The Crown Jewels and the Jersey Girl: Inspiration and Healing in the National Parks

By Lauren Danner

She is standing in a golden field, chin ducked, shoulders hunched forward, eyes looking up. Light blue jeans, white sneakers with red swoosh, and carefully flipped dark brown hair date the image to the early 1980s. One arm crooks behind her back, grasping the opposite elbow. Everything about her screams awkward, self-conscious teenager. Yet her eyes shine with happiness and she can’t quite dampen a grin, as if she has just stumbled upon an extraordinary discovery. Which, of course, she has.

Behind the gangly girl looms the Grand Tetons, iconic alpine silhouettes against a cerulean Rocky Mountain sky. The Grand Tetons are what a national park is supposed to look like. For a Jersey girl, this vista is like nothing she’s ever seen before, and although she doesn’t know it, her life is about to change.

The girl is me, and the photo, with its metallic Kodak tint that is now a popular phone camera filter, is one of dozens in a thick album stacked in a closet at my parents’ house. But I can see the picture in my head as if it were taped to my computer screen. It’s become an internal symbol of what the parks have meant to me over the past 35 years.

That first trip out West laid the groundwork. Grand Teton was preceded by Zion and Bryce, and followed by Yellowstone and Yosemite. Standing on a San Francisco hilltop at the end of three memorable weeks, I turned to my parents and declared, “I’m going to live out here someday.” Not San Francisco, necessarily, but the West, which had entered my unformed self and lodged permanently in my heart. Newly 13 years old and carrying all the baggage of adolescence, I felt unexpectedly comfortable in the wide open West. Nothing in my limited experience predicted this. I didn’t grow up camping or hiking or doing much of anything outdoors except going on bike rides in my suburban neighborhood. But my conventionally middle-class parents—two kids, split-level house, backyard garden—believed, as generations before them believed, that you haven’t seen America until you’ve seen the great national parks of the American West. So they saved for several years, sent away for brochures and maps, wrote letters to make reservations, and booked my first airplane flight.

Photo by Derek Wright.

Photo by Derek Wright.

I had a Kodak Instamatic camera and three film cartridges, and my dad cautioned some pictures I was taking probably wouldn’t turn out. The vast distances, wide perspectives, and dazzling colors wouldn’t translate onto film. But they did. I took two pictures of Mount Moran over Jackson Lake and created a handmade panorama in vibrant blues and grays. Bryce’s hoodoos are still rich sandy gold, freckled with black-green pines precariously perched on their slopes. Yellowstone’s pools are kaleidoscopic wonders. Yosemite’s Half Dome looms gilt-washed granite over the valley at sunset. About fifteen years ago I carefully peeled the pictures from their old-style magnetic album and placed them in an archival quality book. They’re that important to me. I transcribed the original inscription, too: “Property of ______, who has just finished the story of the best vacation she ever took!”

Although I can’t recall much else from my early teenage years, I vividly remember that trip. Dayton Duncan, who with his friend Ken Burns produced the documentary America’s Best Idea, says his childhood trip to the national parks is burned onto his brain. Everything was new and different and so much bigger, grander than anything he’d ever experienced. Exactly. The memory of being awestruck, of realizing the world was much bigger than I’d ever considered, stayed with me.

I didn’t get back to the national parks for years. I went to college in the East, managing a short winter trip to Yosemite but otherwise staying in my home territory. I got as far as Ohio with my first post-college job. Then the University of Washington offered me a graduate fellowship. I called my folks: “I’m moving to Seattle.” Their response: “You meant it,” referring to my vow on a San Francisco hill ten years earlier. Yes, I meant it. Suddenly, three national parks were within driving distance: Mount Rainier, Olympic, and North Cascades. On the first day of grad school I met a fellow student, a lawyer returning to his Northwest roots after a decade in what people here call “the other Washington.” Scion of a family known for making sturdy hiking boots, his preferred environment was mountains. He’d climbed Mount McKinley, summited several Northwest peaks, and trekked in Nepal. For my birthday he gave me a fleece pullover and glacier glasses. I married him.

