Why parks matter in a fragmented world

By Heather HansenSan Francisco Chronicle, August 21, 2016

A couple of weeks ago, my husband and I hiked along Mills Creek in Rocky Mountain National Park in the direction of a pair of hidden alpine lakes. I’m from nearby Boulder, Colo., have been exploring the park for 14 years in every season, and generally avoid the spots mobbed in summer by “flatlanders” in search of their “high.” But a late start landed Juan and I mid-morning at the always-popular Bear Lake, where several trails branch out like spokes on a wheel, offering hours to days of walking.

The large parking lot closest to the lake had been full since before 9 a.m. with vehicles whose license plates reflected the distances visitors had traveled — New Jersey, Oregon, Florida. “Is there anyone left in Texas?” I remarked after counting more than a dozen of those plates. Juan just shrugged, having technically come all the way from England to these mountains. Latecomers poured off shuttle buses and lined up at port-o-lets. Some downed drinks and snacks or applied sunscreen in defense of rays, harsh at the 9,475-foot elevation.

We steered deliberately around the hives of humans, heading north then west through a tight grove of aspens in the direction of Lake Helene, at 10,690 feet. As we climbed quickly above Bear Lake, the thrum of people was supplanted by the bustle of the woods. Chipmunks snuffled the ground near log burrows, woodpeckers hammered away at the trunks of beetle-killed pines, and deer grazed wildflower-specked meadows around lingering patches of snow.

About 3 miles along the trail, as it nears the hidden shores of Two Rivers Lake, we crossed Mills Creek, named for the guy who is largely responsible for this place becoming a national park. National Park Service forefather Horace Albright wrote of Enos Mills: He “was one of the meanest, most cantankerous, most fascinating men I ever knew. I’m pretty sure I never knew anyone who liked him — maybe admired him, maybe tolerated him. But no one liked him.”

The man with the drill-like stare was undaunted by the lack of fan club, focusing instead on the purpose of this rugged playground. Echoing his idol, famed naturalist John Muir, he said, “They need the temples of the gods, the forest primeval, and the pure flower-fringed brooks.” When leaders in park preservation told Mills the time was wrong for Rocky, he persisted like the mountain climber he was, eyeing the summit.

A little further along the trail, Juan and I ducked into a thicket along an easily missed spur trail. Lake Helene was utterly still, save for a mother duck and five ducklings braiding across the surface. Juan unlaced his boots and waded into the cool, shallow lake. A childlike smile reached his eyes and it warmed me. Lake Helene is at the tree line, where evergreens surrender to rock, ice, lichen and sky. That makes spectacular the views of the surrounding peaks — Notchtop Mountain (12,129 feet) and Flattop Mountain (12,324 feet) among them. For a little while we sat in silence holding hands, willing time to slow before his flight back to Britain the next day. We watched two skiers creep up the surface of a glacier in a cirque high over head then ski graceful curves across its belly.

“Within national parks is room — glorious room — room in which to find ourselves, in which to think and hope, to dream and plan, to rest and resolve,” Mills wrote a century ago. I can’t speak for the crowds, but I know what I needed that day. My mind had been noisy with the anxiety of separation; for every couple of weeks Juan and I spend together we endure another several weeks apart, with work and thousands of miles jammed between us.

So we walked, easing into a single, meditative pace. Like the tread on our boots, the miles wore down the angles of our arguments, the push-and-pull of living separate lives. The elements and indelible features forced perspective into the narrow folds of our minds. Pick up a rock here and realize that if these mountains speak of time, a handful is all we can hope to grasp. We were, as Mills offered, preparing again to live apart, but not just yet. When it seemed I was in a difficult spot, crossing a surging stream or descending a steep slope, Juan reached back to take my hand. Even if I didn’t need it, I took it.

This month the nation celebrates 100 years of its National Park Service. Parks now have a purpose and a value perhaps greater than in Mills’ day. They protect resources, tell stories, heal, inspire, offer pauses and foster epiphanies. Parks restore a sense of wholeness to a fragmented world and, when we need it most, they offer the space for two people to find their way back to each other.

Heather Hansen is the author of “Prophets and Moguls, Rangers and Rogues, Bison and Bears:100 Years of the National Park Service,” Mountaineers Books, 2015.) She drove 20,000 miles visiting hundreds of parks and collecting stories.