Click our logo for the Sierra Club homepage.
Printer-friendly version Share:  Share this page on FacebookShare this page on TwitterShare this page by emailShare this page with other services

Sierra magazine
Collect 'em All

How one man's quest to visit every national park sparked Ken Burns's latest documentary

By Dayton Duncan

The namesake peaks of Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, with the Snake River and Jackson Valley in the foreground.

Will and Dayton
Grand Teton National Park, 1998
"This is it, Dad. The big five-eight," my son, Will, said as we came to the long-anticipated sign. We held up our fingers for a celebratory photograph. The last item on a to-do list could finally be checked off.

Our small plane had landed and released seven passengers (along with the mail) at the cinder block "airport" of Ofu, American Samoa. We had walked a couple of hundred yards to drop our bags at Vaoto Lodge, gotten some fresh water, and then headed down a road lined with palms, banana trees, and dense tropical bushes. The sparkling South Pacific looked inviting through the undergrowth, especially given the heat and humidity, but we hiked on. Half an hour later I saw what I had traveled 7,500 miles to behold.

"Paka O Amerika Samoa," the brown and white sign said, next to a more familiar arrowhead insignia. Crossing the boundary into the National Park of American Samoa not only meant I had reached the most remote and least visited park in the system; it also meant I had now visited all 58 of them.

National Park of the American Samoa, 2008
In truth, the long journey had started nearly 50 years earlier, in the summer of 1959, during the only extended vacation my family ever took when I was growing up. We had borrowed my grandmother's Oldsmobile and friends' camping equipment and left our hometown of Indianola, Iowa, for two weeks in the West. Half a century later I can still remember that trip, day by day, because the winter before, my mother had handed me a pile of state tourism brochures and asked me to map out the itinerary--a seemingly awesome responsibility for a nine-year-old boy. I've been a map freak ever since.

First stop, Badlands National Park. The way its eerie, denuded landscape suddenly, miraculously appeared out of the rolling prairie served as my introduction to a notion I've never lost: Entering a national park means entering another world. We scrambled around on the red pinnacles, learned a little about the animals that had roamed there millions of years earlier before becoming extinct, and moved on, pulled westward in the company of Burma-Shave signs. We toured Devils Tower, then Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, where I discovered an arrowhead I felt certain must have been Crazy Horse's. (Years later, my dad revealed that he had purchased it in the gift shop and dropped it at my feet when I wasn't looking.)

National Park of American Samoa (left); cliff-side granaries of Ancestral Puebloans above the Colorado River in Marble Canyon, Arizona, part of Grand Canyon National Park (right).

We reached Yellowstone two days behind schedule because our aged car had broken down along the way. It was a lucky delay. Two days earlier, the forces that created Yellowstone's wonders had sprung to life with an earthquake measuring nearly 7.5 on the Richter scale. Among the 28 people who had died were those buried in a landslide at the campground I had placed on our family's itinerary. Much of the park was now closed, but we saw our share of it. Old Faithful was still going off on schedule (unlike many of the other thermal features); the falls still thundered, creating rainbows with their mist. I saw my first bison, my first elk, my first black bear and grizzly. Several mornings, aftershocks rattled us awake.

At Grand Teton National Park we camped at Jenny Lake, framed by towering spires of granite, which forever after my mother would call the prettiest place she ever saw. At Dinosaur National Monument we slept under a brilliant canopy of stars on a sandbar next to the Green River--fitfully, in my father's case, because of the vivid way the park ranger had described the local rattlesnakes at that evening's campfire program.

We turned east toward Iowa. The car problem that had saved our lives meant we had to keep moving if we wanted to get home on time, so we experienced Rocky Mountain National Park through our windshield. No matter. I had tasted the freedom of the nation's open spaces, the exhilarating sense of discovery waiting just over the next horizon that has informed the rest of my life. By 1998, I had a family of my own, and it was time for us to embark on a similar journey. In the intervening years, in the pursuit of magazine stories, books, and films, and owing to my insatiable appetite for ingesting the endless varieties of American landscapes, I had crisscrossed the country innumerable times, usually on my own. I had visited more than 20 national parks and too many historic sites and monuments (and roadside cafes promising the elusive perfect chicken-fried steak and homemade pie) to count.

Kings Canyon National Park, 2007
But now the entire family was hitting the road--my wife, Dianne, Emme (age 11), Will (age 8), and me. We loaded up our Suburban and set off. No national park between Mexico and Canada along the spine of the Rocky Mountains escaped us. Each was entirely unchanged from my past, yet entirely new as I saw it through my children's eyes. At Yellowstone, I watched my children see their first bison, elk, coyote, moose, and bear--and in those electric moments, dormant memories rumbled back to life.

The view at Jenny Lake was as breathtaking as ever, but it was now layered in time for me: the time I had seen it with my mother; the times she had retold the story of our visit, her eyes growing misty in reverie; and now this time, with my own young family, including a daughter named for her grandmother. At Dinosaur, we went to the same spot where I had camped almost 40 years earlier, and the magic of that distant night was waiting for us, fresh and undiminished.

It struck me that national parks do more than preserve increasingly rare remnants of a landscape and natural world our nation once seemed to possess without limit. That would be valuable enough. But the additional genius of the national parks idea is that these sacred places are not only to be preserved "unimpaired," but are also to be accessible to the people. They are to be shared--shared now, and also shared with the future, just as people from our past shared them with us.

Dusy Basin, Kings Canyon National Park, California (left); Badlands National Park, South Dakota (right).

