Ranger Picture
NPS/credit: Chloe Pina

This past weekend I found myself huddled around the campfire at the western edge of the Santa Monica Mountains. Staring intently into the fire while ineffectively dodging the smokey plumes, I was accompanied by a few colleagues after a long, productive conference day. As mouths filled with the trifecta of toasted marshmellows contained in gooey chocolate and graham goodness, a satisfied hush fell around the circle. Joining us, a National Park representative from the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area stood to open the conversation.

“Let’s hear your name, where you’re from, the last park you visited, and what you think of when you hear about National Parks?”

To say the flood gates of experiences burst open, would be an understatement.

“I think of the beauty of nature, of the truly wild places.”

“Parks are places of history. The stories of the American people. The heritage we leave behind.”

“They are areas of spiritual renewal. Where you can go to get completely lost and if your lucky, find yourself.”

The stories continued for some time about family vacations to the Grand Tetons, school field trips hiking through Yosemite, sobering moments at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial. Out of 25 people around the campfire that night, ranging the spectrum of age, everyone had created at least one special moment within a National Park.

As I sat bundled in blankets and listening with a silly smile on my face, it hit me. “What do I think of when I hear about National Parks?” So many things came to mind…I was overwhelmed and didn’t know what to say at first.

However, after the last person finished and I had just played witness to so many moving narratives, I had my answer.

“The National Parks are all of these things, but above all they are places of connection. Where we can go to know that we aren’t alone in our path, that there are others who travel the same trail, just perhaps in a different way.

They are what unite us.”

That night I left the circle, feeling satisfied with my answer, and proud to be apart of such an important part of what brings American’s and those who visit our beautiful country together.

Sadly, such a wonderful thought came on the same day that acts of terror rang throughout the world. Though I will not comment here on any political response towards such unfathomable occurrences and the aftermath, what I will say is this:

I hope our National Parks can continue to serve the world as places of adventure, sanctuary, learning, healing, remembrance, and most important of all…of unity.

-Alex Warneke

Centennial Volunteer Ambassador

Cabrillo National Monument, San Diego, CA