(Part of this article was originally published in The Hook magazine, July/August 2018.)
The benefits of immersing yourself in nature have been well documented. Scientific studies have shown that spending time in the woods can be regenerative and improve your focus. These benefits have been touted in both literature and film as well, from Thoreau’s Walden to Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. And so have the dangers of the wild: think 127 Hours, The Revenant, or any disaster movie ever made. However, with a little preparation you are much more likely to reap Mother Nature’s rewards than suffer her wrath. But here’s the kicker- in today’s world of technology and constant media, nature is not going to find you. To reap those benefits you must get yourself out there.
Our national park system is one of many ways to experience nature. But oh, what a wonderful way. Started over a century ago, the National Park Service protects and maintains over 400 parks. Not only does it preserve pristine environments from becoming riddled with hotels and parking lots, or oil wells and strip mines, the park system helps us to interact with the disappearing wilderness. By getting out of our houses and into the woods, meadows, mountains, or oceans, we learn to appreciate nature. And possibly, we fall in love. Only when we are captivated by our natural world do we want to protect it. Only when many become enthralled will we be moved as a nation to save our vanishing wilderness. For those that remain on their couch or in the office are not likely to give a hoot about saving an owl from extinction, or a pristine mountain valley from becoming a sprawling outlet mall.
Over the past ten years I’ve had the privilege of backpacking, which is carrying everything you need on your back and heading out to explore the wilderness for multiple days, in some of the most beautiful places in the United States, often alone. I have a map on my wall of the US National Parks and I’ve set a goal to visit them all. Each time I visit one, I place a pin on the map. “Pinning the map” has become somewhat of a ritual in our household. Visiting all the national parks is less of a rigid objective than an incentive to just get out there. Because it is very easy to get caught up in our everyday lives. Work, kids, school, more work, more kids, etc.
On the surface, spending a Sunday afternoon hiking in the woods can seem like just another item on the overwhelming to-do list. But being in nature has the power to heal. Seeing a grand vista spread out before you after hiking to the top of a peak can bring spiritual revival. Solitude among the trees can melt away stress. And while finding the time is not easy, since setting my goal I’ve hiked in over two dozen national parks, while working a full-time job, attending school, and raising a family. Not a great number, but also not a small feat considering how far I live from most of these parks.
I’m not suggesting that everyone run out into a remote area to try to make it on their own. I am telling you to get out there…but do so wisely. There are guidelines to follow. If you are inexperienced, start small:
- Visit your local park, or go for a walk in the woods at a state park where you have a phone signal (for safety, not for texting).
- Go camping in a campground. Hauling your kids and a camper across the country to visit the national parks and stopping to see the world’s second largest ball of twine along the way is the great American vacation.
It is a trip that none of you will forget and will instill an awe of nature in your children that will last a lifetime. You don’t have to head into the remote backcountry when you get there. Most of our national parks have accessibility for the multitudes. For example, in Zion National Park buses run through Zion Valley and expose all to grand rock cliffs towering on both sides, with colors that change with the waning sun and growing shadows. You don’t need to be adventurous or in great shape to get on the bus. You just need to make the time. And you just might fall in love.