The writer is host of the Dirtbag Diaries podcast.
I crawl along the bumper-to-bumper commute. While Seattle traffic has become among the worst in the country, this is a traffic jam with a view. To the west sits the picturesque skyline of Olympic National Park, a saw-toothed ridge of hard-to-reach peaks. At the center loom the Brothers.
This pair of notched peaks defines Seattle’s western skyline with the same authority that Mount Rainier defines the southern one. The Brothers grace countless postcards bought by visitors. For me, this view is both a breath of fresh air during a time-crunched day and a not-so-subtle reminder that I could be doing something else with my life.
For the past 20 years, I’ve imagined climbing and then skiing off the Brothers’ jagged summits. Every year, I’ve failed to do so.
“One day,” I said.
This week, the National Park Service turns 100. As for so many other Americans, it’s no exaggeration to say that our National Parks have had a major role in shaping my life. As a kid, I was pulled to them by postcard vistas. As a young man, I deepened my understanding of myself by wandering the mostly empty nooks and crannies and solidified lifelong friendships on the sheer cliffs of Yosemite and Zion. I parlayed this passion for American landscapes into a career telling stories about people who inhabit, explore and fight to protect them. Now, I am the busy almost 40-year-old with two kids and a career. I kept pushing “summit the Brothers” further down the priority list. Too much work. Too far. Not the right day. Chalk it up to emotional traffic. Life felt bumper-to-bumper.
Then, this spring a small window opened. I decided I didn’t want to spend another year daydreaming about the Brothers from rush-hour traffic. “One day” could be today.
It’s rare that I get to spend a day uninterrupted in my own thoughts, so when I struggled to find a climbing partner, I shrugged and figured I had some thinking to do anyway. After navigating traffic to the trailhead, I trudged 10 miles through old-growth trees in the Valley of the Silent Men, slept on soft fir needles alongside a babbling river and awoke in darkness to climb up firm snow before the morning sun could warm a crumbling mountain held together by snow and ice. I counted my steps, trying to reach 100 before pausing to catch my breath. A mountain goat waited for me on the summit, then skittered over to another subpeak as I slumped into a pile of gear and tired human.
Looking west from my summit perch, the heart of the park extended outward in a maze of deep valleys, glaciers and rocky peaks — a glimpse into another lifetime of exploration.
To the east, sunlight poured through the canyons created by Seattle’s skyscrapers. Looking north past the Space Needle, I picked out the glaciated hill where I live. I thought of my children, my wife and the work that I pour my heart into. From this height, I was able to see the beauty of what I’ve built in the city, rather than the physical and metaphorical clutter of life.
But the true gift of the park system isn’t its views; it is space and uninterrupted time. Yes, millions may simply visit and check the “been there, done that” box during this centennial year, yet visitation is an act best repeated through life. A day here or weekend there is more valuable than the delayed gratification of an epic road trip 20 years from now. The true gap between the parks and our everyday lives is in our understanding of their distance from one another. The hidden corners of the parks, of these wild places, can become part of the fabric of our lives only if we choose to weave them in.
My moment atop the Brothers was hard-earned. I walked 16 miles, stumbled through slide alder and crawled underneath downed trees all while carrying skis that I would use for 15 minutes of fast turns on springtime snow. Despite the perceived physical distance, I was struck by how close, both geographically and emotionally, I felt to my flatlander life. I even made it home in time to put the boys to bed.
We need the parks more than ever, given the oversaturated, fast-paced, stress-filled times we live in. But the people who created the National Park Service 100 years ago had full plates, too, and stresses that our technologies long ago lifted from our backs. The parks’ architects knew that we would always need places of beauty, solace and perspective. All we have to do is remember to cross the distance to them, and make sure we do our part to see them into the future.