Tyler N. Moore
Depending on Nature vs. Being Eaten By It: How Permanent Vacation Explores Life in National Parks
Permanent Vacation: Twenty Writers on Work and Life in Our National Parks Volume 1: The West. Edited by Kim Wyatt and Erin Bechtol. $15.00
With a title like Permanent Vacation, you might expect Wyatt and Bechtol's examination of life in the Western United States' national parks to stick to lighter fare, maybe some sprawling pastorals. However, Mary Emerick's opening essay lets us know quickly that in some cases it's not so much a vacation as it is a fugitive run: "I left them because they were too fat, too skinny, too young, too old. They weren't tough enough, or were so tough there was no breaking through their thick skins" (1). “The Men I Left Behind,” is about why Emerick couldn't stay put. It's an odd but fitting place to start an anthology of essays about people who—some for a season, some for much longer—shun society for a time and go to work or live in our national parks. Emerick shares enough detail for us to know that there are plenty of stories to tell but doesn't actually tell any of them. Rather than a portrait of a particular man or a specific park, we get a collage of details that ultimately form an impression of the restless spirit that leads to the lifestyle the rest of the book explores. "[T]he destination became my new crush. I dreamed of its contours as I slept beneath clammy nylon in roadside campgrounds, or behind flimsy curtains of truck-stop motels. That familiar brown Park Service sign made my heart beat faster" (5). It's an effective entrance to the parks, where the rest of the essays dwell.
There are a range of stories here. Some about family trips, a few about animals (particularly Troy Davis' “Six,” about a famous moose), and almost all of them, one way or another, trying to communicate the reverent awe nature casts upon its careful observers. The risk an editor takes in centering an anthology in the public parks of the Western United States, of course, is that despite the variety of voices, the stories and their tone might resemble one another too closely. There are an infinite variety of experiences to be had in those parks, but all of them start in roughly the same place: the first few steps, the drive through the front gate, a common baptism into an ancient view of the world.
Wyatt and Bechtol have done a decent job of minimizing that sameness, but they must have been unable or unwilling to avoid it completely. There came a point where I began scanning the first few paragraphs of each essay a little more carelessly, finding that initial experience of the parks from each writer less and less engrossing. No two tell it exactly the same way, of course, and there are small turns of phrase that readers might appreciate. Unfortunately for these writers, some of their experiences begin to feel a little bland, almost prepackaged, when they're all stacked together. Not all of them anticipated such a challenge.
If you're hungry for a book in praise of nature that is rich and masterful in its descriptions, Permanent Vacation will surely sate you. However, nature is not the constant focus. For many of these talented writers, the parks are just the backdrop or coincidental vacation spot that set the stage for coming-of-age moments, rites of passage, and thorough bathtub cleaning.
Take, for example, Cassandra Kircher's “A Portrait of My Father in Three Places.” All three of those places are national parks, but our focus is on the author's father and his character. In the first place, he is a hero, fending off a bear with a flashlight and bug spray. It is the vision most of us have of our fathers when we are children: brave, protecting, ready for and stronger than a bear. But in the next park, several years later, Kircher comes to the realization that her father “might, in fact, be a difficult man” (14). There is still strength, but not an admirable one. It is the strength to stay angry. In the final act, Kircher confronts her father's mortality, recognizing his inherent frailty. There is attention to nature, certainly. The narrative is a reminder of the thin line we walk between depending on nature and being eaten by it. What's interesting about Kircher's essay, and perhaps what it shares with Emerick's, is that it holds a whole life in a few pages—even two whole lives.
Maybe this betrays a bias in me as a reader, because one of the other essays that stood out to me was Ruth Rhodes' “Tonight We Dash,” a short, charming piece about streaking through a small Alaskan town with her colleagues many years ago. Recognizing the memory as a form of escapism from what she considers a “bourgeois” life in the suburbs, she mentions trying to send a Christmas card to the bus driver who took the group home that night. The letter isn't returned, but Rhodes doubts that it ever reached its destination, either. She admits that it really doesn't matter, “since [she] really meant to send it back through time” as a message to herself (192). Rhodes is trying to tell us how the color of that moment shades her whole life, and she has enough perspective to teach us why that's so significant.
We remember only the smallest pieces of our pasts with any real accuracy. There are a few moments, though, that each of us carries like a banner to define who we are, or have been, or are becoming. I love learning about those moments. Permanent Vacation has its fair share. Nicole Sheets' “The Traces You Leave” really shouldn't be missed. Maybe the last thing that comes to mind when we think about the Continental Divide and lodgepole pines is the person who cleans the toilets in the resort hotel. “Traces” is an outstanding piece of writing that tells candidly and with a generous helping of humor what it's like to clean the bathtubs in a national park.
Permanent Vacation, then, isn't just a nature book. There are bison and ducks, but there are also helicopters and drugs. This is a collection of voices that share loosely a geography, but not a common moment or back story. Together, they remind us that there is a sense of wonder we can all share, a point of perspective where all our views might meet regardless of where our journey started. And whatever direction we go from there, even back the direction we came, a new idea of what the world is and can be comes with us.