Field Notes Entry 3: How Ken Burns changed my life

Yosemite National Park, June 2017

Yosemite National Park, June 2017

Sheldon Johnson, park ranger and defender of enjoyment at Yosemite National Park, appeared before me on the television.

He spoke with so much passion about his first visit to Yellowstone, about the Roosevelt Arch that read “For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People.” About his reaction when he witnessed a bison for the first time.

I had walked into the living room at what I would later learn to be a crucial turning point in my life.

My dad made room for me on the couch, patting the seat gently next to him. I walked over, still unable to take my eyes off the television.

I couldn’t have been more than thirteen, and watching documentaries with my parents was still a favorite pastime. We watched everything from “Locked Up Abroad” on National Geographic, to “Riding Giants”, one of the best documentaries about the history of the pioneers of big wave surfing. All of it drew me in on a level that I still didn’t understand.

Tonight it was Ken Burns’s “National Parks: America’s Best Idea” on PBS. For a whole week, a new episode came on every night about certain aspects that made the national parks what they are today.

It is to this day, my favorite documentary series of all time.

I sat with my dad on the brown and green plaid chair, hanging on Sheldon Johnson’s every word. My mom eventually looked up from her work on the kitchen table, getting some craft for her preschoolers ready for the next day. She came and sat with us too.

Then of course, my sister joined, who sat next to me and handed me a bowl of Trader Joe’s mint chip ice cream.

We were all settled in for the night. All who was missing was Boots, my obnoxious tuxedo kitten who liked to get himself stuck in all the wrong places. Last night it was the top shelf of my closet.

I was too engrossed to go look for him, knowing he would wander downstairs eventually in search of food.

The scene on the screen changed from Sheldon Johnson to an aerial view of Morning Glory pool in Yellowstone. I had never seen anything so beautiful before.

The narrator gave a synopsis of how Yellowstone was just one big volcano waiting to erupt. Slightly terrifying, but incredibly fascinating for someone like me, who aspired to grow up and be a park ranger or geologist, at the time.

That episode continued for two more hours, and I never left my spot on the couch. It was like this for the next week:. I would come home from the seventh grade, do my despised math homework, find the kitten, and then settle in for the night with everyone. Our little living room, cozy against the foggy evenings that would roll in from our coastal oasis in Carmel, California. I remember especially loving that living room then, all of us sitting together, with the electric fireplace giving off an absurd amount of heat, eating ice cream and talking about our day before the next episode came on.

When it finally came to the final episode of the series, I was sad. I wanted to keep learning about Steve Mather and Horace Albright, the two men who gave the National Park Service and conservation its name. I wanted to keep watching these glorious landscapes presented right before my eyes.

Better yet, I wanted to go there.

When the credits began to roll, I felt myself tearing up. My mom looked over at me, alarmed, but I didn’t know how else to express what was bubbling up inside of me.

I knew then that that was what I wanted to do with my life, to see those places for myself. At the time, it was all too beautiful of a realization and relief, understanding to some extent what I was meant to do.

But it was a feeling I knew to be true with every fiber in my body. It didn’t matter that I was in the seventh grade or thirteen-years-old. I think anyone can know when their life’s purpose presents itself: like a  cup of my favorite coffee in the morning---um, yeah, of course I’m going to drink it to greet the day. This was my cup of steaming passion, waiting, begging for me to drink it in.

And I did.

My mom handed me a tissue and asked why I was crying.

“That’s what I want to do, Mom,” I told her. I think I made her a little teary eyed herself. She brushed her pretty blond hair out her face and grabbed some more tissues.

I think we both felt something after watching the towering granite cliffs of Yosemite Falls, the swampy green Everglades in the morning light, and the turquoise pools of Yellowstone, all so effortlessly beautiful and practically in a our backyard.

It was only the beginning of what I still think to be my call to be wild.

It wasn’t just that film either. It was the whole experience of the documentary itself: watching it with family, making plans to visit ourselves, and the coziness of the living room. It was everything about how I wasn’t the only one who wanted to visit these places--- it would be something we would do together.

My mom and I made it  point to hike every weekend we could after. I still have old photos of us in Del Monte Forest in Pacific Grove, Point Lobos State Park, and Garland Ranch Regional Park, all of which were close by. There’s a classic picture of me, standing on a rock in Point Lobos overlooking the ocean. It’s windy and my choppy bangs and short hair is whipping around my face. I am sporting a retainer, but still managing a huge smile. Binoculars are strapped across my shoulder and I’m wearing my favorite green cargo pants.

It was, and still is, who I always want to be. Minus the retainer and bangs.

It was the beginning of my slow blossoming into a nerdy nature woman, who still sheds real tears upon entering Yosemite National Park through Tunnel View, who still can’t lace up her hiking boots fast enough. And who still longs to feel that first breath of fresh alpine air hit her lungs.

In fact, I ache for that feeling.

I still watch those episodes now and then, loving how the old-timey guitar background music takes me right back to that cozy living room. In times where I feel like I am pursuing something half-heartedly, I do my best to remember watching that film for the first time.

And now, almost ten years later, I would like to think I have done myself a huge favor and visited those places. Yosemite has been my go-to for a long weekend of backpacking, and Sequoia-Kings Canyon for snowshoeing. I am so grateful to live in a world where national parks are treasures, and I desperately hope my future kids can experience their wonder just as a I have.

“For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People,” right? I hope it stays that way. Giving young people like myself the chance to experience places like that, I believe can draw about a greater sense of awareness of the world they live in, and make for the future advocates and voices of the parks as time progresses. . . even if it that might mean they build up an absurd amount National Geographics on their bedside table or that a rock and feather collection is just how they relate to the world.

Because we can all relate to wonder, and what it’s like to be made to feel small in a sea of granite cliffs or under the night sky. We crave that sense of freedom that glows on a boundless horizon.

May your passions be boundless, just like mine have become for mountains and pine trees. And may your coffee be strong, to get you on the road to wherever it is that lights you up and makes you feel free. And may your heart stay open to all the wonder that’s out there, big and small.