Permanent Vacation: Twenty Writers on Work and Life in Our National Parks, edited by Kim Wyatt (Bona Fide Books, 2011)
National parks can offer a different frame of reference on the impermanence of our lives. On the one hand, they remind us of our insignificance: from the perspective of geologic time in places like Grand Canyon National Park, Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park, Mammoth Cave National Park, or Petrified Forest National Park, individual human lives hardly register. In fact, the entire history of the human species itself is a relatively recent development. On the other hand, national parks offer meanings that transcend the changing circumstances we face on a daily basis. Parks bring something permanent into our lives.
Most visitors arrive at national parks on too-short vacations. A few fortunate souls, though, find a way to make their vacations more permanent. And some are talented authors who put into words their experiences of permanent vacations in national parks.
Editor Kim Wyatt has gathered an assortment of short recollections by writers who lived and worked in national parks. Some of them are still in the parks, but most have, like Wyatt, moved on into other lives with the parks as a touchstone of their past. Nearly all have stayed in some way or another connected to national parks and other wild areas.
Intimate tales of national parks
Their stories range from the drudgery and demands of laboring on trail crews and serving tourist visitors to tales of guarded encounters with wildlife and immersion in the immensity of forest and mountain and sky. Sometimes adventurous, even frightening, often poetic, this collection offers intimate views rarely experienced by the millions who enjoy American national parks each year.
Monica Delmartini, for instance, offers nine ways of looking at a giant sequoia redwood tree, though in her first look as a child, it was the river that caught her eye as the water jumped “down across the rounded backs of the boulders and caught up and sprayed in flecks of dampness and leaping mists and all of it backlit like a thousand sparklers” (24-25). Impressive animals also catch the eye in several stories. Joseph Flannery witnesses a Yellowstone grizzly feeding on a dead bison: “The great bear bursts into the light. Head held high, he jogs right up to the carcass and swings his front paws down violently, attacking the already dead. Within minutes, the grizzly opens the bison—his shoulders, head, and neck immediately slick with entrails and blood” (91).
Most of the stories refrain from the gruesome in favor of more mundane views of park life. Matthew Bowser muses on his years as a “trail dog” in the Yellowstone backcountry. His approach to trail building involved some bit of architectural artistry: “I wanted to make all obvious structures disappear completely—to build trails that performed for decades without erosion, and in which all traces of work were buried, hidden from sight. The end result of my inspired tactics would appear as though no work had been done at all” (133). Other artistry in the parks involves cuisine for the tourists at the edges of Paradise. Nathan Rice recounts finishing the breakfast shift in Mt. Rainier National Park: “By ten o’clock the place is a mess, the masses are fed, our faces are covered with oil and sweat, and the work is temporarily done. I untie my apron, toss it on the counter, grab a bowl of lukewarm oatmeal, add raisins, brown sugar, walnuts, and cream, and walk out into the morning.” There, he tells us, the landscape awaits him: “The air is so brisk and sweet it stops me, bowl in hand, at the threshold. I close my eyes and breathe in the complex perfume of fir, snow, and every wildflower out there, and I am renewed” (44).
The rejuvenating power of wild parks
These essays offer glimpses into the rejuvenating power of wild parks from people whose intimacy with these special places has left indelible impressions on their souls. In the end, though, impermanence becomes the inevitable lesson of these stories. Even Robert Cornelius, whose National Park Service career spanned 33 years, discloses an unavoidable impermanence as he contemplates retirement. Though national parks may serve as seemingly permanent backgrounds against the struggles, disappointments, victories, and enduring pleasures of life, they are never a permanent home. Perhaps the most we can hope for is to perpetuate the legacy of years spent in the outdoors, as Robert Cornelius did at the end of his decades in the national parks; he tells in the last words of the book, “I like to think I passed the torch that day, through a chance encounter that I arranged between a young boy and a bighorn sheep” (196). ♨