An Origin Story: The National Parks Project

The project that I'm sharing with you now isn't the one that I originally planned on putting out this year. I had my eyes set on bigger things (literally): I wanted to take up mountaineering and climb the backdrop of my morning commute, Mount Rainier; I wanted to fly to Africa and summit Mount Kilimanjaro. And yet, here I am: wholly committed to the less sexy summer plan of backpacking through seventeen of America's National Parks. So, how did I wind up here?

It started last year. I was sitting in the Frankfurt International Airport, waiting to catch my final flight home for the summer: I'd spent a couple months bouncing back and forth between Canada, the 'States, Peru, Bolivia, Iceland, Croatia, and Greece. I started reflecting on the range of memories I'd created that summer: from hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, to stumbling onto hot springs in Iceland, to swimming in the warm Mediterranean waters of Greece and Croatia. I found myself thinking about this line by RenĂ© Maria Rilke:

There is much beauty here, because there is much beauty everywhere.
— RenĂ© Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

I'd had a conversation with a colleague earlier that summer while I was stateside. He was telling me about a trip he'd recently taken to Ireland: That whole country is beautiful, he said, We spent a good amount of time on the coast, looking out on the cliffs. And, you know what was funny? I kept thinking to myself, "This is beautiful, but it's really not much different from the Oregon Coast..." 

While I was sitting in Frankfurt, that conversation came back to me. And, I found myself thinking about this interesting misconception that I think we've developed, where we feel like we need to go somewhere physically far away from where we live in order to see something beautiful - that wilderness and adventure can't be something close to where we call "home."

Fast-forward to January of 2016. I was researching routes for Mount Kilimanjaro when I learned that 2016 is the centennial anniversary of the National Parks Service in America. I looked up from my computer to a stack of old Backpacker magazines that my grandmother had given me for Christmas only a week earlier. There was a note attached to one of the magazines, in the old, cursive pen I'd grown so accustomed to seeing every year in the birthday cards she sent me: In case you need ideas on where to hike in this Big Wonderful World... from Grandpa Ed and Grandma Alice.

Oof. The proverbial dots started connecting...

My grandmother is easily one of my five favorite people in the universe. She and my grandfather have backpacked all over the United States. They love America's national parks. They hiked the Pacific Crest Trail in their 60s! They've both lived for nearly a century, with their lives largely committed to giving back to their community, their family, and the outdoors. It's ironic, really, that when she reads this post, that'll likely be the first time that she'll begin to know the extent to which I look up to her. Deep down, I think every man knows both the insurmountable debt that is owed to the matriarchs of his family and the overwhelming feeling that he'll never be able to repay the love and kindness that has been given to him... I digress.

As I sat there, piecing together the coincidence that was looking at me both from a stack of magazines and from my computer screen, my focus shifted from Africa to America. I decided that I wanted to do something to honor the lives that my grandparents have lived, and that I wanted to share the experiences I would have with them through photography and trip reports from my travels. I chose seventeen national parks because I wanted to bite off something that would challenge me, and because I wanted to get exposure to the wide variety of landscapes that our country has to offer. We're so lucky that people like John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt had the foresight to protect some of our national wilderness, and I can't wait to explore a few pieces of it this summer.

Matt Patterson

Seattle, Washington