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Making Memories

Ken Burns With His Daughter, Making Memories

Johanna Macri/Courtesy Ken Burns

To filmmaker Ken Burns (pictured with daughter, Olivia in 2009), parks are for marking a family's passage through time.

When we started production on our documentary series, "National Parks: America's Best Idea," we filmed in Yosemite early on, in 2003. I remember thinking it was the first national park I'd ever been to. But on the last night there, I had this almost fever dream along with a revelation: "Oh my god! Of course! I went to Shenandoah National Park with my dad!" It was our first and only road trip together, when I was 6 years old. My mom was ill at the time, and my dad and I had this great adventure, and it just flooded back.

It wasn't a repressed memory. It was just lost, and Yosemite brought it back. That night, some five decades after our trip, I recalled the broad vistas of the Shenandoah Valley as we drove the Skyline Drive along the crest of Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains. I remembered the feel of my dad's hand holding mine; I could feel the leaves crunching under our feet as we hiked through the woods from one of the many trailheads that begin along the drive. I could hear the rushing sound of the little waterfall we found. My fingers remembered the slimy goo the red salamander excreted when we picked it up.

When my daughter Lilly was a teenager we drove the Skyline Drive to recreate the trip I did with my dad. Now it's a family tradition to do intergenerational national park visits with my children and grandchildren almost every year. In 2009 we visited Utah's Arches National Park. It's our way of marking our passage together as a family.

You start to realize that it really matters whose hand you're holding when you go to these places. I think a lot of us feel that way. People tell me stories about those times in the 1940s and 1950s when they piled into the station wagon with their mom and dad and made that iconic road tour of the Western parks, from Glacier to Yellowstone to the Grand Canyon. Our stations of the cross.

My mom died five years after my trip with Dad, which makes the memory of it even more poignant and more present now. That's the important thing: These sorts of wonderful experiences don't exist in the past tense; they're permanently on our hard drives.

I often say: Try to imagine a world without our national parks. Picture the Grand Canyon filled with gigantic mansions or the Everglades paved over with strip malls and blanketed with golf courses. What if Yellowstone had been turned into a seedy amusement park, Geyser Land? These are unbelievably great places. And the beautiful thing is that they belong to us all. —As told to Christina Ianzito

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