I have stood many times on the balding top of Mount Cadillac in Maine’s Acadia, and reveled in a horizon line of land and sea, blue and green that at first appears as if it intends to completely surround me as I turn in a circle. One’s perspective of what is possible for us here on planet Earth is enlarged magically by the experience; it is not a gigantic height that creates this illusion but a wonderful quirk of geography and the human mind.
Most evenings, I can watch as the end of day paints Zion’s West Temple 50 shades of red without leaving my favorite chair or front porch; and do so knowing that tomorrow it will be different again. If Acadia National Park is “A” and Zion National Park is “Z”, I can happily say that I am fortunate enough to have watched the sun rise and set over both in most of my recent years, and that in between have been an “alphabet” of companion memories tied to a system of national treasures from the tiniest of “parklands” to the mightiest.
Many years ago while still living in Vermont, I was approached by a fellow employee who – knowing of my ongoing love affair with aviation – wondered if I might possibly be planning a flight to Buffalo, N.Y. in the near future, and if she could “hitch a ride”. Of course I planned one immediately with my instructor to add hours to navigational and cross-country log-book time. That flight required the transit of New York’s Adirondack Park and Forest Preserve, the largest protected piece of landscape of its kind in the entire U.S. Larger than Yellowstone, Everglades, Glacier and Grand Canyon National Parks combined. Described by a world-famous clause in the state’s 1892 constitution as a land to be kept forever wild, it remains something of a paradox today; six million acres of largely wilderness forests, lakes, mountains and streams, left over from an ice age whose hand is not quite finished. As a school girl of the first decade of the 1900s my mother “summered” there, and Shirley and I spent our first married vacation in a Lake George log cabin.
Our little Cessna seemed like a daring insect flying over an unbroken “sea” of green, with here and there a yellow speck marking an ancient pile of sawdust left by a long-forgotten sawmill. I felt a sweet kind of loneliness looking down from a comfortable 5000 feet, knowing that for a hundred miles in any direction we were virtually alone. IN NEW YORK!
I tell you all this to understand that I, Al Cooper am a son of the forested North Woods; a child of its hardwood forests and unbroken hills, and coldwater streams and the shores and islands of the Down East Country. When I woke up to find myself taking up residence in a Kansas City subdivision in 1960 – obedient to the urging of generous and well-meaning employers – and realized that I was nearly 600 miles from the first hint of a real mountain, I hit a “bad patch” in my road to personal happiness.
What “saved” me was the discovery of a Park; not a ‘Grand Teton’ kind of park, in fact not very “grand” at all: 1,600 very humble acres, but with a 120-acre lake for my kayak and miles of wooded foot trails wandering beneath magnificent stands of beeches, walnuts, oaks and sage oranges. Only recently opened it hadn’t really been discovered yet. It was known as Shawnee Mission Park, and was operated by Johnson County, Kansas. If we chose the right week day for a visit, we often owned it to ourselves and according to my notes it was our favorite venue for “family night”, including one I remember in particular where I issued each member a magnifying glass in place of binoculars as our “seeing eyes.” Calling occasional halts to our usual nature walk we would vie to see who could find the most unusual miniature creature or object, from a walking stick or cicada larva to the shiny trail left by a wandering snail or slug; sometimes we might even capture a close-up of a honey bee on a thistle or a golden garden spider on the hunt. I often still glance at a page dated May 3, 1964 in my log noting a one-day “bird list” with 40 species listed.
In time I mastered the ability to leave home without really leaving anything, but by holding the things I love close to me wherever I may be; from A to Z.
P.S. I note that today Shawnee Mission Park is the most-visited park in the entire state of Kansas!