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An Island in the Sea, or Yosemite?

| Thursday, December 8, 2016

“So, which island will it be this year?”

“Well, we’ve already been to Aruba, the Dominican Republic and Hawaii, so this year we are hitting up Cancun! What about you?”

“We can’t decide. There are simply too many tropical destinations!”

As much of a #firstworldproblem this situation is, come the last few weeks before any break from school and this conversation, along with many others just like it, are all-too common. I have met quite literally dozens of classmates who have been on multiple tropical island getaways, some to destinations so exotic that I couldn’t even tell you their names. Despite Notre Dame students’ propensity for vacations, I can count the amount of people I have met at school who have been to even just ONE of America’s very own National Parks with the fingers on one hand. Don’t get me wrong — I enjoy a sunny beach and fruity cocktail just as much as the next person, especially during a South Bend winter. However, with such spectacular destinations only a road trip away, Notre Dame students could benefit from taking a break from Aruba and trying their hand at a national park instead.

Yellowstone, America’s first national park, was signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1872. Since then, 57 other parks, ranging from the desolate desert of Death Valley to the marshy swamplands in the Everglades, have been created in order to allow the common man to experience the spectacular beauty within the borders of our very own nation.

It is no big secret that participation in outdoor recreation provides a range of well-documented benefits, including mental and spiritual well-being, an increase in self-esteem and an appreciation for the natural and cultural environment in which the activity is taking place, as well as health benefits derived from involvement in physical activities. It is a blessing to lay on a beach with an endless supply of fruity drinks, but the restorative power of being surrounded by pristinely fresh air and nature is a reward in itself.

Aside from the demonstrated benefits to one’s health, the national parks provide a memorable vacation without the exorbitant price tag usually equated with a trip to an exotic location. Recently a friend told me he had factored $1,500 into his budget for next year, solely for spring break. In Indiana, where minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, a student would have to work 207 hours just to pay for that week-long extravagance. For some, it is worth it to relax at an all-inclusive resort or party at Panama City Beach for five days straight. But those looking for a cheaper alternative need look no further than within America’s parks. Part of the experience of a national park trip comes form the road trip itself, so a plane ticket is unnecessary. As for the park itself, in 2016 it costs $30 for one vehicle and all its passengers to access the park for seven days. Tack on the price of a tent (which could most likely be borrowed from a friend), or even a few nights in a cabin, and you are nowhere close to that $1,500 price tag.

I have never been able to relate to my peers as they discuss their upcoming vacation plans, because I have never been on a “tropical vacation.” I have, however, been to 21 of the 58 parks our nation holds dear. Growing up, I would nag my parents, attempting to persuade them to let up and take us to Jamaica or the Bahamas — basically anywhere that did not involve a 16-hour car ride and hiking. Looking back with some perspective, I would not trade those trips for any sun-soaked beach. It was at the very bottom of the Grand Canyon that I learned the true meaning of grit, knowing that I had to somehow stick it out and get to the top again. Standing alone on Half-Dome peak in Yosemite, almost 9,000 feet in the air, I learned just how small, but at the same time, how powerful, I was. Lying alongside Old Faithful, hearing wolves howl and gazing up into the heavenly spectacle that is a night sky completely unobstructed by man-made light, I came to terms with a faith I had been doubting and questioning for some time. I have spoken to people from all walks of life, some who travelled halfway around the world to take part in the same hikes or rafting trips I had the opportunity to enjoy.

John Muir, naturalist, author, environmental philosopher, early advocate of preservation of wilderness in the United States and one of the pioneers of the National Parks Service, once claimed, “The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness, for in every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.” As students at Notre Dame, we pride ourselves on seeking out knowledge, discovering truths and barreling through adversity. With this in mind, visit a National Park for your next vacation.

The universe is yours.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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