Walking next to fellow Student Conservation Association interns Maria Delgado Gomez and Teresa Langenkamp, we heard the following exchange behind us- Hiker: “Do you work for the National Park Service?” Superintendent Cassius Cash: “Do I work for the National Park Service? Yeah! I’m the Superintendent!” He couldn’t help but laugh, and neither could we! This isn’t the first time a conversation like this has taken place, and it probably won’t be the last!
As an intern, the opportunity to work at places like Great Smoky Mountains, Yellowstone, Gulf Islands National Seashore, and Hopewell Culture has been magical. But to me, the real reward is who I get to work WITH! Every park I’ve been to, whether it be as a visitor for an hour or an employee for a year, I’ve been astounded, inspired, and empowered by the level of passion, dedication, and knowledge present in the people working there – all driven by a mission in which they wholeheartedly believe. The people are the parks, the parks are the people!
Superintendent Cash makes this abundantly clear. In the past, when I pictured a superintendent, it was someone who sat in an office all day with the door closed constantly tied up with phone calls, emails, paperwork, and meetings. This person would thereby be cut off from the front lines of park operation. But, no! Cash is on the front line!
Great Smoky Mountains Association, one of our partners in preservation, has a publication called Smokies Life Magazine. An interview with Cash was featured in their special Centennial issue. I cried the first time I read it, and, as I sit here reading through it once more, the emotions are washing over me again. He states, “I will tell you there is nothing closer to my heart than inspiring young people to rise up and take interest and take leadership for ensuring that ‘America’s Best Idea’ remains intact for another 100 years.” That is incredibly powerful! And so critical as engaging the next generation is of paramount importance. One way Cash does this is through his Hike 100 Challenge – his own Call to Action.
The program, that now has several hundred participants, started off as a humble idea from a humble man. Cash decided to commit to hiking 100 miles in the Smokies in honor of the National Park Service Centennial. He then inquired of his staff if they thought a few people would go with him on his hikes if they were publicized. The response was something akin to, “You don’t understand! It won’t be a few people, it will be multitudes!” And so it was when Cash issued the challenge to everyone to “Hike 100!”
Participants just have to log 100 miles of hiking in the park between January 1 and December 6. Miles can be unique or repeated and accomplished on any maintained trails in the park, frontcountry or backcountry. Upon completion, they send us an email and are invited to a reception on December 8 during which they will receive a commemorative Hike 100 pin. As of now, around 450 people (including me!) have submitted their results and we expect to come close to 1000 by the end!
While accompanying Cash on one of his hikes isn’t a requirement, it is definitely a reward! By his wish, all his hikes are done with the public in some capacity. A few are open to anyone, but the majority are completed with scheduled youth groups. That’s where he really works his magic! For many of the youth that come, it is their first time in the park. For some, it is their first time on a hike in the woods. There can be feelings of trepidation. After all, media has shown them that the woods are home to a myriad of imposing creatures, both real and fantasized. But Cash has a way of assuaging fears with his warm laugh and smile. He brims with an easy confidence and resolve that brings comfort to those around him.
During the hikes, not only does Cash help introduce the youth to the natural and cultural resources found in the Smokies and the importance of the National Park Service in their preservation, but he also makes a point to get to know each participant on a personal level. Through his efforts he can foster connections and long-lasting relationships between the visitors and the park. After all, he reminds, they are the owners!
As a memento of their journey and who they shared it with, the young hikers receive a Hike 100 drawstring backpack, a Hike 100 water bottle, and a Great Smoky Mountains pin with Cash’s signature engraved on the back that he delivers to each one with a handshake. It’s a small gesture that goes a long way. Cash may be the superintendent of the most visited National Park, a prestigious position to be sure, but he recognizes and understands that to continue the legacy of the National Parks, we need to capture the love and energy of the youth to create that next generation of park supporters and advocates.
I count myself truly blessed to have gone along on a few of his hikes and hope to attend more. Being able to witness that level of commitment and engagement from a superintendent has been eye-opening and amazing. Cash is the type of leader that does not demand, but inspires his staff to do the best they can. He has definitely inspired me. He listens, he asks questions, and he’s open to new ideas. He creates this aura of inclusiveness.
To me, an intern at the onset of what I hope is a National Park Service career, Cash makes the job look easy. This makes his candidness about his own struggles even more striking. Speaking about his first job, and the demons he had to face, he attests, “I had every reason to give up. But like I tell my own kids, ‘don’t let your fear of failure overcome your curiosity of success.’ I was determined, but I would be lying to you if I didn’t admit there were times I wanted to give it up. But I didn’t.”
Being transgender, diagnosed with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, and slowly emerging from a life shrouded in darkness and despair where I thought death was the only escape, this fills me with hope. Hope that I, too, can overcome my demons and be a force of light. A force of light that ignites the same love and passion for the National Parks in others.
We don’t work for the National Park Service. We ARE the National Park Service.