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Politics Aside, Here’s Why We Need Parks

During this quest Andres and I have tried to convey the significance of parks as we discover them through our art, people we meet, and epiphanies felt within nature’s embrace. It’s clear there are many reasons why we need national parks, but our time in the Great Smoky Mountains made me appreciate one reason in particular.

Parks are places where people with opposing beliefs can enjoy the same things together.

There’s never been a better time to make this point, with a country so clearly divided. Don’t worry! I’m not going to talk politics here, just stating the obvious:

Our country needs some serious TLC.

The funny thing is, when you turn off the TV and actually talk to people, many seem to agree on that point. So why all the hate? It’s a loaded question with loaded answers. It’s better for our collective blood pressures to drop the question and recognize what we have in common.

Many of these commonalities stand out in parks: love for family and friends, for cute black bears, details of our natural world, mountain views, good times, friendly conversation, campfires, recreation and fall colors in the trees.

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Hiking shared by loved ones in the Great Smoky Mountains.
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Parks can build trust between us.
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A scene millions of us have posed in, shared here with a dear friend.

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Early morning laughter in the midst of a crowded campground.

Where else do we ever have a chance to exist side-by-side despite our differences? For the most part we stay inside our safe shells with folks who put up the same yard signs. We never mingle or try to step into other shells, so resentment and misunderstanding festers.

While insults spew across social media, I have to keep my face to the sun and cling to optimism, that idealistic drug. I do so in the parks, knowing these are places where I can camp right next to someone I disagree with and still say good morning like a decent person because after all, we’re only 4 feet away from each other.

Things that unite us

  • It’s amazing to follow a huge truck slathered in conservative bumper stickers while the guy behind us has so many liberal stickers on his vehicle, you can’t even tell what kind of car it is. Then we all pull off to admire the same sunset setting fire to the sky.
  • I also might not have liked hearing all the people around me on Clingmans Dome the other day, but I must admit how impressive it was to see so many diverse faces and languages mingling together on that towering structure.
  • Later at night we might burn some of the wood a previous camper left for us, not caring at all what kind of people we might be. Just doing it because it’s a nice thing to do.
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Clingmans Dome at sunset.
A memory from Glacier National Park, who doesn’t enjoy a campfire with loved ones?

Here’s another perfect example of the uniting spirit inspired by parks:

During our last few days in the Smokies we hiked up to Midnight Hole along Big Creek to savor a classic creek landscape. I stuck my toes in icy water as Andres swam across the famous swimming hole to jump off a weathered boulder. Yes, in mid-October.

As he was doing so, an elderly couple came down to rest on nearby rocks. Then a young family came down to play in the creek as well. While a very pregnant mother sat on a rock encouraging her kids in her thick southern accent, her husband swam out to jump off the rock.

He took one of his young ‘uns along who cried with fright at the thought of jumping into the water. But after much coaxing he finally jumped, and we all clapped with delight. There it was. The eight of us were united in that tender moment, despite our likely differences.

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Andres braving the cold jump into Big Creek.

Many of these commonalities stand out in parks: love for family and friends, for cute black bears, details of our natural world, mountain views, good times, friendly conversation, campfires, recreation and fall colors in the trees.

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Midnight Hole, where we bonded with “strangers”.
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Duck on a mountain creek rock, member of the wildlife many of us admire.

Without a park to give us the space, we would never have shared something so real. There were smiles and farewells as we made our separate ways, never to see each other again. I’d like to think encounters like these plant seeds of empathy within us. Empathy is what we need to put ourselves in the shoes of others, and maybe work together.

Aren’t we the United States after all?

That’s why it’s important to provide equal access and opportunities into parks for all the people, which is a big challenge these days.

Obviously we’re not all going to like each other. Still, I’m hopeful that encounters in 413 national parks can show us we have more in common than we realize. If we can coexist and enjoy similar things in a park atmosphere, surely we can at least try to get along in the “real world”.

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