Thursday, October 1, 2009


I've been watching the PBS Ken Burns series on the National Parks and it's stirring the travel bug in me again.

I started collecting National Parks early. I think I was about 4 years old when my parents took me to Lexington and Concord. We did the Virginia Civil War parks maybe 2 years later. They also took me to big scenic parks: Shenandoah, Great Smoky Mountains, Acadia. I finally got out west in my twenties. As of today, I've been to about 75 National Park sites, not counting parkways and national heritage areas, and counting all the DC monuments as one. That still feels like a drop in the ocean, out of all the hundreds of park sites. I've got no fewer than 15 on my see-before-I-die list. In my opinion, all Americans ought to visit at least 3 National Parks in their lifetimes--one major scenic park, one major historical park, and one of their choice. And they ought to bring their kids. The parks are OURS, folks. One of the perks of democracy.

If you're a writer, you owe it to yourself to go to a park and wake up your brain.

The Parks are responsible for my choices of settings in my stories. I think of my fiction in two phases: Before Yellowstone and After Yellowstone. Before I visited Yellowstone, my writings were filled with generic settings. Most inexperienced writers do the same thing. TV teaches us to picture Hollywood backlot housing developments and city streets. Yes, you can tell a good story in these kinds of settings, but how much richer in a real, and possibly unusual, place?

My trip to Yellowstone began with a crosscountry train ride. I slept in a berth out to Chicago, where I switched onto a huge doubledecker train. I'd never crossed the Mississippi before--I was used to the East where everything is small scale. Suddenly I was seeing miles of lakes, then not only amber waves but a vast sea of grain. Bluer sky, and more of it, than I'd ever seen from anyplace back home.

We got off the train in Montana and took a bus south. The air was dryer and clearer than I knew air could be. And in Yellowstone itself--well, they didn't call it Wonderland in the 19th century for nothing. Steam comes out of the ground. The hot spring terraces look like cave formations turned inside out. Mud boils like tomato sauce. Geysers go off like scalding unruly mall fountains. Pools from in-ground springs are all azure blue or rainbow-colored. Add to that a deep canyon of red-streaked yellow rock, waterfalls, mountains, alpine meadows filled with wildflowers, rivers, forests of evergreens and aspen, and a colossal sapphire blue lake. And everywhere animals--elk, moose, buffalo, deer, birds, bears, snowshoe hares, marmots, ground squirrels. The place has dozens of different smells, from flowers to pine to the rotten egg odor of sulphur. The temperature can range 40 degress F. in one summer day. The night sky is inundated with stars. Storms seem more epic, thunder louder, lightning streaks, brighter and longer. I experienced all of that in one week.

The most beautiful and scariest place I'd ever been. I HAD to write about it.

Thing was, my writing skill hadn't yet gotten to the point where I could do the setting, or anything else in that tale justice, so the book was never published. But the experience taught me that setting ought to be specific. I now can't write a story without trying to make the place into a character.

I realized, watching PBS this week, that I want to return to Yellowstone someday. Maybe rewrite that Yellowstone novel, too.

And I want to get moving on my see-before-I-die list.


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