The opportunity to spend time with two Poet Laureates discussing one of our very favorite subjects—America’s National Parks—was just too enchanting an idea to pass up. Prepare yourself for the sort of insight and inspiration that only a master poet can provide.
It just seems crazy from the outset: travel tens of thousands of miles visiting the nation’s sixty-two national parks while penning an original poem for each. How did the plan come together and please talk about the most vivid late night, cold sweat, what the hell were we thinking? moment you each surely experienced while on the road?
Alan: Karla can best describe how the plan came about. The idea was hers. When she brought it up to me I was immediately intrigued—and recognized the grand scope of it. I never really thought in terms of it being a crazy idea. Maybe I could use the terms mad or brilliant. Several parks in we realized that a lot of people we met had the same desire as us, that is, to visit many, if not all, of the parks. We always had the same answer—“C’mon!” Maybe we were just quicker to cross that mad/brilliant line.
As for ‘what were we thinking’ moments—that implies a certain level of doubt in the enterprise, maybe those seconds when we might have turned around or given up. But from the get-go there wasn’t a lack of belief in the idea. Having said that—there were those moments where we would ask ourselves things like, “Exactly how do people get to Gates of the Arctic?” or “Is this hike supposed to take fifteen hours?” or “What do you mean only eleven pounds of luggage for a week?”
karla k: As crazy as this sounds, this adventure was a calling.
It was the Summer of 2013, and I was at a meeting in Dallas. One of the speakers was a retired National Park Service Ranger. She mentioned that 2016 was the one hundredth anniversary of the National Parks, and honestly, I did not hear another word that was spoken that entire session.
“What can I do?” was my first thought. I am a nature inspired poet. I have a deep love and respect for the earth and her sacred spaces. Indeed, what could just one small voice do to help culturally protect and preserve these lands? I wanted to do what the rangers do every single day with their muscle and sweat, but in a way that I knew how to do: poetry. So that very next day, I began to research, and could not find one single literary work that contained poetry written for every single national park. Sure there are great works by great writers out there about the parks, but not something that included all of them in situ by a poet who went to all of them. And then I thought, what’s more powerful than one Poet Laureate visiting all the National Parks, but two Poets Laureate!
So I called up my good friend and fellow Texas Poet Laureate Alan Birkelbach. This is what I’m going to do, I said. I’m going to every single National Park. I’m going to write poetry for each park and take photos and give part of the money back from the forthcoming book to the National Park system. Do you want to do it with me?
Thirty seconds later, he said yes. We had no idea how to do it, or even how to begin, but we both knew we just had to do it.
I spent a couple of years trying to raise funds and get grants from many sources, such as the Guggenheim, etc, but had zero luck. And you know, I’m just not sure why.
But, like a true calling, I was dreaming every night about it, the signs were everywhere. I was consumed. This was the great work I had to do. The idea was too important, these places too precious, and I was just too stupid and too stubborn to take NO for an answer.
But, of course, on the other side of this great calling, was reality.
Alan was still working full time. I was married. My husband had no desire to do this, and I don’t blame him. Dreams don’t often come in pairs. He had his life and his work … but I had mine too.
So, June 2016, Alan and I began our crazy epic adventure with the first park ever named: Yellowstone National Park.
To do what you can do; to follow your calling and give it everything you’ve got. It was, and will always be, our Little Drummer Boy gift to these places we love so much.
My oh shit moment came several trips into the project. We planned the first Park location because of its history, but planned the others by season: when could we physically get there? And how to pay for it?
We were driving to all we could drive to with my hundred pound Scottish Deerhound named Pontus, and Alan’s six pound cat o’death named Suzi. Later on we picked up another stray—Alan’s husky named Copper. We would try to group a few parks together at a time for each trip out, then come back to our homes and save money and do laundry and repack.
Alan’s work was really great at letting him take time off without pay.
We were staying on the cheap at Motel 6’s, eating bean dip and Fritos, washing our Duluth hiking pants in the sink to dry by morning. We were maxing all our credit cards, buying new sets of tires, sampling each area’s craft breweries and vineyards. We were having the most incredible adventure of our lives yet getting further and further away from our old lives. Our wisdom and discoveries were leaping ahead, and our realities of old lives were falling away.
There are many things we lost, and knew we were losing, but the calling was this great beam of white light that we had to follow.
