A Christmas ago, my siblings and I gave our father a set of Ken Burns' homage to National Parks, America's Best Idea, accompanied by a personal memory of our family vacations to so many of the parks. Here's mine:
It happened at the Great Sand Dunes National Monument in southern Colorado. You, Viki and I went on a hike into the Sangre de Cristo (“The Blood of Christ”) Mountains. I’m confident it was on a park-approved “nature trail,” but I remember it was uphill on a mountain. You took the lead, while Viki and I fell in behind. I was 11, which would have made Viki 13.
We rounded a bend and were on the edge of a relatively flat meadow. Up ahead, within plain sight, a bear stumbled out of the mountain trees and into the meadow.
You sensed the danger right away. And while we could not see your face, the tension and immediacy in your voice left no doubt when you hollered in our direction, “Freeze! Don’t move at all!”
By now the bear had seen us. There we were. Sizing each other up.
Bear. Man. Girl. Boy. A Mexican standoff in the Sangre de Cristos.
Clearly, you knew enough about the tendencies of bears to assume that if he started charging our way, we were in serious peril. Eyeballing an outcropping of rocks a few dozen yards away, you seized on an option that would, at the very least, buy us some time.
“When I tell you to, run as fast as you can to the top of those rocks!”
Viki and I looked at each other in sheer terror, sorting through the mental arithmetic. Hungry bear + slow kids = Sangre de Matson.
I’ve no doubt as you stood there contemplating your options, our safety drove your thoughts and actions. Your choices were few. The options limited. No weapons, and since we were in a meadow, not even access to a big stick. Just your wits.
Our eyes were riveted on you. You and the bear each frozen in your tracks. You made the first move.
Upon hearing that admonition, the bear turned tail and ambled back up the mountain from whence he came. That pretty much ended the hike. We turned around and headed down the mountain with sufficiently puckered sphincters and one hell of a story.
The Great Sand Dunes National Monument became a full-fledged National Park in 2004 and that seems fitting. I guess I was not alone in sensing the special qualities of the place.
In recent years, I’ve had the good fortune to travel west of Kansas. In the summer of ’06, I took Scott to Mesa Verde, Sedona and through the Utah canyonlands on a road trip to San Diego. He’s since gone camping there with some of his chums. Last Thanksgiving, Jackie and I had the opportunity to visit the Grand Canyon.
Seeing these places as an adult, I’ve come to more fully realize and appreciate your love and respect for the natural beauty, history and solemnity found in the rivers, deserts, mountains and canyons of the western U.S.
I used to wonder why you always took so many photos of mesas, streams and rocks.
Now, I know.