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Personal Essays

Our National Posters

People say you can never go home again. But you can go back on vacation. Notes on the specific tragedy that occurs when, revisiting the great national parks of your childhood, you realize all your memories of the wild derive from gift shops.

Frank S. Nicholson, 1939, Posters from the WPA

These mountains were so tall, I kept trying to tell my husband, that he could not even imagine them. They were so tall they would make him sick. They were so tall even trees could not survive them. He would get out of the rental car and stand at their feet, I warned, and not know what to say.

And in my mind they were teeming with bears—2,000-pound grizzlies and baby black cubs. Ancient lakes dotted their nooks 8,000 feet above sea level, and wildflowers carpeted the valleys below, where bison the size of our Prius roamed by the herd.

It’s hard to separate which bits of this picture came from Ken Burns and which from the folds of my own memory. But I claim a special connection to this part of the world, the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone. My mother first drove us there, all the way across the prairie, when we were children, and it’s where I first fell for nature. It’s where I saw my first pit toilet, my first black bear, my first constellations outside a planetarium. It’s where I first fell for the smell of smoke and the sound of a midnight zipper that only a sleeping bag makes.

Inside our apartment on the outskirts of Washington, I babbled about this Mecca, as my husband and I traced trail maps on our coffee table, plotting a vacation I also thought of as a homecoming.

“And elk! You’ve never seen elk this size! Or lakes this clear! And there will be prairie dogs everywheremore prairie dogs than people!”

Jeremiah nodded.

“And snow! There’ll be snow… in June! And ranger talks!

This place would be like nowhere he had ever been before, I promised, and it would be just like I remembered. People always warn that you can never go home again. But you can go back on vacation! Because while everything changes in civilization, and now there’s a Starbucks where the bookstore used to be and a strip mall on the old parking lot, the mountains always sit waiting, exactly as you remember them.

 

Our first morning in Yellowstone, on a summer day that looked like deep winter, we pulled our rental car into the parking lot of a small book and postcard shop at the West Thumb geyser basin. The park was blanketed in a historic snowfall, and on the scenic drive in we had seen little else—snow piled 15 feet high on the side of the road, snow blocking vistas of the Lewis Canyon River, snow covering what was supposed to be beautiful Lewis Lake. We ducked into the bookstore to look at pictures of what we could not see outside and to ask once more for the latest weather forecast.

We thumbed through postcards of old WPA art from the park system and looked through the trail guides and poster racks of backcountry panoramas. Then, spotting a pair of bright eyes, I gasped, grabbing for Jeremiah’s arm.

“That’s him!”

Just like I remembered! The perfectly vivid baby black bear of my earliest park memories—pie-shaped face, pink nose, pushing his small body up to greet me from the snow… on a poster. The bear I remembered, it turns out, I didn’t remember from nature. I remembered him from a 16-by-20 inch photo reprint. And they’re still selling it in Yellowstone 20 years after I first laid eyes on it and insisted absolutely, seriously, I must have that.

While everything changes in civilization, and now there’s a Starbucks where the bookstore used to be and a strip mall on the old parking lot, the mountains always sit waiting, exactly as you remember them.

Jeremiah turned from the poster to me, looking unimpressed. “You and 4,000 other little girls bought that poster.”

Childhood memories, suddenly unlocked, began bounding at me from everywhere—in gift shops. Cheap dream-catcher earrings stirred something in the recesses of my mind, and moments later sterling silver Navajo bracelets and novelty T-shirts did the same.

None of this made sense, though. What about my memories of nature? My first fateful encounters with its majesty? What about the carpets of wildflowers and the scale of the Tetons and the strange awe I felt for geysers formed inside 650,000-year-old calderas?

Slowly, it dawned on me that what I remembered most clearly from my Mecca was the sheer ecstasy of being given a small allotment of cash to spend on any souvenir my heart desired from the Great American West—and then blowing every penny of it on rocks.

