Today is National Public Lands Day. It is a huge nationwide celebration where people all over the country are taking to the national public lands and doing projects to clean them up, make them better and draw attention to them. I had planned on going to Port Hudson (the closest public lands project to me) to pick up litter, but I’m not going to make it. So, I decided to do what I do best… write about it.
I grew up in an outdoors family. My father was/is a fisherman, and he wrote about the outdoors for the local paper. Plus, he was a sportswriter – read dirt poor – so our vacations needed to be budget-friendly for six people on a limited income. We camped and fished almost everywhere we went. Now, I’ll be honest and tell you that I hated it when I was a teenager. We took a 3-week camping trip to Colorado, Utah, and other states out west, and I absolutely hated having to be with my family for 3 weeks in the woods without a hair dryer or much access to teenage boys. There is a picture of my sister and I standing against the backdrop of a beautiful Colorado mountainside, and we look like we have just been admitted to prison. But, we did it, and I grew up knowing what the outdoors and nature is like.
There are people – many, many people – who have never been in the outdoors. They have no idea that being outdoors means anything other than standing on a street corner enjoying a cigarette. My second husband was a Chicago native, and he grew up smoking weed in parks. That’s what the city kids he grew up with thought parks were for…. well, that and making out in the car. He kept telling me story after story about that, and I’m like, “Did you ever get out of the car to see the woods?” He looked at me like I was cray-cray.
I use the public lands a lot. I know they cost us a lot of money to upkeep. And, I know they probably don’t spend money as wisely as they could. When I was reading Bill Bryson’s book “A Walk in the Woods”, he really gave the National Park Service a raking over the coals for some of their decisions. I don’t know the politics, and, like everything else, I’m sure there may be some truth to it, but I don’t care. I am just thrilled that there is land in this country that is unspoiled, doesn’t have a Wal-Mart on it and will never have a road running through it. I imagine if Old Faithful weren’t protected there’s be a strip mall and a convenience story nearby. Old Faithful would be relegated to a backdrop among tourist traps. I want to know that future generations will have access to this land so they can experience nature for all time… in its natural state.
One of the first things I do when I move into an area or even consider moving into area is to find the closest National Forest. I scour the list of State Parks to see what is close by and what recreational opportunities they offer. In Baton Rouge, I can drive to Tickfaw State Park within an hour. I pay $2 at the gate and spend all afternoon outdoors. Families and couples are always hanging out in the woods and on the boardwalks with their pets. And, most of the state parks around here have children’s “water” areas where they have water spraying, dropping from buckets and circulating so that kids can get wet and have fun while their families are picnicking nearby. Where else can you get that kind of entertainment for $2 per family?
I find it sad that our parks are so lightly used. On recent visits to Bogue Chitto State Park and Tickfaw State Park, the children’s “water” area sat empty. I guess families would prefer to pay $30 to go to a crowded waterpark rather than have a leisurely day enjoying each other’s company. I don’t think there is a comparison. In Waveland MS, Buccaneer State Park has a wave pool – not to mention the fact that it’s right on the beach and within a 15- minute drive to downtown Bay St. Louis where dining and libation options abound. It’s one of my favorite places to spend the weekend.
When I travel, I try to stay on public lands. I rent cottages, campsites and even hotel rooms. Some are very fancy. Other facilities are more rustic. But, they are all fun, and the rangers are always helpful and knowledgeable about the area. At Black Rock Mountain State Park in Georgia, I attended a workshop on how to make artisan paper in the outside amphitheater. I also ate at a potluck dinner with the locals that has been hosted by the park for over 30 years. I met great people, and I ended up meeting some of them in town for Bluegrass music.
Some of our public lands are in trouble. We have pollution issues, animal endangerment concerns and safety concerns with the interaction of people and wildlife. But, our lands are set aside for our long-term enjoyment. I have an appreciation for nature because I was exposed to it early in life. It is important that we know what this country looked like before we built strip malls on it. But, more importantly, our souls luxuriate in nature’s solitude, tranquility and magnificence. We are, after all, mammals that lived in the natural world at one time in our history- and not all that long ago.
If you haven’t been to one lately, I urge you to give one of them a visit. There are parks and lands for every level of comfort with the outdoors. You might find that you love it. Even if you don’t, it is part of your investment in our country. You owe yourself – and our public lands – the opportunity to experience our legacy. And, if you go, go with the flow and Leave No Trace of your visit (That means pick up your trash, you and your dog’s poo and anything else you carry in). It’s your promise to leave this legacy unspoiled for the next generation.