The tree that changed my life

In the summer of 2012, I was on vacation with my family in California when my mom gave me a decision to make.

We could either visit Disneyland or Sequoia National Park, and it was up to me. I had never been to either place, but it was an easy decision to make once I imagined my sixteen-year-old self waiting in line for a Disney-themed ride with my parents alongside me. I decided I wanted to visit Sequoia, and to this day it’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

But the moments leading up to seeing my first sequoia tree were anything but extraordinary. As I sat in the backseat of our rental car, suffering as we twisted around the curves of the mountain road that led us to the park, I closed my eyes and cursed my uneasy stomach that was used to Midwestern flatness.

Then we hit a stretch of flat road, and I began to see them: the sequoias, with their iconic reddish bark, speckled among ponderosa pines and cedars. They were nothing compared to what I was about to see.

What I experienced next made me fall completely in love, with sequoias themselves and with the magical feeling of being in a national park.

100_3802At our ranger talk, at the foot of the General Grant tree, the ranger explained how a sequoia starts out as a tiny pinecone, smaller than the palm of your hand. The only way it can open up and germinate is through fire. Its roots grow only a few feet into the ground to hold up trunks that are over two hundred feet tall, with bark that is so fragile and delicate it feels like sponge. Sequoias need fire to regenerate and thrive, so much that the park has to hold prescribed burns.

Their whole existence is one big miracle. And like most wonders of nature, pictures do not do them justice.

Our ranger told us how these trees are just like humans in the way they overcome challenges. They start out so small, with seemingly no potential, only to grow into something larger than life. They need the fire, the fallen branches, and the harsh winters to bring something greater out of them; to bring themselves out on the winning side, with broken branches and charred bark as scars to remind them what they’ve been through.

I was amazed at the fact that this tree had stood for the longest time without any human to admire it. It had lived for almost two thousand years, to see countries rise and fall, through countless wars, through the lives of so many people I admire. It had endured endless winters and fires, silently and stoically.

Anyone else might see this same tree and be completely unaffected. Which is why I was so surprised by how it changed my outlook on life. It made me proud of my country, for saving these wonders of nature and working so hard to protect them. I consider how easily the parks could have become overflowing commercial areas, and I am grateful that they are not, but are instead sanctuaries.

“National parks are the best idea we’ve ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.” — Wallace Stegner

After visiting Sequoia National Park, I knew I wanted to see more national parks, not only to view the great natural wonders our country has to offer, but to just experience being in them. Being in a national park is like going on a camping trip with the rest of the world. People from all around the globe are coming to our country to see these places that most Americans do not take time out of their schedules to see.

100_3928Yet you don’t feel like these people are from foreign places, but rather that they could be your next door neighbor that you’ve known for your entire life. You could strike up a conversation with a fellow traveller without even having to introduce yourself. Everyone is in the same state of wonder and awe and happiness, which is what makes the experience of being in a national park so incredible.

“One touch of nature makes all the world kin.” — John Muir

Our national parks are something we can be proud of, but only if we continue to treat them as they should be treated. The National Park Service has undergone budget cuts that have caused parks to open later and close earlier, close campgrounds, lay off staff, and neglect needed maintenance and cleaning. These budget cuts cannot continue if we want our nation’s most spectacular historic and natural places to be preserved and restored. Adequate funding is needed so that sites can be properly managed, staff visitor centers, perform construction on roads and buildings, and hold educational programs for our youth.

The entire budget for the National Park Service is a tiny 1/15th of one percent of the federal budget; in 1982, it was 1/8th. — National Parks Conservation Association

Anyone who has ever visited a park managed by the National Park Service can recall the memories and experiences they had there. These national parks, monuments, recreational areas, battlefields and more also pass on the history of these places for the younger generations to learn about. Without these places, what would we know of our nation’s history? Would our most sacred battlefields and most beautiful landscapes be remembered by a new housing development and maybe a plaque? Would anyone be inspired to protect the beauty of our national parks or the history behind our national landmarks? Would anyone have stories to pass on to their children about their first visit to a national park or be able to share the experience with them?

Unless we start talking about it, the places that our nation can be most proud of may become just a memory. As the Roosevelt Arch, placed by President Theodore Roosevelt in Yellowstone National Park, says, national parks are “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people,” not to be mistreated and forgotten.

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