Our Best Idea
A couple of decades ago, when I was a slightly younger man, I worked in Yellowstone National Park. I had a variety of jobs, including at the hotel front desk, and occasionally at the bell desk, where I helped guests with their enormous suitcases, sometimes straining to survive the journey. I also helped Housekeeping when staff was low, which allowed me to use different accents, strictly for my own amusement: "ALLO!!?? Housekeeping!" And finally, I managed the snowmobile concession at Old Faithful during the glorious and sparkling winter season. Honestly, it was a fun year, and it was an opportunity to make others' hard-earned, and often long-awaited vacations, something special.
Admittedly, I'm not a miracle worker. Some folks just couldn't be eased into a National Park State of Mind. Most of the time they were still aggravated by a long road trip and whatever personal burdens came with them. But for many, stepping up to the desk was a chance to exhale deeply and shake off the road. It was a time to remember why they had jammed their lives into the trusted family wagon for a week of seeing America, and eventually discovering Yellowstone.
Many people visit the National Parks yearly, and at Yellowstone I saw first hand, the multitudes, ... all of them searching, and for different things. Some were in need of a beautiful geyser or mineral spring, others desperately wanted to spot a wolf in the distance, or maybe a mother bear and cub browsing for berries by the roadside, while others wanted nothing more than to wander and gaze. I think that's what many wanted whether they knew it or not. They just wanted to wander.
On my weekends off, I joined the throngs and tramped around Yellowstone myself, taking in the national park experience. Wallace Stegner said preserving the land for our common enjoyment - thank you Theodore Roosevelt - was "the best idea we ever had." Well, I soon discovered that "the best idea," the real beauty and joy wasn’t found at the edge of a parking lot, breathing in the exhaust of others and surveying the prescribed image of nature that the Park Service had so courteously created. Don’t get me wrong, I love that they’ve made nature’s wonders accessible to all. Teddy, Ulysses S. Grant, Gifford Pinchot, Stephen Mather and all those in the Park and Forest Services: you have my gratitude forever. You have it as an Eagle Scout, boy hiker, nature photographer, mountain biker and American who understands needing a break.
But the majority of the tourists I saw never left that parking lot, even though a foot path lay waiting nearby. To my initial shock, the trails were most always empty. You could walk a hundred yards from the road and never see anyone for the rest of the day. Maybe a little scary and unnerving at first, being away from the din of humanity, but with patience, the rhythm of the forest welcomed you.
Being Patient and Still - Photography and silence
Often times, during those forays away from tourists and my job, I'd grab my camera and head out. I'd find a trail, scout for a view, ... then wait for the creative side of my brain to speak up, nudge me a bit to stop, maybe walk back up the trail to have one more look at that crooked tree....grassy hillside... whatever. The brain always sees the good stuff. It's just hoping you'll listen.
You take an initial shot, even though it might just be a snapshot. Then just wait, and wait. The light and clouds and wind are always changing, making one subject into a multitude, for those with patience and time.
Now I don't have the patience of Ansel Adams, who was known to wait for hours for just the right shot of a retreating thunderstorm. And it's not always pleasant waiting for the rain to stop. But, the waiting can often enhance the image, or at least my perception of the image. And waiting can cause your pulse to slow, your mind to clear and your spirit to lighten. It's amazing that it happens, but it does. I don't know if it's nature, or focus, or when focus eludes you and finds you again, or the rattle and hum of the woods, but some confluence of those things - you in the natural world, even the semi-tamed natural world - are a different person. I look at photos from those years, and others I've taken since then in Maine, the Pacific Northwest, the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Shenandoah National Park and elsewhere and I remember the place and who I was when I was there.
TRANSLATING THERE TO HERE
Solitude and peace are becoming harder to find in our plugged-in world. Too many distractions, whether noise or work, leave us on alert, tense...missing something. We need more places of quiet contemplation. Not everyone can work out west in a national park. Not everyone wants to and that's all good.
But wouldn't you like to replace the rattle of the dusty air vent in your office with the sound and feel of a breeze making its way through maple leaves? Just for a couple of hours?
Or, replace the hum of your many hard drives with that of insects working a field of Queen Anne’s Lace. Trade the fast food window with a picnic in a shady glen. Or finally, replace your rush hour commute in a four-wheeled transport with an hour on a mountain bike followed by listening to a stream? I think you'll be surprised at how it will change you.
Parks of all shapes and sizes are perfect places for this, but you have to take the time to get away. And away is the key. Pack a suitcase or a day-pack, but do yourself a favor and be still. If Ebenezer Chapel promises to be a place where you can wander and take photos, think and do nothing, remember yourself or forget everything, then it's worth it. It's worthwhile to build it and worth it to visit when it's complete.
Todd Boettcher is an Asheville, NC based builder, mountain-biker, sometime photographer and lover of the woods.