Home Sweet Park

When I was seven, and the boxes were piling up in the house, and the movers came to load them up and take them away, my mother told me I would love my new home because it was right next to a huge park, and there would be so many exciting things to do there.  Perhaps because my father worked for the U.S.D.A. Forest Service, which meant that my entire life to date had consisted of living in settlements that couldn’t even deserve the word “town”, and that therefore the hour’s drive to the closest thing that was a town for church, groceries, a medical check up or whatever other necessities occasionally ended in the treat of a playground, I envisioned miles of flat, lush green grass covered in playground equipment.  A ferris wheel, in particular, would have been nice.  I’d gone to a county fair or two and seen the ferris wheels and had always wanted to go on one with the “big kids”, but I’d been too little.

Swings, and slides, and teeter-totters…oh, my!

I have no idea how long it took to get from point A (my old home) to point B (my new home), but at some point we passed through some sort of gate where we were handed a bunch of maps and some fliers about not feeding the animals, and how taking anything out of whatever place we supposedly were was against federal law, and oh, by the way, do not approach the wildlife.  We got one piece of paper that alarmed my childish mind a great deal, for it was bright caution yellow all over, and, as if the color itself weren’t enough it also yelled “CAUTION!” at me in big, black letters at the top.  Underneath it had a picture of one of the big, shaggy, horned brown things we kept passing and above its horns was an illustration of a man who had clearly been tossed into the air, and though I had no idea what gravity was at the time, I was pretty sure the cartoon man would be coming back down to earth soon.  I’d been watching those mysterious beasts and was also sure, from all their huffing and puffing and the way they kept ripping up clumps of turf with their hooves that I didn’t want to be close to them at all.

“Most people call them buffalo,” my glowing mother informed me, “but they’re actually not buffalo at all; they’re bison.  Bison bison.  That’s their scientific name,” and then, as the bison ambled along the road and obstructed traffic, she slid open the van door and started snapping pictures over my lap.  I could have poked the closest bison in the eye.

Alas, I don’t have any of my mother’s photos. I was reduced to borrowing from Wikipedia (again), because I’m never sure which photos are acceptable for free use. Bison can run into you at 30 mph with a crushing 2,000 pounds of force and, in their free range days were listed as the 2nd most dangerous mammal in North America (or so Wikipedia (sigh…) reminds me). The questionable bits I saw in its fur were probably actually just clods of turf.

“Mom,” I pleaded, thinking of the yellow flier, “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”  I held my breath for the next five minutes as my mother went shutter-crazy, and told the bison repeatedly how magnificent they were.

“It has poop in its hair, Mom,” I said, “See there’s one rolling around in some now.  Please close the door.  What if it gets mad?”

Finally my mother acquiesced.  She did not say “Party pooper,” although I think she should have; it would have been excellent fodder for my blog now.  She stopped because she needed to save the rest of her film for other things, like elk, big horned sheep, moose, grizzlies, and black bears.  An entire roll of film would be saved for birds, of course.  Perhaps she would take a snapshot of the occasional geyser.  Maybe.  My mother has probably expressed her desire to work in a zoo at least a few hundred times in my lifespan.  Geological formations, mud pots and waterfalls, living at the edge of a volcano with the potential for an explosion 1,000 times the size of Mt. Saint Helen’s, and boiling pools tinted by bacteria that are capable of living in temperatures unthinkable to humans are all wonderful, but they are apparently a wee bit less thrilling to my mother than animals, insects, and fauna.  Which is to say that despite the animal love, my mother wouldn’t have minded being an ecologist, archeologist, entomologist, botanist, or well, any number of other science related occupations, either.

“It’s so beautiful,” my mother sighed, and I looked at the dilapidated forest and wondered what ailed her.  There were huge bald patches everywhere, and while a few very small trees were struggling from the ravaged ground, most of the larger trunks were tipped over, or broken.  The standing trees were missing chunks of branches and needles; quite a few of them were one-sided, as if a giant had come by with an axe and lopped them in half.  Large blackened trunks stabbed upward, tapering at the tip: death’s fingers grasping from below.

Maybe the giant was this fellow. Perhaps that’s why Captain America’s accosting him.

My father explained that there had been a terrible fire here a few years ago, and that it had wiped out much of the forest.  The trees would grow back…eventually, and the forest would be green again.  “Oh,” I said, thinking of the wildfires I knew little about except for the terror I felt every time I saw “Bambi” scrambling away from the flames.  My best real life knowledge was watching my father leave in a hideous green vehicle with government markings on it, dressed in a bright yellow suit, and I knew that fires must happen quickly because he always left the house a half hour or so after arriving or getting the phone call.  He had a certain purpose, a change in gait, at those times, so that even before he or my mother said anything, I usually knew where he was going.

Beautiful wasn’t the word I would have used.  Nevertheless, fire, in this sort of ecosystem, is actually necessary. Without it many trees and plant species would not be able to flourish, as the heat of fire is generally required for the sprouting of seeds and the clearing of excess debris/growth that might discourage new fauna. In 1988, this fire burned almost 800,000 acres, with 150,000 acres burnt in ONE day. Fighting the fire was the equivalent of smoking four packs of cigarettes a day, and local school children had to wear masks and stay indoors. The media terrified the nation with the idea that park officials were negligently allowing one of our greatest natural resources to be destroyed by flame.
P.S. Taken by a NPS employee, Jim Peaco. I’m led to believe this constitutes free use. If not, well, feel free to correct me.

The air, even inside the van, frequently smelt like rotten eggs.  “That,” my sister told me with the knowledge of an older sibling, “is actually sulfur.  You know it’s safe sulfur because poison sulfur has no smell and it would kill you.”  I thought about poisonous sulfur the rest of the drive, and held my breath intermittently for the rest of the trip.

Finally, after much driving, staring at scenery and wildlife, and stopping to look at waterfalls and wander a boardwalk or two, we drove through another gate, quickly followed by a very large arch, and stopped at the bottom of a hill with a spread of grass and a few conveniently located picnic tables.

“Well, we’re here!” my mother announced, “What do you think?”

“Where’s the park?”  I asked.

“You’re in it,” she said.

“It’s so small!” I imagined she was referring to the patch of grass we were picnicking on.  “You said it would be big.”

“Well, it includes all of that, too,” she waved her hand toward the arch, “and there, and there.”  She pointed a few more directions, and I started to get the general idea.  “We drove through it for hours this afternoon.”

This is the arch I keep talking about. It marks the north entrance to the first National Park in the world: Yellowstone. The inscription at top reads “For the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”

“But…where are all the slides and stuff?”  I demanded, and she had to explain, of course.

Thus concludes the story of how I learned that there are different types of parks, and not all of them involve swings.  I got over my shock and disappointment with ease, and I believe, because packs of enthralled Californians like to tell me so, that I am “sooooo lucky.”

Despite the misunderstanding…they’re right.  So, today, Dad, I’d like to say thank you, for such an opportunity and walking through fire for us.  I know Mom was thrilled.  Happy Father’s Day!