Dayton Duncan sees the national parks as the “Declaration of Independence applied to the landscape.” Now he and Ken Burns have made an epic movie about them. By Samuel Hughes


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A Hymn to the Parks By Samuel Hughes
Photo by Jared Leeds

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©2009 The Pennsylvania Gazette



Many years later, as his son faced the mountain goats, Dayton Duncan C’71 would remember that distant time when his own parents took him to discover the national parks.

He was nine years old then, and nothing in his Iowa upbringing had prepared him for that camping trip to the touchstones of wild America: The lunar grandeur of the Badlands. The bear that stuck its head into their tent in Yellowstone. The muddy murmur of the Green River as it swirled past their sleeping bags at Dinosaur National Monument. Sunrise across Lake Jenny in Grand Teton, an image that would cause his mother’s eyes to grow misty for decades to come …

Now it was the summer of 1998, and Duncan had brought his family to Glacier, Montana’s rugged masterpiece of lake and peak and pine. Having spent some blissful days there 13 years before with his then-girlfriend, Dianne, he was returning with her and their offspring: 11-year-old Emme and eight-year-old Will. After switchbacking up the vertiginous Going-to-the-Sun Road, they crossed the Continental Divide at Logan Pass. Then, from the visitors center, he and Will set out on a two-hour hike that culminated in a near-mystical encounter with a family of mountain goats.

“In that vast amphitheater of Nature, some dim memory buried deep within the DNA of all human beings was awakened,” Duncan later recalled in an essay. As they walked back to the visitors center, father told son that, in honor of his sure-footedness, he was giving him a new name in the Native American tradition: Goat Boy.

That night, in the old Many Glacier Hotel on Swiftcurrent Lake, the elder Duncan took a peek at the journal entry Goat Boy had been furiously writing just before falling asleep. It began: THIS WAS THE MOST EXCITING DAY OF MY LIFE.

That, arguably, was the most rewarding moment of Duncan’s.

“It really was overwhelming to me, reading Will’s little hand-scrawled diary entry,” he recalls. “I told Dianne, ‘You know, this is what this trip is about.’”

Duncan is sitting on a bench in Lafayette National Park in Washington, stopping every 10 minutes or so to relight his pipe, which keeps going out because he’s too caught up in answering questions to puff on it. Behind him, past an anti-nuke demonstration and a wrought-iron fence and Pennsylvania Avenue, is the White House, shimmering soddenly in the D.C. humidity.

Certain occupants of that building have loomed large in the broader narrative that Duncan has been exploring. Ulysses S. Grant signed the bill creating the first national park at Yellowstone in 1872, and eight years before that, Abraham Lincoln had signed legislation protecting the Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove. During a triumphant visit to Yellowstone in 1903, Theodore Roosevelt praised the “essential democracy” of the fledgling national parks, and a few weeks later spent three incandescent nights in Yosemite camping with the legendary conservationist John Muir. After the president and the high priest of the Sierras awoke their last morning covered in snow, an ecstatic Roosevelt would tell the crowds in Yosemite Valley: “This has been the grandest day of my life.” The Bull Moose would go on to become the parks’ greatest champion.

Clearly, the national parks have touched something deep inside people, whether it was the president of the United States at the beginning of the 20th century or an eight-year-old boy at the end.

“The notion that a national park is the portal to a different experience was very visceral to me,” says Duncan. “You could feel this intersection of time and place, the place being the same, which again I think is part of what parks are about. They offer you the same place, in layers of time.”

A couple days after his transformative moment in Glacier, he realized that the portal through which he had passed had led him to an idea that bordered on an imperative: “Ken and I need to do a film on the national parks.”

with Dayton Duncan
and Ken Burns



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  ©2009 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 7/28/09