The north gate of the Yellowstone National Park, 2011, courtesy of Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike
With every new written word I have read, with every new image of a picturesque, panoramic view of wild vistas and with every new fact, I am reinvigorated in my efforts to share the importance and rich history of our parks (National and State). Dare I say giddy? I am almost to the point where it is starting to seem sacrilegious that I spend more time indoors writing about traveling and the outdoors instead of using the time to “be” outdoors, as if what I am suggesting you to do is insincere. With the National Parks Service Centennial creeping closer, every day there is an increasing deluge of parks (and outdoors) media coverage, whether television, newspaper or internet that is chasing me, with no escape in sight. Take for example, the insert in yesterday’s paper I spotted on the kitchen table before I walked out, “Explore the Outdoors: Travel Tips, Day Trips, National Parks, Virginia Heritage Trails, Weekend Getaways, Providence, R.I., Costa Rica.” Square on the front are four pictures, equally dividing the cover, with 3 of the 4 pictures featuring a person of color. Finally a change; these folks are starting to get it. People who have been excluded from the covers and advertisement of the outdoors need to see themselves in the environments that you are encouraging them to visit.
Courtesy of WHMT.org
This week, they are rebroadcasting the 6-part documentary, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea by Ken Burns. When it originally aired in 2009, I somehow missed watching it. Now that I have the opportunity to watch it, it has become my homework. There is a lot to learn and marvel about how the National Park Service came to be. We should all be very grateful that someone had the forethought to save ourselves from ourselves and make the important decision to conserve and preserve the natural habitat for future generations. The few episodes that I have watched thus far have left my mind racing with thoughts of new adventures, optimism for my documentary and a new wealth of knowledge. One of the most fascinating things this series has exposed me to is the prose that has been written about places that I have seen with my own eyes. Found in the depths of Mark Twain’s autobiographical travel book Roughing It, Chapter LXXVI, are his thoughts on a sunrise at Haleakala National Park in Hawaii: “While the hush yet brooded, the messengers of the coming resurrection appeared in the East. A growing warmth suffused the horizon, and soon the sun emerged and looked out over the cloud-waste, flinging bars of ruddy light across it, staining its folds and billow-caps with blushes, purpling the shaded troughs between, and glorifying the massy vapor- palaces and cathedrals with a wasteful splendor of all blendings and combinations of rich coloring. It was the sublimest spectacle I ever witnessed, and I think the memory of it will remain with me always.”
Charles Young, Sierra Club photo courtesy of the Ohio Historical Society
“For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People,” is the inscription on the Roosevelt Arch as you enter Yellowstone National Park from the north entrance. At its completion in 1903, the words stood true for the people that had the means, ability and interest to travel to Yellowstone. Unfortunately at this time in American History, this did not include people of color. Notwithstanding the fact that people of color were not park visitors, unbeknownst to many, they were still an integral part of the success and development of our National and State Parks. During the same year that the Roosevelt Arch was built at Yellowstone National Park, Captain Charles Young, the third black man to graduate from West Point Military, was promoted to Acting Superintendent of Sequoia National Park. Young, along with the all African American 9th Cavalry Regiment, 10th Cavalry Regiment, 24th Infantry Regiment and 25th Infantry Regiment, also known as the Buffalo Soldiers, had the responsibility of managing the park. Accomplishing more than the prior officers assigned to the park, Young and the Buffalo Soldiers were able to extend the existing wagon road longer than all previous roads combined allowing for more visitors.
Shelton Johnson excerpt from The National Parks: America's Best Idea on PBS
The influence of Young and the Buffalo Soldiers has had a far-reaching effect besides the practical impact they had on improvement of Sequoia National Park. Their story has inspired others to share this impressive history with others. Shelton Johnson, the National Park Ranger rock star (who I have to meet one day) who has worked at Yosemite National Park for the last 22 years, has dedicated his work to connecting African Americans to the natural world. Some of you may remember him from the days of the Oprah Winfrey Show when she and her gal pal Gail were invited to camp overnight at Yosemite National Park. Even though there was a lot of hijinks because they were pretty green to camping, he and the beauty of the park stole the show. Johnson’s own words about a Transcendent Moment in Yellowstone can speak for itself as an example of how the parks can transform you forever.
The rain has zapped my brain and trail of thoughts, so it is at this moment that I realize that I am not going to do any justice to either Young or Johnson in this brief post. My goal was to introduce you to a few things that I have come across. Very talented people have already done the hard work and research already. As usual, I ask that you take the time and dig a little deeper yourself. If you can, watch any or all of the National Parks: America’s Best Idea and do some research on Young and Johnson. I promise you will learn something new and be amazed. One day I hope that race will not matter, but often I ask myself when they day will come. I try to be optimistic, yet in the end I always come to a despairing conclusion that race will matter until the last day of our existence on earth. In the meantime, let us all do our best to turn the tide and make things how they should be, not as they are, if for nothing else, for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.
For more information: Buffalo Soldier Videos NPS