“Diminished” & “Amplified” by the National Parks

Road tripping to National Parks has become a summer tradition since I’ve been teaching. This year my plans are bringing me to Texas for a two-week program at UTEP through the National Endowment for the Humanities. Rather than make two separate trips, I  appended a week-long trip through the state, flying into Dallas and logging nearly 1,600 miles as I zig-zagged between cities, parks, and small towns across Texas and New Mexico on my way to El Paso. While Texas is not known for having the sexiest National Parks, I found them to be utterly compelling.

On the six and a half hour drive from Austin to Big Bend National Park I spent a good amount of time listening to the audiobook version of The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, by Duncan Dayton and Ken Burns (of the PBS documentary series). Earlier in the drive, I was most struck by an interview with Shelton Johnson, the superintendent of Yosemite and a life-long park ranger:

“When you’re in a grove of giant sequoia, there’s no need for someone to remind you that there is something in this world that is larger than you are because you can see it. There’s no need to stand on airs and think that you’re better than this person or not as good as that person because we’re all diminished and at the same time amplified by being in their presence.”

Those two words – diminished and amplified – rattled around in my mind the whole drive and when I finally entered Big Bend and began the ascent up the Chisos Mountains I was overcome by how diminished and amplified I felt. The soft brown of the craggy rock mountain faces had a subtle green lushness that I was nothing I had expected nor anything I had seen before. The road up the basin passes through a broad slope covered in funky cacti each with a long stem growing from its center, like a giant stalk of wheat; upon closer inspection, it was clear these were just oversized flowers springing from the heart of the plant.

Those mountains and the flora made me feel diminished. I felt overwhelmed by their scale and the relative temporality between these mountains and me. I was the alien in this beautiful landscape that was new and odd to me, but had existed and would continue existing without me.

And at the same time, I felt myself being amplified by being in the presence of this beautiful landscape, ancient at its core and made anew each day and season. The relative heat of the summer meant that the park was virtually empty, which only added to my sense of a profound connection with the moment and all the mountains had to offer.

From the Chisos to their rugged desert surroundings and the cloudy Rio Grande, I had an abiding feeling of being diminished and simultaneously amplified.

And this did not change when I drove north to the Guadalupe Mountains National Park. I saw their peak on the horizon more than 50 miles before I arrived at the park. I nearly stepped over a patient tarantula on an evening hike in the park and found narrow canyons illuminated by the setting sun that betrayed their ancient history in the rock.

The feeling persisted at Carlsbad Caverns on the walk down the natural entrance to the caves as I left behind the light and heat and descended into an unparalleled chamber, the scale of which is unimaginable, even as I gazed at it. I ached to consider the slow pace at which this place was formed and the awesome coincidence of being alive to see it at this moment in time.

And I felt diminished and amplified at White Sands National Monument, when, descending out of the Sacramento Mountains in New Mexico, the valley below was brown and gray but for one radiant strip of white gleaming 25 miles in the distance. Walking among the bare gypsum dunes and dodging the iridescent lizards made my heart beat faster and my mind clearer.

These parks always have this effect on me. They diminish me and the amplify me. They restore my sense of self and my relationship with the world. They help me feel alive while reminding me of my temporary relationship with this life. The answers to all questions can be found in nature and as long as I have questions, you can find me in nature.

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