America’s National Parks: 10 Moments of Insight

When you “pair the intellect with emotion and place,” what often results is a moment of insight: an unexpected instance where you suddenly understand something deeper about history, about nature, about others, about yourself.

Here, David Harmon offers ten “Moments of Insight” that he has had in the parks over the years. The list should be understood as a representative sample of the kinds of introspective experiences the parks offer, rather than as a ranking of the best—something that really is impossible, since all of us bring different sets of values and expectations to our national park experiences. 

(Author’s Note, November 2023: My essay was originally written for Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective in 2016.  Were I writing it today, I would include an important addition to the segment that describes Eero Saarinen’s central role in creating the Gateway Arch at Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. In 2018, the Memorial was redesignated as Gateway Arch National Park.  As part of the relaunch, the park’s museum, which is located beneath the Arch, was completely redesigned to acknowledge the growing consensus that the Arch "honors historical events that are now understood as deeply problematic within the larger trajectory of American history, including the dispossession of Native American land, cultural genocide, the extension of slavery, centuries of conflict and ill will with Mexico, environmental degradation and the emergence of a myth of American exceptionalism,” as an article in the Washington Post put it at the time.  While Saarinen’s remarkable architectural genius is in the spotlight in the video essay presented here, I ask viewers to keep this more complex and troubling context in mind as well.)

Written by David Harmon. Narration by Dr. Nicholas B. Breyfogle. Video production by Laura Seeger, Dr. Nicholas B. Breyfogle, and Katherine Weiss.