It’s 5 AM. I’m sitting in Morefield Campground’s laundromat at Mesa Verde, catching some free WIFI time before the campground stirs and the data gets stretched too thin. My eye rests on a National Park poster across the room:
100 Years of Getting Away from it All. Join us in celebrating 100 years of beautiful escapes.
The poster features a backpacker standing in a daunting position atop a steep perch in Rocky Mountain National Park. It’s the photo we all wish to stand in.
My first thought as a designer: Nice job, it caught my eye. My second thought as a storyteller: Yes, definitely a scene and sentiment many folks can relate to. My third thought as a critic: What are we escaping from?
I suddenly felt wary of the message for a couple of reasons. One, why do we live lives we need to get away from? And two, is it right to frame the role of parks as beautiful escapes?
Stop Escaping from Your Life
There’s no doubt that parks are protected refuges where people can become immersed in “nature” for hours or days at a time. But the idea that parks are places to escape to is troublesome. Shouldn’t we live a life we don’t need to break free from?
Yes Karla, in your fairytale world, that’s how it should be. I get that a lot. Then people tell me, that’s not the real world. Reality is different. Reality is stress and deadlines and rush hour and so many other burdens that build up over a year until we’re bursting at the seams for a brief moment to get away from it all. My bubble of idealism is often popped, and I even went through my own health scare in 2014 to tell me this: things don’t always go as planned. Sometimes we end up on a road that we didn’t intend to land on. A path that leads to escaping, living, escaping, living, escaping. Repeat.
How about choosing a different path: You have a choice to stop escaping and start living without escape. You can lay down on that road and let things happen, or you can get up and start moving in a new direction. Let your every day be one of wonder even as it pours. Don’t break free from anything, be okay with where you are.
I get it. Sometimes we have to do things we don’t like. I’ve worked jobs that didn’t inspire me, but there was always a greater master plan in my heart to keep the skies clear. What’s yours?
Plan Your Life, Not Your Escape
That’s something you can do today, right now. Get a journal and start writing down your master plan. Read my article 7 resources that inspired us for this quest to discover how Andres and I got here, despite the rainclouds. Because it did rain. We didn’t get here without the help of some wise people.
Some would say I’m living a life of escapism, having removed myself from the 9 – 5 and set out on a quest that’s constantly on the go. People have even told me “You’re living a dream, an endless vacation”. I would argue I’m just living my life as my health and choices allow. I chose to become an entrepreneur, though it’s not making me rich, and I chose to go out with an Outback I saved for, though it’s difficult, and about seven years ago I chose a master plan that’s led me to a life like this. Sure, the route has twisted in many directions, but that master plan is deep in my heart and keeps me on track well enough.
…what if we could integrate what we feel at Mesa Verde, at Yellowstone, and at Yosemite into our daily lives?
What role do parks play?
Then there’s something else with that poster. Nature. That’s what the 59 natural national parks are all about, right? Yes we love John Muir and his quote to “break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.” He began the quote with:
Keep close to Nature’s heart…
Over a hundred years ago, before the park service even existed, John Muir knew something important. Something this fast-paced society wrought with gadgets is quickly forgetting.
We need nature. I would argue we need nature because we are nature, and thankfully we have the parks to remind us of that fact. Why do you think you feel so good when you’re standing at the edge of a vast canyon, or surrounded by trees, or feeling the soft kiss of a sunrise? It’s because we are a part of the very system we post endless pictures of on Instagram. Yeah, that’s right:
Almost 99% of the mass of the human body is made up of six elements: oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, and phosphorus.
I‘m no scientist, but I know those elements are the same building blocks of the earth. We’re from the earth, remember? No hippie talk here, just hard facts. We all know what happens when we die. Things decompose, then they are reborn. As much as our culture tells us otherwise with its fancy clothes and cool cars, we’re part of that system.
The idea that we need parks to escape to is a red flag: something is inherently wrong with the way we are living.
As I mentioned in Why and how you should slow down, our fast-paced culture is making us crazy. We are overstressed and exhausted. We have a lot of diseases. A lot of sorrow.
