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Speech Day (Spoiler alert - this is long!)

September 3, 2014

Not quite sure I how slept but I felt pretty rested. Hotel beds are always perfect bedtime specimens of pure comfort. There was bit of debriefing with Thomas and it was gear check for him and double file back up for me. I was getting nervous and began reviewing my printed out speech for the presentation but it felt like I was cramming. It was starting to feel unnecessary so I finally forced myself to stop. There was nothing left to do but get ready and head over. The conference was not too far away. It was held at the Century Link Center square in the middle of downtown. It was a striking building, strong and formed by glass.

When we entered the doors, several registration tables of smiling faces greeted us. There were rounds of pleasant introductions. Thomas and I went into the exhibition hall where I would speak in 2 hours and took a look around and talked with the tech guys about the set up. Seeing all of the tables was very intimidating. There were a lot of chairs and a lot of tables. When the attendees took their break I had the pleasure of meeting my conference contacts, Priscilla Geigis (NASPD President) and Lewis Ledford (NASPD Executive Director). It was so nice to finally meet them. I genuinely felt that they were just as excited about me being there as I was. We had a brief but enjoyable conversation and they recommended that I take some time to see the some of the other speakers scheduled before me. In the meantime, we decided to take this time to eat since there was a nice break time/breakfast set up.

The one speaker that was highly recommended was the director of the National Park Service (NPS), Jon Jarvis. Once Thomas and I walked into the conference room, it was standing room only so we took a spot standing against the wall. It was a large room with tables formed into an open rectangle. Seated around the tables were all of the state park directors and guests from A-Z, with their state flag (miniaturized) directly in front of them. As we listen to Jarvis, his speech hits on many of the things that I had thought about; many of the things that made my work on Everyone But Two even more poignant. His speech was so on the money, Thomas and I nudged each other a few times. It was as if he was speaking directly to me because I was the answer; I could be his Obi-Wan Kenobi. Everyone But Two can be the answer. It would be a platform to expose travel to the parks to a large audience, especially to the underrepresented minority population.

Overall it was an inspiring talk. I decided that I must speak with him. I also decided he was going to be a tough act to follow. I was next on the agenda and would speak at lunch. Game-time. Some say, “imagine the crowd naked” as a way to make you less nervous while speaking in front of a crowd. I am not sure that really works. Thomas got me mic’d up and in a few minutes it was time to get on stage and tell a bunch of perfectly good strangers a story about my grandparents. I was the one that felt naked, like a jaybird. How do people do this? It was like school all over again. Mr. Ledford so kindly introduced me, which put me a little at ease and I began. My mouth open and I started. Quite honestly, it was a bit of a blur. I was concentrating on reading my presentation and clicking the slides but eventually I could see that eyes were on me and the audience was listening. I tried to work on scanning the room and give eye contact. When I went off script I actually felt the most comfortable and got a few laughs, what a high. Towards the end of the speech, I played the video clip I have put together that included the Graham’s home video, audio of interviews with them and parts of my travel from this first leg. The end.

After a heartfelt round of applause it was over. I left the stage and walked behind the screen and started to remove the microphone and pack up. The next thing I knew a line was starting to form to talk to me. Speechless. Every face was kinder than the next. They wanted to talk to me and introduce themselves and give me their word of support. This particular moment reminded me that this story was indeed an important one. The line moved quickly and there began to be a bit of a rush in the air. The conference was running a little late because as with most conferences, there is a full schedule. Immediately following lunch, the conference was going to reconvene at Lied Lodge and the Arbor Lodge Farm State Historical Park in Nebraska City, Nebraska. Attendees rushed back to their hotel and returned to board buses for the remaining activities for the day.