Perhaps it is the life-cost of the explorer, of those who brave the great unknown. Relationships and past lives suffer and crack, but still we walk forward. I broke the eggshell head-first. I let my heart and my feet carry me forward. So many things we lost, but what we gained is so incredibly rich and immeasurable. I think I can speak for both of us when I say we would both do it again in a heartbeat.
Even though you’re both former Texas poet laureates with ten+ collections behind you each, creating even one skillful poem takes immense effort and more than a little help from the gods. Can you talk about your writing routines and how you both approached this daunting project, from the pen-on-paper side? Did inspiration abound out there in the wild?
Alan: Let me start with that last statement. There was always inspiration out in the wild. But being open to it is essential. If a person allows themselves to see and hear, to be less rigid, then the parks can be a transformative experience.
In regards to the writing routines, there was the practical side—and the personal approach side.
On the practical side—before we visited any of the parks, I went to Walmart and bought over one hundred composition books in all different colors and cover designs. We each picked one out for each park. We would make notes as we went, some more detailed than others, sometimes a whole poem, sometimes the names of people or places—anything. We also gathered any maps, brochures, ephemera we could—plus we took a lot of pictures of the signs on the trails. There was no way we were going to remember everything. When it came to writing the poems, the personal approach side, we had slightly different paths. Some I would write in the park, some days later, weeks later, or even months later. karla generally would write, and complete, the poem in that park before she would start on another one. When it came time to put the manuscript together we met at the finish line.
karla k: I love it: “more than a little help from the gods.” What a great question! And yes, how daunting to witness and experience beauty that brings you to your knees, and capture it within a few lines of a poem!
My goal was to create at least one poem about each park before we left that park. Alan had purchased school composition books from a sale at Walmart. With each park we chose a colour, and took a heft of notes. We both are major note-takers, and approached it in a factual way on paper. We stayed here, we ate here, we saw this tiny fern that uncurled before our eyes, etc.
I think all those notebooks themselves now are works of art!
We explored each park to exhaustion, and tried to find the heart of each park—that place that seemed to speak to us, that gave us space and time, and we would return to this spot and write and take even more notes. Alan tended to let his ideas simmer, but I wanted to capture it all while it was fresh and unchained in my head and my heart.
Did inspiration abound out there in the wild? Oh my, let me tell you, every step, every swing of the head, every vista and twig and insect had, and still has, something to teach us. The lucky ones are those who can take the time to sit and listen. Was it prayer? Samuel Beckett said all poetry is prayer. I would agree, but there is this moment right before prayer, the moment you give up the self. Wilderness is the great passion. Once you give yourself to the mountain, you can never go back.
To know the primal joy in something untouched by mankind, to witness animals and earth in their natural state, existing on their own terms … One cannot see what we have seen and not be wholly changed.
Will you each offer us one especially magical moment in a park? Something you won’t ever forget?
karla k: Well, Alaska aside—I mean all of Alaska. There are eight National Parks in Alaska, two of them are north of the Arctic Circle. Alaska changes everything.
There were so many of these life-altering moments … witnessing the dying shark in the Channel Islands, the fireflies in Congaree NP, the aurora borealis, the complete darkness in Mammoth Cave, horseback in wild bergamot in the Badlands, waking up in the Redwoods, receiving the permanent cultural artifact in Pago Pago …
But there was this one moment for me in Canyonlands National Park. (I wrote about it in my poem of Canyonlands in the book). We had climbed this trail, and even ventured up to the top and had an incredible view of the surrounding desert and monumental geologic features.
But along the top were these small, shallow bowls that naturally have formed in these rocks. These small indentations have been collecting the miniscule amounts of rain for centuries—saving the lives of countless animals and humans.
The “read-ums” as we affectionately call the many NP signs, are great sources of facts for each area. We had read how you should not step in those shallow bowls, as there are countless unseen creatures in there.
We had inspected them on our knees, and were unable to see anything but dry earth. But while we were up there, it began to rain (a miracle itself in the desert). Well, this shallow pot-hole, with just a few drops of rain, came alive. It was as if we were witnessing the creation of life itself. These extremely tiny tadpoles began swimming! What? We were in the desert! Life had evolved into this one creature being born and living out its entire life in mere hours at the first touch of a raindrop.
What an amazing world we live in!