Then we go to a park where we’re surrounded by “nature”, and we feel something. Peace. Happiness. Bliss. Don’t get me wrong, the ability to go into protected habitat is one reason why I love the park service, but that poster made me think. We shouldn’t have to escape into nature. Even John Muir was wrong on that count. And what better place to realize this than at Mesa Verde National Park?
Yesterday we hiked the Petroglyph Trail and I forced myself to stop at each of the 34 markers explaining something about the surroundings. I was amazed by the natives’ ability to live off the land, from plants and rocks that we most often view as props in a landscape rather than useful resources. Of course that life wasn’t all rainbows and bunnies either. As a ranger later explained to me, the average lifespan of a native from the cliff dwellings was probably about 30 years. It was a harsh life, but one closely connected to our natural world. While I would hardly say we should go back to collecting spring water from rocks, I would ask this: what if we could integrate what we feel at Mesa Verde, at Yellowstone, and at Yosemite into our daily lives? What if you could do it without going on a quest to visit all 59 parks? Shouldn’t that be the status quo?
Unfortunately it’s not. A recent National Geographic article “This is Your Brain on Nature“ explains:
We love our state and national parks, but per capita visits have been declining since the dawn of email. So have visits to the backyard. One recent Nature Conservancy poll found that only about 10 percent of American teens spend time outside every day. According to research by the Harvard School of Public Health, American adults spend less time outdoors than they do inside vehicles—less than 5 percent of their day.
Enter in the serious mental and physical health problems that have created a trillion dollar healthcare industry. And to think a little time in the woods could prevent a disease? If you read the National Geographic article, you can make your own conclusion.
I’m with Paracelsus, the 16th-century German-Swiss physician who wrote, “The art of healing comes from nature, not from the physician.”
The story cites studies that lead me to this conclusion: we need ways to interconnect with our natural world on a daily basis. I can think of examples I’ve read about eco villages and the like, but these places aren’t accessible for most folks tied to city jobs and suburbia. Even parks aren’t within reach for many people. I grew up playing in German forests and hiking in the Smokies, but how do we take the word “privileged” out of the conversation and make these experiences the norm for everyone? How do we create a society that doesn’t need parks to escape to? How do we lead lives we don’t need escaping from? Here’s an idea: What if everyone could experience what we experience in parks every day – constant connection to our natural world?
We might all be just a little bit happier and healthier. And isn’t that what most of us want?
Sigh. I don’t know the answers, but I do know there are planners and leaders out there who ask these same questions. There are thinkers who know we need a society that is one connected system, not a broken collage of parks here and cities there. Maybe it’s something you’ll think about too?
A Few Conclusions
For now we are fortunate to have the National Park Service, yet I would suggest caution in how the parks are framed. These aren’t merely beautiful tourist destinations, but rich and diverse habitats that know no boundaries. They are homes of wildlife who share with us the same cycle of life. I saw this after our tour of Balcony House yesterday as Andres and I lingered behind the rushed group. Silence fell. Suddenly a little lizard sprang out of a crack. Birds soared by. I could feel the wind as I breathed in its breath and the heat warming my skin. In that moment, I wasn’t just a visitor in a tour group. I felt a part of something greater.
We can’t visit nature, because we are nature. The water we use in our home eventually rises into the air and falls into places like Hot Springs National Park, where hot springs are formed after 4,000 years of rainfall. The parks are part of an endless system of habitats that reach into our cities.
That’s right, you live in a habitat even if you live in a city. And that very life you lead in your city shouldn’t require a park to escape to, don’t you think? Visit a park as part of your life, but not to get away from your life. I truly believe you are the master of your fate, the captain of your soul. You do have a choice. So craft a master plan that requires no escape, and if you plan to visit a park, choose to do so because you want to learn about the land while feeling its peace. Just remember to bring that peace of nature with you, because it’s always there in your heart. Don’t forget it. Don’t let it escape you. And don’t live a life of escaping.
With that I end this free flowing stream of thoughts. Even in a laundromat the parks are doing something I hoped for on this quest, all official goals aside. They are forcing questions, suggesting answers. Am I overthinking a poster? Maybe. But language is a powerful force, words do matter. It seems you never know what kind of philosophical moment a simple park poster can lead to, and for that, I am thankful.
I hope you get to feel some sunshine today too, or taste the rain.