Glacier National Park was the first park I colored in on my map of places I had visited. For me, growing up in Minnesota, the mountains were inspiring and mind-blowing at the same time. I was 7 years old and loved the West. I wore my white cowboy hat and a grin on my family’s first of many summer vacations traveling from one national park or historic place to the next.
This started my love affair with American history and all wild places. Each summer for two weeks my mom, dad, brother and I would load into our Chevrolet Impala and cruise the country. One of the best trips was to the Grand Canyon. It was the year we finally got air conditioning in the car. We traveled through time and history. We got an education in how people lived, fought for freedoms and how natural places were set aside because someone loved them so much they worked to get them into congressional legislation or a president took action to create a national monument.
When I was in college and summer jobs were scarce, I saw an ad for employment at national parks. My first park was close to home. Isle Royale in Lake Superior is a part of Michigan, but sits 22 miles offshore from Grand Portage, Minn. This wonderful park with moose, wolves and a few people captured my heart. While I was there to do housekeeping for the old hotel and cabins, what I really did was explore. I took up photography, backpacking, moose viewing and went on dangerous boat rides. I also enjoyed the unique summer community that made the island home.
My next summer’s adventure found me at Denali National Park in Alaska. Here the scale made Isle Royale seem like it could fit in my pocket. Time in the park allowed for exploration beyond my wildest dreams. When I arrived in May a herd of caribou ran through my campsite. I spent days of hiking and fording rivers, climbing mountains for photos of Dall sheep, counting a day of wildlife sightings on all of my fingers and toes and the awe of being charged by a grizzly bear. I fell in love with this place and have never been the same. People who knew me before the summer of Denali can affirm this. I loved hiking without trails and being on notice for what might happen in such a beautiful yet rugged and unforgiving landscape.
I am hooked on wild places. I am patriotic in a way that is hard to explain. I am steeped in our historic national parks and monuments. And I am grateful to all who have made the places and my experiences possible.
While I started with family trips, I went back again and again to the parks with friends. When I was a kid I vowed to take my children to explore our national treasures. As life turned out, my journey has not included children of my own. But this summer I am taking my 10-year-old godson John out west on a national parks tour with his mom. President Obama has created an opportunity for all 10-year-olds (and everyone in their vehicle) to have free park access to promote these places and instill the same kind of adoration I have for them to a younger generation.
I’m expecting eyes full of wonder and big smiles. While we always have a fantastic time together, I am secretly hoping that the seeds of appreciation and respect for these sacred places will be passed onto John. My time in the national parks is one of the best things my parents gave to me. If I can extend this to someone else, it will be one of my best gifts back to the national parks.
Suzanne Hanson works in the Duluth office of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.