State Parks & Summer

Growing up in Minnesota, I lived less than 15 miles from two state parks. As a child I visited those places to hike, to picnic, to camp, to swim, to take a school field trip. There was something special about those places. To be clear, I wasn’t much of a science kid (with the exception of astronomy and meteorology–those two branches of science that most excite me), but certain elements of the natural world drew me in: trees, lakes, birds. And I loved hiking on the trails in the enclosed spaces of the woods.

One of the marks of the shift from the Spring to Summer–besides the changing weather–was the ritual of purchasing the new annual park pass. My family would pull up to the ranger’s station, the bell would ding from the pneumatic hose, and out would step a ranger.  He or she would reach inside the passenger side window, pull out a razor blade and begin scraping off the previous year’s pass. Once that old pass was removed, and we paid our $20, there was the mystery over the new year’s featured park and image.

When I eventually began using a family car later in college, I too then participated in the ritual on my own, and by this time, the stickers had been redesigned so they were not as difficult to remove. It was in this period that I began visiting more state parks, starting to mark them off on my Minnesota map. Into my dating and married life, I continued the process of checking off more state parks.

Each year, for instance, Amy and I would camp at a state park at least once, the outing an inexpensive way to spend together away from home, complete with campfire, hot dogs, and marshmallows. When we helped friends move to Oregon, we camped at a state park in Montana on the return trip. When we later lived in Oregon for three years, we camped at various state parks, with one summer trip finding us making our way down the Oregon coast and then working our way toward Crater Lake. When we lived in South Dakota during my doctoral studies, we visited various state parks, taking advantage of the newly installed camping cabins.

Here in Texas now, we have visited a handful of state parks, and I’ve taken my son on a few overnight outings. But here, instead of that decal in the corner of the windshield, I have a plastic card in my wallet. Not quite as interesting, to be sure. I haven’t yet initiated the “formal” process of checking off the parks we’ve visited, but it is nearly April, and soon enough, my schedule will be more open, and I anticipate the fullness of that big gap between spring and fall semesters, with ample time to venture out, family in tow.

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