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Students Speak: Lessons from National Parks

Dec 7, 2021

My legs were burning. My arms were aching. My skin was hot and sweaty. I wanted to cry, and yet I had never felt more alive. It was June 2014, and I stood on the rocks on the top of Flat Top Mountain in the Rocky Mountains National Park, in awe of the scene before me.

Lush blankets of trees covered the landscape, rising mountains faded into shades of periwinkle and lavender, and the vast blue sky blurred in the horizon, I turned to my dad and saw my wonder reflected in his face. “漂亮吗?” he asked, lifting his Nikon to his eyes. “Isn’t it pretty?”

We had both hiked five miles across rocky terrain and narrow paths to reach this spot. My mom, sister, and brother had given up halfway, too tired to go on. But my dad, the national park enthusiast of the family, and I, the stubborn nine-year-old, had trekked on.

My travels to North America’s national parks over the years have transformed my relationship with both nature and my dad. They have taught me that there is more to our planet than what humans have built, and that there is more to my dad than the steady, reserved figure he is to me.

Growing up in flat, suburban Plano, views like the one we saw at Flat Top were only concepts to me. But I remember the first national park my dad dragged the whole family to: Big Bend. When we arrived, I was gently shaken awake in the car and upon opening my eyes, was shocked out of sleepiness by my surroundings. Dry sands spotted with viridian vegetation stretched out for miles all around, while jagged mountains rose up in the distance. We spent a few magical days there, but I felt that we were somehow intruders in this world of quiet, imposing grandeur.

As a child, I thought my parents revolved around me, but my dad’s love for national parks made me realize that he had interests of his own; a life outside of me. As the start of every school break approached, I’d ask if we’d be going anywhere, and he would always start, “Well, we haven’t been to ______ yet…” Visiting national parks became an experience I treasured because I got to see a new side of him.

Childhood dinnertimes were full of my mom’s chatter, and on car rides, my dad turned on the radio like a shield, letting the news fill the silence. But as we hiked, he’d talk about his childhood in Wuxi and his early years in America. Among the towering trees, carrying his backpack and camera, he looked at home.

From my travels to national parks over the years, I’ve learned that nature isn’t to be taken for granted; we have to work to conserve it. I’m grateful to my dad for giving me this respect for nature and for teaching me, through these travels, more about himself as a person. I see him standing on Flat Top, asking me, Isn’t it pretty? As I remember, I close my eyes and smile. “Yes, it is.”

This student essay was written by Audrey He for the Ripley Hunter “World Is a Classroom” Essay Contest, winning her a finalist spot. Read more about that scholarship here.