National Parks are on my mind, what with Ken Burns’ new documentary airing on PBS.   It’s true, the concept of preserving the most phenomenal land in this nation for the people, for all time, is a brilliantly democratic concept.

This seemed like a timely moment to share one of my favorite photos of all time.  Not the one at the top, the one at the end of this post.  But first, I have to set the stage.

Two years ago almost to the day, Chris and I met up with my brother Tom and his wife Wendy to hike to the bottom of the Grand Canyon.  We left our collective six children back home in Colorado and Pennsylvania with caregivers in order to do this amazing, four-day trip together. 

We tried to leave bright and early from Bright Angel Lodge but Tom had forgotten his sunglasses, so there was a frantic race back to the car, and we missed the bus because the incredibly rude bus driver wouldn’t wait for 60 seconds.  Somehow we all got separated while the sunglass incident was unfolding, then got back together again.  Even though I had bought a pedometer the day before at a Wal-Mart in Phoenix, I left it in my suitcase at the rim because I feared, get this, it would add too much weight.  I really wish I hadn’t been so stupid, because I would love to know how many steps it is to the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

Chris made Wendy and me laugh ourselves silly, doing an un-PC act with his walking sticks, which made us glad we were outside a ladies’ room at the time.  Then Tom emerged from the men’s room and wanted to know what was so funny so Chris had to repeat his act, which usually isn’t funny but this time it was.

 When we finally got to the trailhead, one lens fell out of Chris’s sunglasses so we had another delay while repair attempts were made.   A hiker coming up gave us some duct tape, and finally we were all set to go.  It was now 8 AM, shockingly late to start a trip down.

We saw amazing things on North Kaibab trail, which is starkly dramatic.

Yes, those clouds delivered rain and hail, thunder and lightning.  We were truly soaked at one point.  This didn’t seem to bother the several people we saw running down, and back up.  Apparently this is a popular training regime for serious athletes.  For the most part, aside from the mule trains, the runners, and a very few hikers, we almost had the place to ourselves.

We arrived at Phantom Ranch in the late afternoon, in time for chow at the mess hall, which was really the only important deadline.  

We had our own little cabin for four.  There were bunkbeds, hot showers, and telephones at the Ranch.  Life was good.  Tom and I lurched around like Frankenstein for a couple of days, literally unable to walk normally, while Chris and Wendy seemed completely fine.

And then it was time to ascend again, this time on the popular, beautiful, and heavily-trafficked Bright Angel Trail.  Tom got ahead of us at one point.

As Chris rounded a corner, he saw Tom resting on a rock, talking to a hiker….in a black suit and black city hat…without a backpack….what?  He has a suitcase on wheels?  Yes!  It was a Hassidic Jew, bumping a wheeled suitcase DOWN the Bright Angel Trail.   He was already one mile down, and intent on getting to the bottom.  This was an unexpected sight, to say the least.

We call this photo the Hayseed and the Hassid.  Later, Chris took a photo of this fellow (at his request) sitting on a bench, admiring the view.  We wondered if it would go on his J-Date profile.  Hobbies:  Reading the Torah, and hiking.   As European teenagers and Japanese grandparents streamed past us, all staring and grinning, we talked this man out of continuing his ill-advised suitcase-march, since we knew the trail would soon become full of steep rocky steps, puddles of mule urine, and drastic drop-offs.  Fortunately he took our advice and turned back

I’ve seen Amish folk at Yosemite, Muslims at Zion, Buddhists at Yellowstone.  And of course, this.   Beyond the astonishing physical splendor and natural gorgeousness found at our national parks, there is also the reminder of what we share as humans.

 I wish that Ken Burns would focus on that in his documentary, instead of just panning slowly up old photos while a voiceover drones.   Not only are national parks America’s best idea, but they also cause us to set aside our religious, political, and ideological differences and revel, together, in the glory of nature.    

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