Last updated: 02:51 PM ET, Thu March 10 2016

Dispatch: Holed Up in Jackson Contemplating America

Tour Operator | Tauck | David Cogswell | March 01, 2016

Dispatch: Holed Up in Jackson Contemplating America

PHOTO: Yellowstone National Park. (Photo by David Cogswell)

Tauck people like to use the word “choreography” when they talk about the design of their tour itineraries. They are well aware of the importance of dramatic flair in the presentation of a destination. They know a tour cannot be merely a string of places on a map. And as with anyone involved in the dramatic arts, they know that the last act should bring the audience to its feet.

The Tauck product development people chose the Wort Hotel a block from the town square in Jackson, Wyoming, for the last two nights of the company’s “Wonderland: Yellowstone in Winter,” and the closing act brought the trip to a triumphant climax.

The plush hotel environment, with its brightly colored carpeting, its grand stairway with elaborate wooden railings and fireplaces envelopes you tenderly as it evokes its early 20th Century wild west origins. From this vantage point I can look back over my week in Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks.

So many things were packed into the week at Yellowstone it’s hard to know where to begin to share it. So I’ll begin where the trip itself began.

The trip was the first product of the Ken Burns’ American Journeys series inaugurated by the Tauck-Ken Burns partnership in 2012. One unique component of the American Journeys series is the presentation of film vignettes produced by Tauck in partnership with Ken Burns for specific tours and shown exclusively to Tauck guests. About 120 such films have been produced so far.

In an odd turnaround, the films are made in cooperation with Ken Burns, but they are not directed by Ken Burns. The Tauck film vignettes in effect turn the camera around and put Burns and his historian/writer colleague Dayton Duncan in front of the camera. They talk about the subjects, and in this case why they felt so strongly about Tauck offering a tour of Yellowstone in winter. They are something like Ken Burns miniatures.

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The several films that were shown on the Yellowstone trip were approximately 10 minutes each in duration. They contain occasional clips from Ken Burns films, clearly labeled when they do appear. But they are mostly personal statements and narratives from Burns and Duncan talking about Yellowstone, the national parks and the filming of the film “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.”

For me, the films certainly enhanced and deepened my appreciation of the destination. If you have read many books and researched a subject, it would clearly enhance your experience of what you are seeing. But in this case you have Dayton Duncan’s years of avid and passionate research pouring out of him in an interview as if he were sitting in your living room with you. He can condense a great deal of what he has learned into a few minutes of talking.

The film vignettes are compact introductions to not only the destination, but also to Ken Burns’ and Dayton Duncan’s films as well as to Tauck’s history and tradition of touring. Even more than the concentrated information compacted into them was the passion and the vision they conveyed. It was infectious. It showed why these men were so passionate as to work for years to film and  compile this footage to articulate their vision of the National Parks and why they believe that they were, and are “America’s Best Idea.”

The idea of making a film on the national parks originated with Duncan, as the films show, and his passion for the parks dating back to a family vacation when he was a 9-year old kid living in Iowa.

When Duncan suggested to Burns that they choose the National Parks for their next film, it was no small consideration, since such a film would take years to create. But Duncan won Burns over quickly, and when you see the films it’s easy to see why. Duncan’s passion for the parks and what they stand for is mountainous in itself, and virtually irresistible. And it goes to the heart of the ideals he shares with Burns about what is unique and special about America.

“With the national parks I realized that it is an American story, that it is an American invention,” said Duncan. “When we say the National Parks is America’s best idea, we are borrowing from Wallace Stegner, the great author and historian who said it was the best idea we ever had. Both of us as admirers of Thomas Jefferson would admit that probably the greatest idea on this continent was expressed in the Declaration of Independence that all human beings are created equal.

“Once our nation was founded on that principle, I will make the argument that the national parks is our best idea. The reason is because it is actually an expression of the Declaration of Independence applied to the landscape, which is that the most beautiful, the most majestic, and I would say sacred places in our nation should be set aside, not for royalty or the rich or the well connected as it had been in all recorded history, but for everyone and for all time.”

The fact that the idea dates back to Abraham Lincoln’s signing of legislation to set aside Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Big Tree Grove to be “held for public use, resort and recreation” was no doubt part of what won Burns over, as a great admirer and, coincidentally, a distant cousin of Lincoln.  

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But more fundamentally the National Parks appealed to Burns’ continuing search into that which makes America unique.

“The parks represent a kind of superimposition of intention, and therefore aspiration,” said Burns. “We wish to be these things. We wish to save this canyon. Let’s save this beautiful valley. Let’s save this species, plus the records of the ancient archaeological past, plus the battlefields that are sacred to our history, plus the birthplaces of important individuals and presidents, plus – and this is the real kicker that makes me so proud to be an American and live in a time when there are national parks – we also save places that reflect the darker side of our history. Shanksville, Pennsylvania, is a site of the National Park Service, so is Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, still a working inner city high school where in 1957 the crisis of school desegregation crystallized.

“This is the first time in human history land is set aside not for kings or noblemen or the very rich, but for everybody. We invented it and everybody has picked up on it. There are now more than 4,000 of them in the world. But it began right here. And in that saving is an intention that feels like a look backwards, but it’s actually a look forward.”  

Ken Burns has earned the epithet “America’s Storyteller,” and he deserves that title. But I would go further and say that Burns and Dayton Duncan are performing for us all the great service of articulating the vision that makes America unique. And that vision is something that spreads beyond our borders to be embraced by people around the world.

So for me, this trip was a great success. They won me over. I get it.

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