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Voting Parks in an Election Year

A few weeks ago, I took some mental health time and got out of the house. It was hard fighting this political/pandemic fatigue, as well as dealing with self-reflective depression since being housebound in a new town/state/region of the country. Although exciting and fantastic, it’s presented another layer of anxiety and feeling of isolation. Before I embarked, I had to ask some questions: am I being responsible by traveling during a pandemic? Can I really afford this, considering my unemployment runs out in a month and job prospects have been scarce? Can I afford NOT to for my sanity? Am I mentally up for this?

Knowing that public lands and national parks rejuvenate my spirit and health, I packed up Dorito the Kia Soul with two dozen cloth masks, road trip needs, my camera, and a map with a few new-to-me destinations ripe for exploration, and headed south to Idaho.

Photo by Sandra Ramos

One of these must-do sites was Minidoka National Historical Site, located in southern Idaho, which protects and amplifies the voices and stories of Japanese-Americans unjustly imprisoned during WWII by the American government. But as I rolled into town, I learned the visitor center was still closed. Officially, the letters on the door cited the pandemic (although all other local park centers were open). There were whispers of other possible causes, including the unconfirmed rumor that staff of Japanese-American decent were experiencing harassment for the “China Virus.” I decided to visit anyway, since the park property was open, and I may find unique solitude.

Words matter.

There was a van in the parking lot, which belonged to a family huddled under a tree working on Junior Ranger books, and a maintenance worker on a small truck zipping around the main building. Making my way to the outdoor interpretation sign, the first words I read struck me immediately: “American Concentration Camp 1942-1945. The U.S. Government called it a ‘relocation center’ but it was really a place of incarceration for over 13,000 people of Japanese Ancestry during WWII.” I couldn’t remember a time where an interpretation sign was so honest, and a deep exhale relaxed my travel-wary shoulders.

Photo by Sandra Ramos

Just then, the maintenance guy strolled up behind me. Short and stocky, wearing an NPS T-shirt, he asked where I was from. “Montana, via Texas,” I replied. Then he asked if I wanted to see the inside of the visitor center. DUH! Of course I do, but all the things women need to think about while traveling lined up in my head: I’m a small-ish, older woman, traveling alone, and I’m in the middle of a bunch of cornfields with no cell service, and this nice—but physically imposing guy—is offering me candy. I put my hand in my pocket and grasped the ever-present pocketknife for comfort and thanked him for unlocking the door.

As he followed me into the cold, quiet and unlit visitor center, he asked if I knew the story of this site. He went on to explain he was a former corrections officer from northern California, but had a daughter who lived nearby. He had never heard this story before taking the position and explained his interpretation: what happened to those people is heartbreaking and wrong and the powerful story moved him. I only half paid attention to his biography as I fervently tried to absorb the moment of being in a park visitor center alone, in this beautifully window-lit sacred space. Dammit, my camera was in the car, but at least the cell phone is in my pocket. I reached for it as I looked around at the displays of timelines and former possessions found buried around the park.

Photo by Sandra Ramos

Words matter.

As I’ve been struggling this election cycle, my biggest challenge has been the utter lack of respect for political norms and honesty coming from our government. As someone who served our country working in many levels of our political and governmental system, I consider myself a patriot, and in spite of all its faults, I love this country for the ideals and goals of a free and equitable society for all inhabitants and the ability to challenge unjust institutions and vote.

Now I admit, I once had a State Senator tell me I was “too hard on elected officials and hold them to too high a standard,” So I checked myself—no, no I’m not being too hard. I find it unacceptable to lie, manipulate, and deceive the American public, particularly for self-serving (read: money and power) reasons. I retired from politics because of candidates I saw running for office to be somebody, not do something. But, as I’ve mentioned before, politics was bad for my mental health, and I need to be very careful not to get caught up in the emotional roller coaster it can induce.

Photo by Sandra Ramos

But the sign almost knocked me over: “Words Matter.”

It went on: “Obscure, Conceal, or Clarify.”

I suddenly felt lifted. Yes, words matter. Behavior matters. Just then, I realized the maintenance guy was still talking, and just as I began to pay attention again, I heard “I just don’t understand this Black Lives Matter stuff.” This was the same person, who not 15 minutes ago, convinced me of the sympathy and understanding he had for those incarcerated in Minidoka. “I don’t like the way the President behaves, or what he says, but I support him and will vote for him again.” My gaze went back to the sign. “Words Matter.” I remember my head spinning—what the hell? should I engage and challenge this guy?  All I wanted to do was enjoy this experience in a national park and now I’m having an anxiety attack over the election. 

I pointed up at the sign. All I could muster was “this is powerful,” and headed toward the exit.

I thanked him for the private tour and wished him well.

Photo by Sandra Ramos

I was so flooded, I couldn’t photograph the rest of the park. Getting into my car, I wept. How did this happen? How did we get here—so divisive, angry, sad, despondent? Lifting my head out of my hands, I looked out at Minidoka National Historic Site and was never more grateful for our national parks. Our NPS sites hold, clarify, and remind us of our American legacy—the good, bad and ugly. They hopefully remind us to nurture our better angels, to learn from history, and protect what little we have left.

There are so many issues that deserve priority on your election checklist: climate change, opening up of public lands to drilling, wildlife protection, clean air and water. I urge you to research your representatives at every level of government using aggregate guides from organizations, such as Sierra Club, National Wildlife Federation, and other local groups in your area that support our public lands. 

I hope this election year, you seek out honest answers before you vote.

Make a plan to vote early. Go in person, if you can. Do it as soon as possible. 

We deserve elected officials who can, at the very least, pronounce Yosemite correctly.

After 20 years in public service, working on campaigns for members of Congress, Sandra Ramos decided to hang up her hat. Shortly thereafter, she fell in love with national parks, but the love of politics and policy never left. She nerds out daily to a Google alert of national park news, and she wants to activate the incredible voices of national park enthusiasts to #VoteParks.

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