One of the things I’ve enjoyed most about my national park quest is that it pushes me to visit places I wouldn’t otherwise visit. It encourages me to step outside of what I know and am interested in to at least dabble in something new. I may not come away with a deep appreciation of that topic, but at least I’ll know a little bit more about it. Or, at the very least, know more about how I feel about it.
There have been a few of these places along the way. George Rogers Clark National Historic Park’s huge granite memorial, which clearly deserved to be the central attraction of a major city but was instead plopped down seemingly nowhere. The visitor center at Brown vs Board of Education National Historic Site, which stands as the most emotionally moving I’ve seen. The incredibly high tree canopy of Congaree National Park, the largest remnant of an old growth floodplain forest on the continent, which seems tucked away in South Carolina. And so forth.
Add to that list Vicksburg National Military Park. Well, at least two components of it. I was greatly impressed with the Illinois Monument, which reminded me a bit of both the archives building and the George Rogers Clark memorial I mentioned above. And I was completely caught off guard by the USS Cairo (pronounced KAY-row). I remember seeing a picture of an armor-clad Civil War battleship back in school, but had no idea that we were going to see one until we turned the corner on the driving tour. Both unleashed those unexpected fleeting moments of excitement when you first realize that there’s something much cooler to this place than you had anticipated. The thrill of discovery, you might call it.
Touring the national parks has focused our attention on learning more about the country in which we live; experiencing, at least within a narrow focus, some of what it’s meant to be American or experience a bit of America. There have been a few disappointing parks we’ve visited, but it’s always because we wanted to learn more than the park has resources to provide. And even in those disappointments, we gain a new understanding of the natural or cultural heritage that we must continue to protect. But most of the time, we walk away excited and awed by some magnificent fact or memorable experience of a place we may not ever had taken the trouble to see. It’s these kinds of pleasant surprises that energize me through the year in protecting a new set of worthy places.