Suzanne Ridder, the conference coordinator, was right there for Thomas entire way from Baltimore to Omaha. She was extremely helpful and got us on the bus with our lunch to go since there was not time to eat there. We boarded one of the last buses and there were only a few attendees on this bus, but I was happy about this because I was still overwhelmed by the response and was happy to have some room to breath and debrief with Thomas. After we sat, I was greeted warmly and the introductions and conversations started amongst us all. It was at least an hour drive but it went fast. Our bus pulls up behind the others and we get off. Most of the other attendees have already gone inside Lied Lodge where there was a welcome followed by more of a work presentation. Not knowing what to expect, I was completely in awe when I walked inside. I had never seen an interior like this before. Normally when you think of a wood interior, you think of paneling and it is not so grand. This was like a chapel built of the finest timber. The atrium ceiling reached so high that you could still imagine the trees once reaching towards the heavens. I was so engrossed by its craftsmanship that it was hard to go downstairs to join the rest of the group.

Eventually we head downstairs and make ourselves a seat in the back. Since this was an actual working conference with topics that didn’t pertain to us, we took this time to regroup. This time was also another opportunity for some of the other attendees to speak to me about my talk. I have to say that I was still flabbergasted by the positive response. I spoke to so many amazing people that have a real passion for their jobs and the parks, I felt very honored. Once the presentation was over, we broke up into groups to take a tour around the property. There is so much I can say about this place but you have to see it for yourself. My words will do it no justice. Along the walk we stopped at one of the historic barns at Lied Lodge. When we walked in, everyone stopped. Apparently we caught the event staff breaking down a recent wedding. Large chandeliers dropped from the ceiling and white lights twinkled everywhere - truly enchanting. I would get married there; it would be destination wedding-park style.

Another fantastic stop was at the Nature Explore Classrooms. Here in this outdoor adventure you can play marimbas, float leaves, build blocks and meander through a tree house. In the tree house lived this vibrant orange fabric draped from almost every branch high and low. It billowed in the wind like the sails of a boat at sea…..enchanted - again. Ok, at this point I was convinced I was going to have a wedding at this place. Wedding in the historic barn, followed by a reception at the tree house! What an amazing place. The age clock rewound for all of us and everyone played like kids.

As a warning, the second part of this afternoon still has only really begun. From here, we make it over to the greenhouse. Remember, this is part of the Arbor Day Farm. Our guide informed us that all guests to the park leave with a tree seedling. How cool! Next to the Arbor Day Lodge State Historical Park, which was the home of the founder of Arbor Day, J. Sterling Morton. If the name sounds familiar, J. Sterling Morton, the Nebraska newspaper editor is the father of Joy Morton, the founder of the Morton Salt Company. The Arbor Lodge/Morton mansion sits on 65 acres of sprawling green arboretum.

(I am getting long winded - apologies. This all really happened in one really long great day). Yadda, yadda, yadda…. There was a great BBQ set up under a tent for the conference. Thomas and I hadn’t gone inside the mansion yet. Most of our time was spent outdoors touring the grounds. The guides were dressed in the clothing of the period and began talking to our table, which resulted in a lot of questions asked of them by the attendees and one in particular raised my eyebrow. Someone asked if anyone had witnessed any paranormal activity and the answer was yes; a bible had been relocated, cigars had been smelled. Whelp, I gave my trusty sidekick the eye – time to go check this out – I was curious! So I am no Zak Bagans (shout out to Ghost Adventures) but as stunning as this home was, I immediately could see how something could go bump in the night. This place was huge and in tact from it’s original owners, more of a museum. You could peer into some rooms and walk around in others. For the time, this home had all of the modern amenities including a bowling alley in the basement.

As the sunrays divided and multiplied through the branches of the trees, it was time to go. Everyone loaded back on to the buses and it was time to go back. It was a nice quiet ride home as the evening set upon us. I spent this time reflecting on how lucky I felt to have been given this opportunity to speak and to meet all these amazing people and to see so many great things I didn’t even know existed. Back to the hotel pack for our departure in the am, make some phone calls and it was time for bed.

Please see this place if you can. You will be amazed.

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