Managing editor Larissa Johnson reflects on a trip to Congaree National Park. Earlier this summer, I went out to Congaree National Park for the first time. The 25-minute drive was admittedly a bit of a shock — I'd never seen rural South Carolina before, and this was just barely outside the city. But the brown park sign was all too familiar, reminding me of the countless others I've seen across the nation.
I made the journey because I was determined to go for a hike, even if I almost melted. Perhaps willingly going outside in the South Carolina summer wasn't the best idea. But as I set out on a 6-mile loop, I realized I was experiencing a side of the South I hadn't seen before.
The beginning of the trail was a raised wooden boardwalk, and the ground was covered in a thin pool of water punctuated by what looked like mangrove stumps. To someone who's never been to the Everglades or anywhere remotely similar, it reminded me of reptile buildings at the zoo — muggy, shades of dark green and brown, buzzing coming from an unidentifiable source, although hopefully without the crocodiles. I could imagine what European settlers felt like when they landed on the unfamiliar coast, although my trip was admittedly a bit shorter than theirs and my home is the not-quite-distant land of Ohio. Especially as an out-of-state student, seeing South Carolina beyond the paved streets and brick buildings of Columbia gave me a deeper understanding of the place I've been living in for the past two years. It made me realize how much I'd missed out on by not going to the park sooner. I even went back later in the summer for an 11-mile hike — prepared with eight bottles of water.
That feeling of gained understanding is one I've felt at every park I've gone to. It's perhaps why, to me, national parks feel like home. I've lost count of how many I've visited. Instead of vacationing at the beach, my family has never been able to get enough of parks.
I think there's nothing in the world like looking out over a field of wildflowers in Montana or exploring the maze of orange hoodoos at Bryce Canyon — or even looking out over the wide, meandering Congaree River. It makes you forget about the bug bites and the blister on your heel and the homework waiting back in Columbia. It's a great way to unwind and get some perspective.
My life wouldn't be the same without national parks. And the parks wouldn't be possible without the efforts of the National Park Service. This Thursday, the service celebrated its 100th birthday. For those who have never been to a national park before, there's no time better than now to give it a try. Like the park service says, it's "America's best idea."