We hiked and camped throughout the Pacific Northwest, even as I continued on to a doctoral program in a different city. Casting around for a case study to use in my research about how environmental values change over time, I landed on North Cascades National Park. I hadn’t been there—Mount Rainier and Olympic were our usual destinations—but it didn’t matter. I got to study national parks! For my graduate degree!

North Cascades National Park, photo by Derek Wright.

North Cascades National Park, photo by Derek Wright.

Dissertation done, a faculty advisor told me, “You really ought to write a book about North Cascades.” Our daughter was a year old when I started. Almost three years later, I had most of a manuscript done when I got an offer I couldn’t refuse. The state historical society needed a field coordinator for the Lewis & Clark Bicentennial. Was I interested? Definitely. I spent the next three years on the road, working with the National Park Service, tribes, and local communities on the bicentennial commemoration. It was an unforgettable experience that led to other positions with increasing responsibility. The book languished in a drawer, niggling at the back of my brain. I’ll get to it, I thought. I’ve got time.

Or maybe not. Turning forty, I dutifully scheduled my first mammogram. The technician was gone a long time. When she returned, she didn’t look me in the eye. “You need to schedule a follow-up,” she said. I ended up scheduling a lumpectomy, a mastectomy, eight months of chemotherapy (“You’re young,” my oncologist said, “so we’re going to blast this really hard”), and two months of radiation. I spent most of 2008 in a chair, so exhausted the thought of getting up to go to bed was overwhelming.

The worst thing was what cancer treatment did to my brain. I couldn’t read anything more complicated than a murder mystery. Our bookshelves, stuffed with scholarly treatises on the national parks, environmental history, and the American West, turned into decorative accents. I fretted. The North Cascades manuscript became a source of worry instead of inspiration. What if my brain never recovered? My husband counseled me to take it a day at a time. “It’ll come back,” he assured me. “You’ll get there.” Years passed, and although I felt physically better, mentally I was still foggy.

In 2014, we decided to take our daughter on a road trip to the national parks, continuing the family tradition. We’d go to Grand Teton, watch Old Faithful erupt on the Fourth of July in Yellowstone, and explore new territory in Glacier. Looking at my national parks books, I realized I owned Robert Righter’s history of Grand Teton National Park. It looked brand-new, even though it had been sitting on the shelf for at least five years. I pulled it out and sat down. Three hours later, I was so absorbed I didn’t hear my husband come home. “What are you reading?” he asked. I looked up in wonderment. “I’m reading this book about Grand Teton—I mean I’m really reading it!” I exclaimed. The fog had lifted. Watching me plow through the long-neglected bookshelves, my husband suggested it was time to return to the North Cascades book. He was right.

North Cascades National Park, photo by Derek Wright.

North Cascades National Park, photo by Derek Wright.

I started rewriting the manuscript that fall and continued working on it through early 2016, when I sent the first chapters to a publisher and hoped for the best. Happily, I’ve just begun editing the manuscript for publication. The park turns fifty years old in 2018, an auspicious occasion that merits telling the story of how it came to be. I’m thrilled I get to tell the story. But I’m overjoyed that I can tell it.

The same year the park celebrates its fiftieth anniversary, I’ll celebrate ten years cancer-free. Perhaps I’ll be working on my next book. Perhaps I’ll be working on something else. No matter what, I know the national parks will continue to tie the parts of my life together in unexpected and meaningful ways. The parks shaped who I am in the same way they shaped America’s vision of itself. It’s why we return so often to their wild landscapes. The national parks reflect our best selves, what we can do when we allow spectacular landscapes to inspire and heal us. The girl in the golden field in front of the Grand Tetons could not have predicted the parks’ importance in her life, but being there made all the difference.

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Lauren Danner is the author of the forthcoming book Crown Jewel Wilderness: Creating North Cascades National Park, to be published by Washington State University Press in late 2017. She writes about national parks, national forests, and wilderness at wildernesswithinher.com.

Banner photo courtesy the author.