Two weekends ago, I spent seven hours on my feet, in the sun, and having high-energy conversations with strangers. When I got home, I barely had the energy to get a glass of water before falling on my couch. I’m a little ashamed of what I ate for dinner that night – it may or may not have consisted of tortilla chips and carrots.
Part 2. By August Franzen
My slightly embarrassing dinner aside, it was a fantastic Saturday. I was working at the National Park Service tent at Dragon Fest in the International District. We were there to let people know that the national parks are for everyone to enjoy, and that we at Klondike and In My Backyard support the community. We brought the traditional brochures about the parks such as maps and guides, but our ‘Mobile Park’ had so much more. We had a ten-foot interactive map with trivia and stickers for marking your favorite parks as well as a table full of plastic animals and plants for children to play with. I even had an owl puppet that made children laugh when I flapped its wings and whistled “whooo, whooo”. We were able to give out free park passes to fourth graders, which brought them wide-eyed delight. It wasn’t just kids who enjoyed our Mobile Park; adults did too. I could hear the change in their voice when they started to tell stories about their travels in the parks. No matter how tiring working in the hot sun might have been, the positivity they brought was enough to sustain me for an entire day of animated conversation.
But it wasn’t all happy kids and nostalgic adults. There were plenty of people who were totally disinterested when they came to talk or ignored us entirely. For as many people as there were who told stories, there were just as many people who didn’t respond at all. For every kid who played with our plastic bears, there was one who lost interest when they found out the bears weren’t for sale. That’s the nature of tabling, but I sensed it was more than that.
As the day went on, one of the biggest challenges was that I had no phrase or slogan to engage with people as they walked by. I tried out a number of things, but nothing rolled off the tongue and grabbed people’s attention. If someone came to talk to us, they saw us and came of their own accord. The visitors at our booth were, for the most part, like the visitors to national parks on the whole: they already knew who we were. There were some exceptions, of course, and that was a different challenge.
How do I explain what a national park is? I tried any number of ways but every description seemed inadequate in some way. “They are giant parks that everyone can camp and hike in.” True, but it leaves out urban parks that preserve cultural heritage like Klondike or the Bainbridge Island Memorial. “Parks are special natural and cultural places that are preserved for all people to visit.” Also true, but vague to the point of being useless.
Why was I having such trouble explaining what a national park is, when I volunteer at one and have been going to them all my life? Precisely for the reasons I thought it would be easy. I was so immersed in national parks, I didn’t understand what it’s like to not know what they are. My parents had gone backpacking with me while I was eighteen months old (and yes, they did have to pack out the dirty diapers), so there has never been a time when I wasn’t familiar with national parks. At Mount Rainier last month, I was struck by how holding a camera changed my interactions. At Dragon Fest, I was struck by how my own experiences changed my perceptions. Because I went to Yellowstone at age seven, I had a hard time talking to seven year olds who hadn’t been to a park. Because I’ve been to Olympic National Park twice in the past four years, I had a hard time explaining why it exists. This mental lens, like that of my camera, can sometimes be a barrier to real, deep communication. It’s a problem that arises in my college courses as well: my professors and classmates spend so much time learning the scientific names of native plant species that we forget ‘Pseudotsuga menziesii’ is utterly meaningless. What matters is that it’s a tree and what really matters is that a person can walk beneath it.
Over the past two months, I’ve become more and more aware of these blind spots within the National Park Service. As an agency, the NPS has gotten so used to its own existence that it doesn’t reach out as well as it could. For so long the parks have appealed to people who look like me – white, male, and able to afford hiking boots – that they struggle to go beyond me. People who know the parks will visit them, and people who don’t, won’t.
These are the problems that the In My Backyard program was founded to address. These are the problems that motivated me to join. But it means that at every step I am trying to move outside my own experiences. I’m trying to work against my own privilege and the privilege of my organization. It’s necessary. It’s rewarding. It’s essential for the Park Service to open their doors wider and invite more people in, just as it’s essential for me to recognize the advantages I’ve had. At times, it can feel like a chicken-and-the-egg type problem, but when it does, that’s just a reminder that this work needs to be done.
As Dragon Fest progressed on into the evening, these thoughts took up more and more of my mind. I tried to stay focused on engaging with visitors, but I was having trouble staying engaged myself. Eventually I took a short break and asked myself a single question. Why did I visit national parks? It wasn’t a simple question. The answer is wrapped up in so many memories. It’s stitched into the scarf I wore skiing in a Yellowstone winter, laced up in the boots I wore to hiking through lava tubes in Hawaii, and drenched in rain from the Olympic peninsula. But at the core, the answer is that I can see things there I can’t see anywhere else. I let this answer guide me.
The next kid who came to play with the toy animals on our table looked at me in confusion when I asked him if he had been to a national park before. He shook his head no, the words unfamiliar to him. It was clear that he came to our tent just to play with the plastic eagle he held in his hand. When I told him “You can see real eagles at national parks”, though, he grinned and his eyes lit up. “And the best part is, everyone is welcome there,” I continued. I can only hope that one day he’ll take me up on the offer.