Alan: The easy answer is to say there were many magical moments. Yet, there were some times that lingered, that didn’t seem possible. The key word for me here is still transformation, the realization that having seen something incredible that you can never be the same person again.
One of the many moments in the parks, for me, was The Racetrack in Death Valley. It sounds like a motor speedway but it isn’t. You have to rent a special four wheel drive jeep. You are loaded with a case of water, a satellite telephone, and a can of air for your tires. You drive two and a half hours on the worst one-lane gravel road I’ve ever traveled to reach a dry lake bed. There, on this desolate spot of cracked earth, rocks move across the flat soil under their own power. Anything from small pebbles to boulders over one hundred pounds. Leaving obvious tracks. With no set plan or direction. The naked eye, in the amount of time you are there, will not be able to track the movements—but those stones leave obvious, sometimes maze-like trails. We left there with far more questions than answers.
The national park system—what Wallace Stegner called “America’s best idea”—recently celebrated its one hundredth anniversary. Can you talk about the people you met sixty-two times over: rangers, maintenance workers, toll booth attendants, and other NPS employees, and how they influenced your visits?
Alan: Should we begin by singing praise to the Rangers in all the parks? They do what they do out of a love and respect. Many of the Rangers, and other NPS employees, provided exceptional assistance. Some of them, hearing of our project, would arrange readings for us. Any help we received allowed us to accomplish what we set out to do—discover and explore the park, and reach as many people as possible with our message of preservation.
karla k: There would be no national parks without the Rangers. They work tireless hours, doing every job from cleaning out porta-potties, to outdoor education, to trail maintenance, to search and rescue, to answering ridiculously idiotic complaints: Would you move the elk crossing sign to another area, it’s hard to see the elk along that curve and would be much easier if they crossed along the open road. (I could not help but overhear this tourist complaint one day!)
These Rangers are all working for pittance. They are physically exhausted and sore most every day of their lives. They are balancing the protection and love of these wilderness lands while having to please both the government and the consumer. Their’s may be one of the hardest jobs out there along with our first responders and teachers!
The fact is these parks could not exist without them. And, despite having to deal with wage cuts and vandals and entitled tourists, we never met a Ranger who didn’t absolutely love their job. Every single one of them makes me want to grow up and be a National Park Ranger.
What words do you have for those of us who may feel intimidated by the size, isolation, and wildness of our national parks? Why should they overcome their fear—or disinterest, whatever the case may be—and schedule an NPS visit soon?
karla k: There are those who think they can live without the wilderness. There are those who know they can’t.
We wrote a song with singer/songwriter Lisa Carver titled “Go Around.” It is dedicated to the National Parks. Without getting political, our answer to so many who ask about our stance on preserving and protection of our parks has always been Go Around. Just leave them alone. We are not trying to stop progress or technology in any way, we are simply saying, please, do what it takes to not harm any aspect of these sacred spaces, and just take your progress and your technology and go around them.
I say this because so many people don’t think twice about the National Parks, and it is the disinterest that I believe can harm our parks the most. People protect what they love, and my great hope is that our words can spark something in people to fall in love with the parks, and to do what they can—either by visiting or donating or volunteering to a park they love.
I do hope people feel intimidated by the wildness, by the isolation of the parks. You should be intimidated. The true power and true nobility leads to gentleness and humbleness; a need to turn around and take care of what truly matters in this life. The earth and her creatures give and give and give to all of humanity. Isn’t it time we give back? Go, visit, support, fall in love. The gift will come back to you a thousandfold.
Alan: People should schedule an NPS visit soon because the parks will probably never be more glorious than they are now. Most of the parks have been standing in their natural state for thousands of years. But because of their very nature they cannot wait forever. Many people DO seem intimidated by the size or isolation—or what they perceive as the work involved to get there, especially if they are camping, or whether there are enough things to do once they get there. And, honestly, there is a certain attractiveness to just flying to an amusement park or to some coastal resort. Cost should not be an issue; it will cost just as much, and probably less, to visit a National Park than to go to place with rides based around cartoon characters.
A person should go, or take their family and go, to a park for two reasons: one, to visit those stones and trails and wilderness that are disappearing and two, to be both humbled and yet, somehow, become part of a larger world. This is a lesson that a paved and sanitized resort cannot teach. We should always be willing to be reminded about our small, fragile, yet critical role in this land of natural wonder.