State Park Memories Make Me Smile

20975657-smallBy Joe Watts, the president of the Birmingham Audubon Society and a long-time part of the Alabama Birding Trails program and of the Alabama State Park system. This op-ed originally appeared in al.com.

State Parks have always mattered to me. I can’t recall a time in my memory when a trip to a state park didn’t stir a sense of joy and a sense of wonder in my heart and in my soul. That’s one of the reasons I’m so excited to support Amendment 2, on the ballot this November. There are plenty of things to disagree about on the ballot, but supporting state parks isn’t one of them. Everyone can enjoy these treasures and everyone should understand the importance of maintaining them for the future.

There’s really no other way to say it. When I think of the views from Cheaha State Park or the rush of the water over Desoto Falls, I think of my mother. And I smile. I smile a lot.

We were raised to have an appreciation of the outdoors. From our family home in the country to the Great Smoky Mountains, we spent more time outside than in. A good bit of that time was spent in Alabama’s wonderful state parks. Days on end were spent exploring deep hardwoods and thickets of blackberry brambles, wading into shallow creeks or just lolling beside a fallen log and reading.

Mama, who was 46-years-old when I was born, would typically join me in many adventures. As a 46-year-old myself now, I look back on those days and marvel at how she had the energy to keep up with a wild-haired young boy at her age. But she did and she thrived on it, and so did I.

mom

Joe’s mother, Inez Watts, enjoying the water at Chewacla State Park near Auburn, Alabama.

Living as we did in the country, you might imagine that an ideal vacation for the Watts family would be somewhere with lights and restaurants and action, if for no other reason than a change of scenery. Not my Mama. She loved the scenery of Alabama’s natural places, so we’d pack up the car—my dad, my mother, me and as many of my five sisters as could fit—and we’d head north. North to Mama meant anywhere north of Montgomery, of course, so we didn’t have to travel far. But we did travel often.

Her favorite place was Desoto State Park. And it fast became mine. We’d visit there every year, usually renting a chalet or a cabin. The cabins were, and still are, rustic. Chalets were rustic too, but they had sleeping areas you could only get to via ladder. Slipping up that ladder and having a space all to myself was a special treat for a young boy who had five older sisters.

As magical as that sleeping area was, the real magic was found on the trails. Even the trails leading between cabins held a surprising ability to captivate my young imagination. Plants that seemed mundane on our farm suddenly became fascinating. Birds that, sad to say, might have fallen prey to the BB gun if spotted along a fence row at home soared overhead, no longer targets but marvels of feathers and flight. And the waterfalls. The water rushing over rocks represented something I never really experienced on our farm. To see it, to hear it and, of course, to feel it on my feet and rushing through my hands was a sensation I remember to this day. Mama would often join me, putting her feet in the rushing cool water, now, I realize, to soothe her tired feet from trudging along the trails with a young and energetic boy.

Inez Watts and the author at Desoto State Park in 1975

Inez Watts and the author at Desoto State Park in 1975

But it was the wildness that we came for. There were plenty of people in the world, but not enough wild places, Mama said. She believed we needed to understand the wild places in Alabama to appreciate our home state. And she was right. Her appreciation of our state parks kindled a love for all of Alabama’s wild things—from the birds to the trees. Camping under the stars, floating along in a tippy canoe, walking a worn trail—these are the memories Mama wanted to be sure I had, not some rush of streetlights and fast moving cars. She understood where you could get close to God.

I grew up interested in hiking and backpacking. I hunted, too, as a teenager, and I’ve hiked all across America. But nowhere could ever be as special as those times I spent walking the trails in Desoto State Park, running around the bend to see what was ahead until I was too tired to walk back. And there was Mama, always able, bad back and all, to carry me home.

We could all learn a little something from my mother. Those visits to our state parks kept her strong and made her love Alabama more and more. And she always—always—believed that our state parks deserved the love and affections, and protection, of everyone, because they are, after all, for everyone to enjoy.

I’ll be doing my part on November 8th to show my love for Alabama’s state parks. I’ll be voting YES on Amendment 2. And I’ll be thinking about my Mama. And I’ll be smiling.

To learn more about Alabama State Parks and the benefits of Amendment #2, please visit www.alparkspartners.com.