As our time in Minnesota wound to a close, we decided to take a drive north to Itasca State Park, the birthplace of the mighty Mississippi. There, in the sandy pine forests of northern Minnesota, the Mississippi begins its nearly 1,500 mile journey down to the Big Easy and out into the Gulf of Mexico. Scientists tell us that a drop of water beginning its journey in Itasca takes around 90 days to reach the ocean. Ironically enough, this was about how long it took us to get from Louisiana to the Source, so apparently we are just contrarian drops of water, flowing upstream.
Itasca, like many of the state parks that we have seen on our way, is a wild, special place, that evokes thoughts of the past. Dotted amongst the undeveloped lakes (there are more than 100 in the Park), towering pines, wildflowers and glassy streams are unique log and stone buildings that have been standing since the 1930s. The architecture of these buildings has become synonymous with state and national parks. Low slung, stout stone foundations with huge post and beam log construction. Grand stone archways. Majestic buildings created from the local land. These are elegant buildings that make you question, if only momentarily, whether you really should be traipsing across those floors in shorts and dirty hiking boots. Close your eyes slightly and you can still see the shadows of gentlemen in pants and ties and ladies in dresses, walking, picnicking, and canoeing through the parks of yesterday.
As much as I enjoy the natural beauty of these parks, I also enjoy their old buildings and the human history. Not coincidentally, many of these parks share a relatively recent common history. A history born out of the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, and a nation seeking to rise from the tatters massive unemployment and economic despair. In 1932, at the height of the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt introduced and Congress approved a bill creating the Civilian Conservation Corps (the CCC). The purpose of the CCC was to provide jobs for the rapidly growing number of unemployed Americans, by providing them work building public infrastructure and performing conservation projects around the country. While the CCC only operated for 9 years, at the time of it’s disbanding in 1942, more than 3 million (yes, MILLION) Americans participated. They built parks, buildings, bridges, and reservoirs in nearly every state in the union. They planted 5 BILLION trees across the country. They fought wildfires and built telephone lines, power lines, and roads. The CCC workers contributed indelibly to the country and in return received work, pay, and food at a time when many were wanting for all three. (For more information about the CCC, check out http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Civilian_Conservation_Corps).
A visit to nearly any state or national park today likely shows you hints of the CCC’s impact. A visit to many, many parks and public spaces, over three months, shows you that the CCC changed the landscape of America for the better in dramatic ways. The CCC was also a stroke of political genius from an inspired leader. When Roosevelt proposed the creation of the CCC, there was significant opposition. When polled about the CCC’s value towards the end of it’s life-span, 86% of Americans were in favor of it. Say what you will about Roosevelt, he was a great leader. Not a man focusing on polls, approval ratings, or appearances. Not a man focused on ideas of fear and scarcity, and stumbled by rhetoric. A President crippled with polio, who ably led this country through some very, very dark times. Did he reach too far at times? Yes, probably. Did he change the direction of America for the better when it was direly needed? Most definitely.
While our country certainly isn’t in the same poor shape it was in 1932, things today are, by most people’s estimation, not as good as they could be. So, the next time you find yourself walking around a national park, a state park, a national forest planted by the CCC, or enjoying some other CCC created infrastructure, consider: Will our country ever see another leader who could create so much with little more than the hands and wills of people? Further, ask yourself if the people of this country would set aside their divisiveness and cynicism to follow. For me the answers to these questions are: “I hope so,” and “I hope so.”