My love affair with the national parks began when I was 9 years old. I learned at that young age that the best family memories are the ones where we shared an adventure, where we set off and explored something new and exciting together. Those are the memories of my childhood and of my parents that I still carry with me today. Having grown up on the East Coast, mountains weren't something I was familiar with. The foothills of the Adirondacks and the rolling topography of western New York, sure, I knew those well. But as a 9-year-old from New York, going out west for the first time, my tiny bubble of little mountains and rolling farmland was totally rocked.
This first foray into the western part of the United States with my family took me to one of the most famous national parks--the Grand Canyon. I remember my parents navigating the sparse highways of the Southwest in a minivan with the AC blasting. They had set their sights on the rim-to-rim hike of the Grand Canyon: 14 miles down the North Rim on the Kaibab Trail, a night's stay at Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the canyon and 9 miles up the Bright Angel Trail the next day. At about mile 8 of our journey down the North Rim, moving along never-ending switchbacks in the boxed-in 135-degree heat at the bottom of the canyon, I proclaimed child abuse. I informed my parents that if they wanted to get rid of me, an easier way would be adoption. And I cried. A lot. Even though the Grand Canyon tested my mental and physical limitations as a child, I'll never forget the strange, immense and overwhelming beauty of the red rocks and all that I took away from my first experience in the national parks. This park, this canyon, this red crater in the earth, was so much larger than me. So powerful. A lot of journaling, poetry and school assignments came out of my first national park trip to the Grand Canyon. Even my college entrance essay was based off of this life-changing experience.
My parents wised-up a bit for our next summer trip and decided to employ some help along the way for this great western adventure. We booked a Backroads multisport trip in Glacier National Park. It was my first encounter with the Rocky Mountains and I was in awe. Bamboozled. Befuddled. Beside myself. As a 10-year-old, I remember thinking as we rode in the Backroads van, hugging the cliff on the Going-to-the-Sun Road, "How is it possible this exists in the same country as where I grew up with rolling farmland? And only a few hundred miles away from where I was last summer covered in the red dust of Arizona and Utah?" It was this summer of my tenth year that it began to dawn on my young mind how incredibly varied the United States is and how I want to experience it all. My determined young mind set its sights on one day becoming a Backroads leader, recognizing that active travel is the best way to see the diverse beauty of our country.
Fourteen years later, having been a Trip Leader for Backroads for three years, I continue to have incredibly special moments in our national parks with our guests. I live vicariously through the 10-year-olds who, as they traverse the Rockies in Glacier National Park, are in the same state of awe that I was as a little girl. When I see guests on the North Kaibab Trail of the Grand Canyon I think about how it formed who I am today. Going past the Checkerboard Mesa on our Zion National Park trip always brings back a special memory I have of scrambling up one of the faces of smooth, weathered rock and looking out over the park with my dad.
Whether I'm leading a Backroads trip or exploring the national parks on my own, I'm continually reminded of the gratitude and amazement I feel over the beauty that this world offers and the awareness that we are so fortunate to experience such a wide breadth in our own country. From the red dust of the Southwest to the blooming alpine meadows in Alaska to the pristine glacial lakes in Glacier, the transformative power of these amazing places for children (and parents too!) is truly incredible. There's no better place to take your family, to inspire your children, to unleash their imaginations and let them dream of futures full of grand adventures. What better gift could you possibly give?