Our senior scientist can trace his career aspirations back to a single moment involving a Yellowstone black bear, the back of his grandfather’s pickup, and a fresh view of the American West
I was 12 years old and mere feet away from the black bear standing on its hind legs, peering into the bed of our pickup truck. Safe in the truck cab with my grandparents, windows rolled up tight, I was transfixed as the bear crawled into the back and rooted around for a cooler to raid. He came up empty after a few minutes and moved on to the next vehicle in his search for a free meal. The pickup was left with some minor scratches, but the bear encounter left a major impression on me. That afternoon in 1975, I departed Yellowstone National Park thrilled, curious, and full of new experiences. Little did I know, I’d just been catapulted onto the path of my own professional destiny.
I suspect few of us go on to actually become what we said we wanted to be in grade school, or even have the chance to do so. I, for one, have never deviated—I wanted to be a wildlife biologist, and I’ve never looked back. Even before that journey to visit several of our national parks, the skids were thoroughly greased from years of hunting, fishing, and being outdoors as much as possible. I spent hours watching many of Walt Disney’s documentary films on animals and every episode of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom—the Animal Planet or Crocodile Hunter of my youth. I was determined to follow New York Tribune editor Horace Greely’s advice from 1871 and “Go West” as a young man to pursue my dreams.
And indeed I did—right after high school, I headed first to the West Slope of Colorado for college in Glenwood Springs and then onto Montana State University to complete a Bachelor’s degree in wildlife management. Where could one possibly get a better wildlife education than a 90–minute drive away from the park’s northern entrance? On my way to Bozeman for the fall semester, I returned to Yellowstone for the first time in nearly a decade and retraced much of the route I’d traveled with my family years earlier. While attending the university, I took my time in Yellowstone for granted—I went to the park whenever I wanted, and it became a showcase for my friends and family when they came to visit me.
In my adult life, I’ve been back to Yellowstone umpteen times, seen hundreds of bears, and had many soul-stirring experiences. I’m sure I’m not alone. In the last 100 years, our National Park System has no doubt helped inspire many an imagination and spark a sense of adventure for children and adults alike.
It turns out that another of those children was historian, author, and filmmaker Dayton Duncan, who conspired with Ken Burns to co-produce the fabulous documentary series “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.” He revealed his own youthful adventures, ones that were eerily similar to my own, as keynote speaker at this summer’s Western Governors’ Association Meeting in Jackson, Wyo. He held back tears as he described how his mother took the family on a journey to see the national parks, including Yellowstone, and as he spoke, all I could see were visions of my own family and me on our adventures in the park. I couldn’t resist going up to Dayton afterward to thank him for such a great tribute to the National Park System. I told him that he could have been describing my own experiences as a child.
Dayton Duncan and I were lucky—our families took the initiative to get us into the car and out to see the treasured gems of our public lands system. No parent should ever underestimate the power of these outdoor experiences for their children. There’s no better time to visit the national parks as America celebrates 100 years of their wild power and serenity. The next generation of biologists, authors, filmmakers, and other advocates of the great outdoors could be born on that next trip to your public lands.
Find your park here, and perhaps, like me, you’ll find your path out there.
All month long, we’re celebrating the National Park Service centennial with a blog series about our most significant experiences in the parks. Check back here for new posts from the TRCP staff and special guests, and follow the hashtag #PublicLandsProud on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.