The Endurance

My long, long trip through Ken Burns's The National Parks

Franklin Delano Roosevelt in The National Parks: America's Best Idea, "Great Nature" (1933-1945)     Photo: courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration

Pain Games

Two epic endurance events take place this month. Ken Burns's The National Parks airing September 27-October 2 on PBS, and the 24 Hours of Moab mountain-bike race, October 10-11. Here's how they stack up.
MOAB
DURATION: 24 hours
AREA COVERED: A 15-mile loop repeated up to 17 times
EQUIPMENT: Bike, helmet, gels
PARTICIPANTS: 5,000 riders and spectators
SOUNDTRACKS: creaming knobby-tire freaks
AFTERMSOUNDTRACKS:ATH: Sleep, recovery drinks, hot tub

BURNS
DURATION: 12 hours
AREA COVERED: 84 million acres of monuments, parks, and refuges
EQUIPMENT: Sofa, coffee, funny cigarettes
PARTICIPANTS: Millions of viewers and John Muir look-alike Lee Stetson, who reads Muir quotes
SOUNDTRACKS: Sexed-up old-time fiddle tunes
AFTERMATH: Hallucinations, real drinks, Ambien

A CONFERENCE ROOM in Outside HQ, 8 A.M. In front of me: a camp stove, Folgers, gorp, beef jerky, and six DVDs containing Ken Burns's The National Parks: America's Best Idea. That's 11 hours, 37 minutes, and six seconds of hi-def grizzly shots and Burns effects, if you're counting. Trust me. I am.

Having tackled every other American cultural pillar besides light beer—baseball, jazz, Mark Twain, and war—Burns turns his eye to our parks. I proposed a review. My colleagues proposed an ultramarathon. So here I am, locked in front of the tube with the same provisions I'd take into the backcountry. I'm allowed five-minute breaks between episodes. Caffeine is permitted; alcohol is not.

I feel strong through episodes one and two, which focus on the creation of Yellowstone (1872) and Yosemite (1890) and are full of tasty historical asides. Who knew that buffalo soldiers from the black 24th Infantry policed Yosemite by moving shepherds to one end of the park and their flocks to the other, resulting in an inconvenient commute?

But anyone can start a marathon. As we enter hour three, guest narrator Gretel Ehrlich refers to the parks as "lubrication of the human spirit," roughly the 30th such waxy statement so far. Ken Burns is known for being prolific and moving. Here's what he's not known for: subtlety. His films are unapologetically grandiose odes to What It Means to Be American. That's great in small servings, but brevity isn't exactly Burns's forte, either.

Sure enough, Burns focuses on the parks' founding fathers: John Muir, Teddy Roosevelt, millionaire Park Service director Stephen Mather, and philanthropist John D. Rockefeller Jr. Without them, he reminds us, there would be no spirit lube. He notes that parks often displaced native people, but mostly this is a story of unmitigated triumph—the American spirit fortified by American wilderness preserved by rich American guys.

But who am I to judge? I just urged Mather to "get on with it" during his fight to designate the Grand Canyon in 1919. I'm out of jerky, and my blood type is Folgers. Midway through hour six, a fellow editor drops by with local ultramarathoner Kyle Skaggs: "Don't think about how far you have to go," Skaggs advises. The DVD player counters: "00:32:47." Thanks, Kyle. Care for some gorp?

Hours pass. Teddy Roosevelt goes to Yellow­stone to hunt a cougar but instead kills a mouse. The late Bradford Washburn describes Mount McKinley as "cold as the heart of an elderly whore." The Depression foils FDR's plans to expand the parks system. Burns lionizes former Sierra Club executive director David Brower for blocking a dam in Colorado's Dinosaur National Monument in 1955 but neglects to mention the devil's bargain that protected it: Brower's agreement to let Glen Canyon be flooded under Lake Powell.

At the 11th hour, as Burns begins his coda with the creation of ten Alaskan parks in 1980, I realize that something (besides my sanity) is missing—namely, the past three decades. The Winnebago-choked thoroughfares; the notorious pro-industry Interior secretaries and parks overseers James Watt and Gale Norton; the parks' annual $600 million budget shortfall—all are absent. History is in the eye of the director, and it's rosy.

As I urge on the final episode, I think of a dispatch Rudyard Kipling wrote in 1889, while traveling out west. "Dear Reader," he wrote, "today I am in the Yellowstone park and I wish I were dead." Rudyard, I feel your pain. But then something remarkable happens. The camera pans over a mountain goat in Glacier National Park. It's a pat shot, but it stops my breath. At age 19, I spent a life-altering summer in Glacier, pumping gas and climbing mountains. When I see that goat, nostalgia bowls me over. That's the thing about Burns's series: Its weakness—sentimentality—is at times its strength. The striking images make you feel a deep connection with the parks, feel the need to get out there. Glacier beckons. But, then, so does the bar. Credits, roll.

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