The trails around Togwotee were just as scenic and interesting as any hikes within the national parks themselves. I wish we had spent some time just wandering around because throughout the horseback ride, we kept spotting animal tracks, and I even saw some Indian Paintbrushes blooming. Castilleja linariifolia, as it is properly know, is the state flower of Wyoming. Sadly, I didn't get a chance to take many photos during the ride since I was focused on staying on my horse, but I did get an opportunity to participate on the I’m on a meme, even if it was a few years late.
Later that afternoon we met with a photographer from National Geographic and posed for a group photo before taking a boat ride. It was the anniversary of 9/11 and the American flag fluttered behind the boat as we go our first close-up view of the glacier at the top of the Grand Tetons. During Day One of #ALEX14 we met Kevin Schneider, Deputy Superintendent of Grand Teton National Park, who said he considered the National Park Service to be an extension of the armed forces. In the way the military protects our country at home and abroad, the National Park Service protects the interior of our country.
I didn't understand it at the time, but that afternoon on the water, with the flag fluttering in the wind, I totally got it. Not only do the members of the National Park Service act as guides and interpreters of the parks, but they are there to protect us from the wildlife, the wildlife from us, and ensure that people and development don’t encroach on protected land.
Later that evening we went to a sunset dinner where we met David Vela, Superintendent Grand Teton National Park, who is the first Latino to serve as a superintendent of a national park. It was fun hearing Superintendent Vela’s story of how to got to this point of his career, and the connection he had with Grand Teton National Park as a youth, and how his life has come full circle.
I thought the highlight of this dinner was going to be me going beyond my comfort zone and eating elk. I had no idea I would be meeting an historic figure, and that the superintendent would be swearing us in as Junior Rangers and giving us our own badges. Granted I’m a little older than Junior Rangers normally are, but this moment solidified what I had been feeling about national parks, and Grand Teton National Park in particular. I felt like the parks were part of me and that I was leaving part of me behind in the parks I had visited.
Sorry for the blurry David Vela photo of our swearing-in!
There is currently a lot of discussion about how the parks can be more inclusive and how park attendance can reflect the diversity of America. In the months that I've been back home from this trip, whenever I talk to people about it, they always mention that the National Park Service is desperate to reach new, diverse members. The national parks are prohibited by law from spending money on advertising--which I think is just ridiculous--so it isn't as a simple as saying they should create an ad campaign that targets a diverse pool of Americans, and their problems will be solved.
It's going to take a solution that is very nuanced, and some playing mediator between the different groups that may encounter themselves in national parks for the first time.
During one of our group meals there was an instance where a table of diners left the restaurant we were eating at because they said we were “too loud.” Granted we were a large group and some of the decibel levels could be attributed to Latin@s being naturally loud. If you come from a big family you learn early on in life that you have to make yourself heard or be forgotten. I wasn't offended by this slight. If anything, I was perplexed by the how quiet people were after spending a day seeing the most glorious scenery and wildlife. I felt like shouting about all the amazing things I had seen, not sitting quietly with the only other sound being the clinking of silverware on plates. The people around us sometimes acted as if they were at a funeral, while our group behaved more like we were at a birthday party.
There's going to have to be some outreach and cultural exchanges and understanding between people who are familiar with visiting national parks and those of us who are new to them. The National Park Service is going to have to convince many people who partake in the American tradition of vacation road trips in order to get us on the road visiting many parks a summer. But we'll get there, and the parks and our country as a whole will be better off. This trip was described as being a once in a lifetime experience. I don’t see it that way at all. I came away feeling like I had been baptized into a new lifestyle and can’t wait to visit more national parks, and sharing experiences like this with members of my family, especially the younger children who I hope come to love the national parks. See Day One of #ALEX14 and Day Two of #ALEX14, and Day Three of #ALEX14 if you are planning a trip to Grand Teton National Park on your next vacation.
What is #ALEX14 ? It is the hashtag of the American Latino Heritage Fund Expedition for 2014. In its second year, ALEX is an effort to introduce the national park system to a new generation of Americans who will in turn introduce the national parks to other Americans who have never been or are even aware that visiting national parks is even an option. Eight Latin@ blogger and social media influencers were selected by the National Park Foundation to tour the Grand Teton National Park and discover our role in the future stewardship of national parks. The trip was made possible through partnerships with Go RVing, Aramark, Columbia, Alaska Airlines and REI who generously paid for accommodations, clothing, food and travel costs.
Are you planning on visiting any national parks soon?