Later that same day, in a different gift shop inside the historic Old Faithful Lodge, I flitted from one trinket to the next. Beaded barrettes! Kachina dolls! Wooden jewelry boxes painted with scenes of grazing elk!

Away from the cash registers, nothing looked familiar. When we drove to the rim of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, I was astounded. The 20-mile long canyon includes a pair of iconic waterfalls, one a hundred feet tall and the other roaring three hundred feet to the riverbed. It’s just about the most impressive sight outside of the real Grand Canyon, and I didn’t remember any of it. This strikes me now as a ridiculously enormous thing to forget.

I kept trying to prod around in the back drawers of my brain for the right memories. But I could stir no recollection of what I thought the first time I saw Old Faithful erupt on cue, or what kind of day it was when I first peered into a hot spring. I do remember now, however, that 20 years ago I bought a small red Swiss army knife with “Yellowstone” stenciled in white on the side, and that I then spent the entire three-day drive back to Chicago sitting in the back seat of a minivan caressing it, practicing opening and closing its blade.

 

The sight of such junk reconnected me to my childhood in a way that the first stunning view of the three Tetons simply did not. (Their peaks did suitably impress Jeremiah, who, at 30, must be a greater appreciator of nature than I was when I was a child.) After a few days of gift-shop flashbacks and unrecognized waterfalls, this pattern started to disturb me. How could it be that all of what I thought of as my fondest, earliest memories of nature in fact revolved exclusively around souvenir shopping?

This seemed to reflect poorly on my seven-year-old self. Memory, after all, encodes what’s most important to us, filing away for later recall the things we don’t even realize we’ll never want to forget.

Embarrassed by my memories, I later emailed my siblings. What did they remember? What did they buy? In my obsession with my gift-shop encounters, it did not occur to me that there might be something equally incriminating in the fact that I had come home from yet another beautiful vacation in nature eager to talk about nature posters.

One of you was looking at the stars and said, “Oooh, it’s like Star Wars.”

I wanted to ask my siblings, “Remember that time when…” but I couldn’t remember any specific times. No specific ranger talks, or hiking trails or stargazing sessions against the backdrop of mountains teeming with bears. I remember now that my brother and I conducted a draft at the beginning of each trip to select who would get which cereal brands from the vacation variety 12-pack. But I can’t remember if we ate them in front of a mountain, or in a meadow, or just behind the parked family Previa.

My brother Drew (proud purchaser of rabbit pelts and a pronghorn skull) responded that he mostly remembered being in the car—getting to and from nature, not wandering through it, or sleeping beneath its stars.

“Some of my best memories were just of hanging out in the van,” he wrote, to my surprise. In those summers when we were small and while our father was working, we went camping not only in Yellowstone and the Tetons, but also in the Grand Canyon, the Badlands, the Black Hills, Bryce Canyon, Mesa Verde, and Flaming Gorge. Despite so much awesome scenery, what my brother really remembers was getting to scribble in his coloring book in the van. And we listened to a mix tape of ‘80s music made by our older sister Marie, with what I remember as heavy emphasis on Erasure. We called it The Travel Tape, and I hate to realize now how many times you’d have to rewind it to get from Wyoming to Illinois.

“The difference is that the images of inside the car are discrete while the ones outside were a blur,” Drew wrote. “After a while, I don’t remember where one chain of mountains ended and another began.”

This made me feel marginally better. He didn’t share my fixation with gift shops, but he didn’t particularly remember any waterfalls—or live pronghorn—either.

Marie, who grew up to become a professional flute player, must have bought every flute-playing Kokopelli pendant in the Mountain time zone. Most vividly, though, she recalled a black-and-pink T-shirt designed with a wolf howling at the moon, which she bought in Yellowstone.

“I cherished it all the way to college, when it finally fell apart,” she emailed us. I can picture her in that shirt to this day, although I never knew about what she mentioned next: “I would wear it on trips, and when we got home, instead of washing it, I would wrap it up tight in a plastic bag and open it every so often to sniff it, as it smelled like campfire, which I loved. Best T-shirt EVER.”

