For a week each spring we celebrate our National Parks. This is not nearly enough time. For ninety eight years the parks service has collected and curated eighty four million acres of our wild places. When I say curated it isn’t a flowery affectation. The land has been curated. Our parks have infrastructure that was designed by people. That infrastructure is in a constant state of redesign and revision. Our parks act as living interactive museums devoted to the celebration of nature.
Imagine National Park visitors. How old are they? How fit? What activities do they do? If you pay attention in any given park you will see gleeful toddlers wallowing in mud puddles. Older children, shrieking and stomping around to their hearts content. Beefy young adults free-soloing thousand foot walls and then through hiking across hundreds of miles just for the joy of movement. Middle aged persons driving through with their jaws on the floors of their cars, they are so overwhelmed by the beauty rushing past their windows. If you get up early, and approach with enough silence and stealth, you might even glimpse the white haired bird watchers, their fanny packs significantly weighed down with identification tomes and binoculars. Their squints may be fierce, but they can’t fully conceal the ecstasy of creeping around at sunrise looking for a once in a lifetime blue-crested whatchamacallit.
The National Parks Service, has, over time, developed the parks to accommodate us. The wide-ranging hoards of humanity at all of our levels of experience and newbieness. From mountain crushing wilderness gods to RV driving, gift shop visiting, rubber-neckers, the Park Service accommodates. More than that, they do it with profound thoughtfulness and style.
I was ten years old when the A.D.A. passed. On TV I saw Jennifer Keelan, a girl near my own age pull herself out of her wheelchair and up the steps of the nations capital. As she demanded to be heard I sat on my parents couch, immobilized in splints and casts and felt joy tingled lightning run up and down my spine. I was not an activist. I was a nice-girl-from-the-suburbs-who-didn’t-complain-and-always-looked-at-it-from-the-other-persons’-perspective. I still mostly am that girl. But because Jennifer and others with her bravery and commitment fought and continue to fight organizations like the NPS must now include access for the disabled in their development plans. What the law does not legislate is how well they do it, or how seriously it is taken.
Which brings me to this:
My thirteen year old, slightly shredded, character imbued, Golden Access Passport. Although it replaced the one I got in elementary school, it’s still so old that they’ve been renamed. Now they are plastic. Now they are Access Passes. This pass is free to any US citizen or resident with a permanent disability. Valid for the lifetime of the owner, it grants free entrance and half price camping in all National Parks.
With an employment history I’ll generously refer to as “sporadic”, more often than not, my wallet is filled with the sound of crickets chirping, the growling buzz of poorly suppressed aspirations, and stray belly-button lint. Our society still has a long way to go to create economic equality for disabled people. What the Access Pass does is graciously acknowledges that fact. It invites the disabled in.
Upon arrival, the gate rangers are uniformly giddy when they get the opportunity to hand out the special accessibility pamphlet (pamphlets are knowledge!). Along with the standard park map, these pamphlets include information and icons highlighting reserved disabled campsites, accessible restrooms, parking spots and my personal favorite, accessible trails. As you would expect, the trails are generally wide, flat, even and short. What has surprised me nearly every time is how gorgeous they are. The half mile loop at Cap Rock in Joshua Tree is where the style of the thing first bowled me over. Shuffling along in the magic hour sunset between the tracks of a past visitor’s wheelchair tires, listening to the dusty silence of twilight, the far-flung feeling of perfect universal balance overtaking. Before I was in the fifth grade people like me had no legal right to education or work. They could be housed in institutions against their will and sterilized without their consent. Many could not even get into the buildings where laws are made in order to voice their opinions.
There is still so far to go. There is still so much work to be done. It can be devastatingly deflating to think of. But on these trails, or crawling into a tent listening to insects sing the twinkling of stars the NPS provides respite. It provides a place to stay and feel welcomed by the universe. It provides a means of exploring beyond what those of us who grew up disabled in a certain generation were raised to believe was possible. It provides strength and focus and a deep well of resolve to push on into a future that we are still writing.