There are moments in life that are forever etched in memory, so vivid that even thirty years later they evoke powerful emotions. I have many such recollections. Among them is an evening on Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park. It was late spring, a time when days grow warm and new life is sprouting here in my Houston home. My husband was attending a conference in Denver and he invited me to come along. The hotel room after all was already secured. I only needed to purchase a plane ticket, find someone to watch our daughters in our absence and take a couple of days off from work. It seemed an audaciously frivolous thing to do which made me reluctant. I not only had children who relied on me at home but also at the school where I worked. Additionally I was taking a class and it was nearing the end of the semester. Papers were due; tests were coming. Nonetheless some force inside my soul told me that the brief retreat might be fun.
While Mike was attending the seminars and functions associated with his work I stayed in my hotel room reading from my textbooks, writing essays and studying for an exam that was coming within days. The quiet atmosphere complete with room service was perfect for the work that I had to do. I seemed to accomplish five times as much as I would have at home but it still felt silly to have flown hundreds of miles just to hole up inside four walls. I had to wonder what I had been thinking when I agreed to Mike’s plan.
When Mike’s business day ended much earlier than he had anticipated he appeared in our room with a mischievous grin. He announced that we were going to take a drive to Estes Park to see the mountains up close. I quickly gathered my purse and put on my shoes and we were soon heading toward an adventure that would make my trip worthwhile. The mountains loomed ever larger in our view as we drove out of Denver and through Boulder. Soon we were on a highway cut through a national forest which was dotted with mountain streams and incredible vistas at each curve in the road. Before long we were navigating the streets of Estes Park with its quaint shops and restaurants on our quest to ride along Trail Ridge Road inside Rocky Mountain National Park.
The ranger who greeted us at the entrance of the park told us that we were fortunate because the road had only recently opened but he urged us to be careful because it was growing dark and the weather report indicated that it would be foggy on our trail. We were not dissuaded by his warnings. The mountains beckoned us with a primal urge and we preceded with a growing excitement.
The path was easy at first. We drove along the side of a mountain sheltered by groves of trees that obscured the view. It grew unseasonably cold and we had come dressed for Houston, not the wintry temperatures that surrounded us, so we turned on the heater in our rented car. Here and there were gaps in the pines that showed us that we were indeed going higher and higher. The valley below receded and the air grew thinner. Before long we were driving above the tree line observing ancient glaciers on the tundra. Just as the ranger had predicted a wall of fog and clouds darkened our view. There were no signs of life, just a white blanket of snow and ice on the majestic peaks.
We spoke very little. Somehow chatter seemed to defame the glorious sight that lay all around us. We were alone in God’s country, viewing His majestic architecture, the cathedrals born from His hand. When we reached a point that overlooked the massive peaks through which we were traveling Mike parked the car and we exited so that we might stand in silence observing the breathtaking scene before us. The wind was howling, the temperature was freezing and neither of us had thought to bring coats but we cared little at that moment. Somehow we felt immune to the punishing weather. We were sharing a timeless vision. It felt as though we were the only human beings on the planet, an Adam and Eve discovering the world for the very first time. I wondered at that moment how many intrepid individuals had trekked into the mountains before there were roads or trails only to reach such a place and gaze into infinity just as we were doing. Did they feel close to God and to the core of their souls as I did?
Our faces had grown red from the harshness of the wind. Our fingers were becoming numb from the cold. Shivering we saw our own grins reflected in each other’s expressions. We needed no words to share what we were experiencing. We hesitated to leave but our more rational natures told us that it would soon be dark and a light snow was beginning to fall. We had seen something so spiritual that it would forever bind us with a love for Rocky Mountain National Park and each other.
We would return to that spot many more times over the years. We would never tire of seeing the wonders of the mountains in different seasons. We would bring our daughters and they would become as spellbound as we were. We would travel to the park with my brothers and their families. We celebrated our fortieth anniversary in those very same mountains along with good friends. We came back with our grandchildren. The lure of Rocky Mountain National Park never seems to grow old and we plan to return once again in a few weeks.
A hundred years ago the idea of preserving our national wonders in a system of parks and monuments that might be shared by all Americans came to be. Today our National Park System cares for our nation’s treasures from north to south, the Atlantic to the Pacific. Over the years Mike and I have marveled at Yosemite, Yellowstone, Glacier, Zion, Mesa Verde, the Grand Canyon, Carlsbad Caverns, the Smokey Mountains, the Missions in San Antonio, Shilo, The Washington and Lincoln Memorials and so many others that it would take pages to list and describe them. We now have a senior pass that allows us to enter any of them without even paying a fee. It would be impossible to justly describe the joy that visiting these places has brought to us again and again.
Our national parks represent the best of our country and who we are as people. They belong to all of us. The idea of preserving them forever was inspired. It came at a time when the entire world was weary from a war that had ultimately seemed so useless. We had paid a heavy price for peace and little knew the horrors that still lay ahead. Our national parks would become havens for even the common man as we grappled with the uglier sides of humanity during the decades that followed.
Our nation’s problems seem to persist but we the people mostly agree the we got it right when we chose to protect our glorious heritage through the national parks. They are a gift to everyone of us and inside their borders we are reminded again and again of what really matters.
Happy Birthday to our National Park System! May the next hundred years be even more glorious.