Find Your Park — in Downtown Seattle!

by Jimi Hightower, SCA Centennial Volunteer Ambassador

I set my first career goal while in second grade: I wanted to be a voyager.
 
My father was a carpenter at the time. He’d travel from job to job and we wouldn’t see him for weeks. These extended separations eventually prompted my parents to buy a Winnebago so we could join my dad wherever his work took him. This also required my mom to home-school – or in this case, motorhome-school – my brother and me.
 
She took full advantage of our first trip, to the East Coast, where we stopped at the historic settlements of Williamsburg, Virginia and Plymouth Plantation in Massachusetts. I was enthralled by the reenactors in period dress and the sense that this is where the America we know today began.
 
From there, we explored the USS Constitution and, later, the Statue of Liberty. This was my introduction to national parks, and as luck would have it there were many more to come. As my father continued to follow jobs, we followed him. From the Everglades, where I feared our cat might escape our RV and become instant gator bait, to the Grand Canyon, where the sweeping geologic strata made me so dizzy I had to sit to take it all in. 
 
Then came the real shocker.
 
Making the most of every teaching moment, my mom blew me away when she declared that all these places were mine. Public lands, “preserved unimpaired…for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations,” as defined by the mission of the National Park Service.
 
You have to remember, my “room” back then was a tiny sleeping compartment at the end of our fifth wheel. I had virtually no space of my own and here I was, discovering that all these vast and spectacular places in nature belonged to me! 
 
That sudden spark still glows to this day. I recently earned my Master’s degree in Museology from the University of Washington because I want to help others gain a similar appreciation for our natural and cultural heritage. Currently, I’m the Centennial Volunteer Ambassador for the Seattle unit of Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, a position I obtained through the Student Conservation Association (SCA), a nonprofit that provides service-learning and career opportunities to young adults across the US.
 
As the National Park Service counts down to its 100th anniversary later this year, my job as a Centennial Ambassador is to reach out to the community and build awareness and support. Seattle’s Eco-IQ is pretty high to begin with, and we’re surrounded by Mount Rainier, North Cascades and Olympic National Parks. But it’s surprising how few locals know they have a national park right downtown in Pioneer Square.
 
From our modest brick street front location, Klondike Gold Rush connects Seattle residents with their national parks while celebrating the city’s role in the 1897 stampede to the gold fields of Canada’s Yukon. Yes, this former voyager has become a wide-eyed prospector.
 
I referenced my childhood earlier, but I didn’t mention that I’m a native Oklahoman and a member of the Cherokee Nation. Oklahoma today hosts the second-largest number of Native American tribes in the US, but time and again these tribes were forcibly removed from their homelands. This tumultuous saga is part of what drives my interest in preserving cultures and histories. 
 
I hope to bridge the big disconnect between the mega-parks like Yosemite, Yellowstone and Rocky Mountains and parks like Klondike Gold Rush that are often overlooked. The centennial affords all of us a fascinating opportunity to take a new look at the 400-plus units of the National Park Service and to adopt a renewed sense of stewardship and ownership of these uniquely American assets.
 
Although I will always be drawn to Oklahoma, with its awesome red landscape and even redder sunsets, I’ve grown to love the Pacific Northwest, its environment and its people. For the first time in my own many travels, I have found a place where I truly feel at home. I’ve also found a calling where I can help people like you “find your park.” So visit and experience the magic of national parks for yourself. They may help you become who you want to be.