Find Your Park! A Journey from a Love of the National Parks to a Future in Environmental Science

Lexi Gavlas, Spotlight Editor

“We sent you to Nature’s Way Preschool in hopes you’d end up loving the outdoors and all things nature,” my mom explained.  In the quaint preschool located off of Oakland, buried in the lush woods of the Kalamazoo Nature Center, every morning we would watch as the deer came right up to the windows of our classroom.  We’d learn why bees flew into flowers and why the moon came out every night.  Perhaps this was the place where my love for the environment began, or maybe it blossomed after my first trip to a national park.


One of my first vacations was to Livermore, California, located around 4 hours away from Yosemite National Park.  My Great Uncle Jim and Great Aunt Olive lived in the quirky city of Livermore, surrounded by parks, bookstores, and trails to hike.  My Aunt Olive would take me out to the backyard to pick fresh apricots from the tree and watch as the the creek flowed smoothly past.  She would tell me the crazy stories of her and my Uncle’s lives in California.


We drove four hours to the beautiful park that my aunt and uncle had traveled to many times before.  We stayed in a small village of house-like tents with 6 cots in each room, and I giggled as my Aunt asked me to help her lock away the food and my mom’s cocoa butter lotion so the bears wouldn’t come around.  The first activity we engaged in was white water rafting on a huge raging river.  Though I was too little, I watched as my Uncle sent my brother Ryan and my cousin Lara afloat down the rapids.  I’ll never forget how the water swept them away so swiftly.


We took a four hour hike to the lower Yosemite falls; though it was a long time for my little legs, I was enticed by the beautiful peaks and valleys.  My aunt and I would rest often and she’d even let me use her hiking sticks to get up the big inclines.  When our water bottles emptied, she would stop us and hold the water bottles up to a thin stream of water flowing down the side of the mountain.  When we made it to the falls, we all sat on the rocks admiring the rushing water.

Ever since that trip, my parents and I traveled to more and more National Parks, from Acadia to Zion the Rockies and Yellowstone, just to name a few.  In Acadia, we’d hike in the afternoon and retire in Bar Harbor for some Clam Chowder and Blueberry Pie (and don’t forget about Maine’s famous lobster ice cream!). In Mount Rainier, my parents and I snuggled up in one bed to keep warm because in the middle of summer, the mountains only reached about 20 degrees. My Opa (Grandpa) and I would sit in the lodge and sip hot cocoa discussing the snow covered peaks and the brave souls that went out to hike the snowy trails that morning.


As I grew older and my brothers moved away, my parents allowed me to bring along one friend.  On our national park adventures.  On perhaps my favorite trip of all time, I took my best friend Isabella out West for 10 days and spent time in three national parks in the surrounding areas.  We traveled through the bright orange hoodoos of Bryce Canyon, watching as the meerkats burrowed in the ground.  We hiked through the Narrows of Zion and observed bighorn sheeps on large rocks on the side of the road, and The Grand Canyon never looked so beautiful from above as we soared in a helicopter over the bright blue Colorado River and the deep, beautiful canyon.  “This trip opened my eyes to all the alluring aspects National Parks have to offer, there is truly a park for everyone.” says Isabella Wilson (11).


From this point on, Isabella and I were hooked on National Parks as we couldn’t seem to get our “fix,” so the next summer we drove through Yellowstone and stopped along the way to watch the grazing buffalo and gaze into the Grand Prismatic Spring.  We hiked in the Grand Tetons and hooted and hollered at the Grizzly Bears.  Later that summer we flew to the Rockies and took a train ride to the top of Pike’s Peak, despite the lack of air (@ 11,000 ft!!!).  When our parents asked where we wanted to go next, we exclaimed, “Alaska!!” So this summer we’ll be able to check off at least 6 more national parks off our list of 10/59.
This year, my passion for National Parks went deeper than just “vacations.”  My love for the environment has blossomed into my future.  I struggled for a long time deciding which area of study I’d like to go into.  I went from teacher to doctor and just about everything in between. My parents were constantly pushing me to “do what you’re passionate about!” Passion? What did that mean for me? This year it became clear to me what the word “passion” really meant.  It meant something I can do for the rest of my life, something that I “love.”  I finally realized that a career in Environmental Science, wherever that degree might take me is what I want.