Roosevelt Country where a wolf pack had been recently released and still runs free.
Just two years ago, I experienced Yosemite for the first time though I’ve lived in California more or less for 34 years. We had Sofie with us at that time, our foreign exchange student from Belgium, and Sue secured a house for us in the park in Wawona at the southern end. We stayed for three nights in a house in Yosemite and drove through to the Ahwannee twice, ice skating beneath the granite cliffs in the valley, drinking hot chocolate and marveling at the coyote that walked along the road next to our car. I wrote about it extensively, here.
That same year, while Sofie was here, we went to the Grand Canyon again, too. It was as glorious as I recall and this time, we rode the train in from Williams, AZ and enjoyed the afternoon lightly hiking and marveling at the scenery.
Just last year, we went back to Yosemite again, staying this time just southwest in Bass Lake near Oakhurst, but making the trek into the valley and capturing again the sense of wonder at the sight of Half Dome and El Capitan. Grander scenes of nature simply cannot be found. Restorative, peaceful and haunting, it’s nearly a requirement for me now that my family will see as much of our National Parks as I can get them to see.
Burns’ film is beautiful and simple storytelling, peeling back layers of years and revealing the people that loved these places and fought to keep them wild. They are uniquely America and we cannot be defined without them. They are the refuge of what the U.S. stands for, good or ill, and they do indeed belong to everyone and no one.
To coin a phrase from Will, if better use has been made of the United States, I have not seen it.