Somewhere during my travels, the notion came to me to propose to my colleague Ken Burns that we make a documentary about the history of the national parks. Like baseball and jazz, topics of previous films we've done for PBS, national parks are a uniquely American invention, and in exploring them and the historical characters who made them possible, perhaps we could learn more about ourselves as a people. It had taken me ten years to persuade Ken to make Horatio's Drive, our film about the first transcontinental automobile trip. In the case of The National Parks: America's Best Idea, I was about 30 seconds into my pitch when he said, "When can we get started?"

One consequence of the project, of course, was that it required me to visit a lot of national parks--doing research, returning with a film crew, and returning again if we weren't satisfied with the first shoot. A tough assignment, but I accepted. It took me to Denali, home of the highest point on the continent, and to Death Valley, the lowest. To Hawaii Volcanoes, where I watched molten lava touching the sea, creating the newest land on Earth, and to Great Basin, where I stood next to gnarled bristlecone pines, the world's oldest living trees.

At Kenai Fjords, nine of us lived in a boat for three days, using an inflatable Zodiac to get close to the calving glaciers; in the Everglades, I paddled a small canoe through a cypress swamp with a cinematographer filming in the bow. At Kings Canyon, getting the shots we wanted meant hiring a pack train to haul our tents and food and extra equipment from campsite to campsite while we hiked nine miles a day with our cameras. At Channel Islands, while following a short ridge trail, we kept clambering from side to side to find just the right vantage point, which we finally discovered--at the end of the trail, next to a park bench, at a place already named Inspiration Point. We filmed in thigh-deep snow at Sequoia, icy waters at Glacier Bay, and a drifting sand dune north of the Arctic Circle at Kobuk Valley.

At each park, I continued the practice our family had begun in 1998 of getting my park passport stamped at the visitor center. And at some point, I'm not sure exactly where or when, I noticed that the number of stamps missing from my passport was becoming tantalizingly small. My wife would mark this as the moment when my passion for the parks started making erratic lurches into something closer to an unhealthy obsession.

I found myself planning a logistically complicated production trip to Isle Royale National Park, in a remote corner of Lake Superior, even though we were no longer telling an extended story in our film about it. "We still might need some footage," I assured her.

"I see Gates of the Arctic on your schedule," she said, looking at my calendar one morning. "Couldn't you just send the cameraman and an associate producer? That's what you did at Joshua Tree."

"I think I should be there," I answered. "You never know what might happen. And by the way, I've decided to make my own side trip to Joshua Tree, just to make sure the crew's footage adequately reflects the real place."

Eventually, the only place missing from my to-see list was American Samoa: the lone U.S. national park south of the equator, a five-hour flight from Honolulu and impossibly far from our home in New Hampshire. By November 2008, our film was essentially finished, so there was no absolute necessity--or even a half-baked alibi--for me to go there. But Dianne knew, even before I did, that I had to go. She had known from the moment I started the list.

Something interesting happened when I finally reached the sign saying "Paka O Amerika Samoa." I thought of John Muir, the park idea's most eloquent spokesman, and a quote of his we use in our film just before the frenetic Theodore Roosevelt shows up for a three-day camping trip in Yosemite: "Nothing can be done well at a speed of forty miles a day. . . . Far more time should be taken," Muir had written. "Walk away quietly in any direction and taste the freedom of the mountaineer. . . . Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves."

Getting to know Muir's work over the course of our project had been nearly as meaningful to me as having an excuse (it was my "job") to witness countless dawns at the array of priceless treasures we have preserved as national parks. Our film crews had gotten tired of me quoting Muir when the sun broke: "This is still the morning of creation." But in those tender first moments of the day, at those exquisite places, I had always believed I was somehow experiencing at least a slice of the transcendence that had come so easily to Muir in his "unconditional surrender" to nature. The combination of Muir and the parks had taught me the joy of slowing down and opening myself to the world unfolding before me. Not bad for a man who makes lists.

With number 58 now checked off, nature's peace had an easier time flowing in. Will and I ambled along the two-mile, pristine beach on Ofu's south shore, then went snorkeling in its turquoise lagoon, marveling at the diversity of the coral and the riotous colors of the fish. I realized this was only the second time either of us had been snorkeling; the first had been at Dry Tortugas National Park years earlier, during one of my research trips. And that realization brought me back to the project's origins and all that had transpired since.

During the course of the project, Will had grown from a boy as tall as my waist to a young man looking me in the eye. I had deliberately scheduled a number of shoots during his school breaks so he could come along as a production assistant. We had shared the trek through Kings Canyon, adventures among mountain goats in the majestic peaks of Glacier, a Father's Day at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, a birthday of mine canoeing on Wonder Lake in Denali.

Those kinds of shared moments, safely preserved in an unimpaired location so they can be passed from one generation to the next, are part of what makes the national parks America's best idea. And, I told myself, they had meant much more to me than checking items off a list. I hoped my son understood this.

"What are you thinking?" I asked him as our plane lifted off and banked for one last look at Ofu.

"I was thinking that American Samoa was my 30th national park," he answered. "I'm more than halfway there."

Dayton Duncan, the author of ten books, has been making films with Ken Burns for nearly 20 years. Their latest collaboration, a six-episode, 12-hour documentary series airing on PBS this fall, is The National Parks: America's Best Idea.

Photos, from top: Art Wolfe/, Dayton Duncan (2), QT Luong/terragalleria, Carr Clifton, Dayton Duncan, QT Luong/terragalleria, Carr Clifton; used with permission.



Sierra Club® and "Explore, enjoy and protect the planet"® are registered trademarks of the Sierra Club. © 2015 Sierra Club.
The Sierra Club Seal is a registered copyright, service mark, and trademark of the Sierra Club.