Journalist James Edward Mills learned to love the outdoors as a Cub Scout. Now, his work investigates representation in outdoor spaces; Mills chronicled the first all-African American summit attempt on Denali in his book, The Adventure Gap. “We need to understand that diversity isn’t a goal in itself, but rather the outcome of an environment that is welcoming to all people, he says. He is also the founder of the Joy Trip Project, which is an “ongoing search to find the answers and discover how to lead a harmonious life in balance with the natural world and the rest of humanity.” For Here Magazine‘s sixth issue, he reflects on why national parks are a critical piece of the American cultural fabric.
On the banks of the Colorado River, I struggled with my camera settings to take a photograph. It was two in the morning and the light was perfect. That is to say, during this particular phase of the moon in mid-May 2016, there was no light. The shining lights of the nearest city were far, far away. With no clouds to block my view, in absolute darkness, only the radiance of distant planetary systems shone down from the Arizona night sky.
With the aperture set to full, I clicked the shutter for a timed exposure of 30 seconds. I held my breath as I attempted to capture what too few people today can witness. High above me, the walls of the Grand Canyon stood out in dark contrast against the glow of the Milky Way. A wide band of twinkling light wound its way like a ribbon overhead, tracing the flow of water beneath it. Just as my friend, the author Kevin Fedarko, described in his book The Emerald Mile, there it was, “a river of shooting stars.”
After years of wishing, I finally had the chance to see this remarkable sight with my own eyes. The canyon’s rim carved a path through the heavens that was glorious to behold. Even as a professional in the outdoor recreation industry, I had spent much of my career waiting for the opportunity to paddle the length of the Colorado through the Grand Canyon, a journey of 226 miles. For more than a decade, a cadre of friends and colleagues had applied, year after year, to receive one of the few non-commercial permits to make the trip from the put-in at Lee’s Ferry near Flagstaff to the take-out at Diamond Creek, on the tribal land of the Hualapai Nation. Though I could have bought passage on a voyage with a guide service, the cost of such an expedition is prohibitively expensive for my limited budget as a freelance journalist. Besides, I was eager to experience the freedom of a no-frills adventure with a crew of fellow travelers who had shared the same dream for so long.
It’s important to understand that despite its incredible size, depth, and length, gouged from the earth’s crust over millions of years, the Grand Canyon is a limited natural resource. Although nearly five million people will visit the canyon’s rim each year, fewer than 16,000 backcountry permits were issued in 2017. The presence of human beings in this fragile ecosystem exacts a heavy toll on the flora, fauna, land, and water. In order to preserve a delicate balance of each for future generations to enjoy, we must do all that we can to reduce our impact on this and other wild places—even if we may seldom visit.
Operated by the United States Department of the Interior, the Grand Canyon is among the 417 units of the National Park System. This number includes wildlife preserves, recreation areas, seashores, lake shores, parkways, and scenic trails. There are also national monuments, battlefields, memorials, and historic sites. Each location, no matter how small or large, preserves a portion of both our national and natural heritage. From the iconic parks at Yellowstone, Sequoia, and Yosemite to the hallowed grounds of Gettysburg, the Lincoln Memorial, and the home of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the National Park Service retains the collective memory of the American people for posterity and affirms the enduring legacy of personal liberty and freedom, which is the birthright of every citizen.
Our national parks are the embodiment of the American dream.
Our national parks are the embodiment of the American dream. They represent both our capacity to roam freely upon the earth in our pursuit of happiness and our obligation to defend that same privilege for others to enjoy. This ingenious notion of preserving wild places was described in 1983 by the novelist Wallace Stegner. “The national parks are the best idea we ever had,” he wrote. “Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.”
By setting aside federally protected land for the general public to experience the joys of nature, we have created a positive incentive for the people of our nation to strive toward peace and prosperity that may last for millennia. For us to enjoy the spectacular beauty of canyons, rivers, deserts, prairies, mountains, and lakes for generations to come, we must do our best to tread lightly on the earth and leave few traces of our passing. But in order for this idea to materialize, each citizen must be prepared to share these natural resources, and make them available to those visitors we may never meet, in the hope that they, too, will one day stand in their defense.
Through the National Park System, I have enjoyed the greatest freedoms our nation has to offer.
Through the National Park System, I have enjoyed the greatest freedoms our nation has to offer. As I travel with friends along the Colorado River in an ecstatic adventure of white water rapids and hidden slot canyons, I am constantly reminded that this privilege is only made possible by those who came before me, those who demanded the preservation of nature. I know that if I am to experience wonders such as these through the rest of my lifetime, I, too, am personally obligated to defend the freedom of others to visit our national parks.
There beneath the river of shooting stars, I sat gazing up in wonder and awe. A more talented photographer could have captured this amazing spectacle far better than I. But it is my hope that, through my words, I may inspire some other traveler to imagine what it might take to see what I have seen. If it requires a decade spent dreaming, would they insist that this place be preserved and protected until they finally arrive? We must demand it. And though it may take years, we will find it worth the wait.