Marie did remember one real-life bear, although our reaction to it at the time was something less than wonderment. She had taken me for a walk from our campsite in Yellowstone when she says we saw a baby black bear near the trail, not far away from its mother. And mother bears, as even small children know, are the meanest bears.

“I remember a rush of adrenaline,” Marie wrote, “and my first thought was, ‘Shit, that bear is going to eat my sister and I’m going to be grounded for MONTHS.’”

I do not remember any of this. Marie says she turned me around and we ran right back to camp, where I presume I went back to playing with my pocketknife.

 

None of this gibes with my memory of my memories, the story I’ve been telling myself—and my husband—of the power of an early indoctrination in nature to inculcate a lifelong love. To this day I am an avid camper in the beautiful but less awe-inspiring eastern Appalachian Mountains. And I thank my mother—and those first trips—for instilling in me an internal clock that still rings every August: Get in the car. Take only the tent. Go west.

But clearly, what stuck with me about the Tetons and Yellowstone was something intangible, separate from the tactile memory that remains with me from a turquoise bracelet that I could slide on and off of my seven-year-old wrist. Somewhere on the Plains, Marie and I begged for matching pairs of lace-up moccasins at some faux-Native American trading post. I remember exactly what they looked like, how they molded to my feet, what it meant to own matching footwear with my older sister. They left a clear mark; they stained our feet red.

Together, my siblings and I had all gone into nature, and not one of us had come out retaining anything you could put on a postcard. I wondered, though, if such selective recall is a child’s phenomenon, and so I called the one person who I thought would be more disappointed in my memories than I am. My mother must have seen things differently, remembered more clearly the main attraction of those trips and not the shopping excursions. After all, I always believed that she took us to those mountains thinking that we needed to go there, not just that we might enjoy the vacation.

What I remembered most clearly was the ecstasy of being given a small allotment of cash to spend on any souvenir my heart desired from the Great American West—and then blowing every penny of it on rocks.

When I asked her about this, she said she originally started taking us camping in nearby Indiana state parks. As the youngest, I was still in diapers.

“Once, one of you was looking at the stars and said, ‘Oooh. It’s like Star Wars,’” she remembered. “I was shocked that your only frame of reference for a night sky was Star Wars. So, I decided we needed to go west, and we did, starting the next summer.”

She was less intentional about indoctrinating us in anything. “I wanted you all to experience a piece of property not landscaped by the Chicago Park District,” she later emailed me. “An environment untouched by human hands. Maybe that is ‘nature’ that I wanted to introduce you to.”

When I first confessed to her that I had retained the gift shops more than the untouched environment, she laughed as if hearing about my bear poster for the first time. She had no recollection of the things we bought on those trips, or the money she gave us to acquire them, or why she drew no line between genuine artifact and fool’s gold. She had no idea I’d spent whole days playing with a pocketknife in the back seat of our minivan. None of this troubled her, though, since the well-worn backpacking tent and Coleman stove I own at 29 testify more strongly than my memories do to the legacy of those trips: Nature took.

When I asked her what she remembered, it turned out what she really wanted to talk about was this one shower she took at Old Faithful. We’d been camping without showers for a week or two. The public facility at Old Faithful operated by the quarter, a few coins for five minutes of hot water.

“I still remember that shower, how wonderful it felt,” she said.

Now that I am grown, I know what this feels like, and I smiled.

“And we did laundry at the Laundromat at Old Faithful,” she continued. “After we were all clean and all the stuff was all folded, I realized your brother hadn’t put in any of his underwear.”

She laughed.

“That’s what moms remember of these vacations.”

Emily Badger is a freelance writer in the Washington, D.C., area, where she writes about public policy, urbanism, and sustainability. She’s a contributing writer to Miller-McCune and The Atlantic Cities and has also written for GOOD, the Christian Science Monitor and the New York Times. More by Emily Badger

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