For director Greg MacGillivray, the major storytelling challenge in America Wild: National Parks Adventure was how to highlight the vital history of how the National Park System was first created—while never losing the exhilaration of exploring the parks in the here and now. “The key was finding that tricky balance between bringing audiences on high-energy adventures with Conrad, Rachel and Max, while also telling the rich story of how the parks were protected in the first place,” says the director. “We might not have had any wilderness left to explore, because things were heading in that direction.”
The full story of the creation of the National Park Service amid intense political battles is a huge topic that can, and has, spanned volumes. But MacGillivray captures the essence of it via perhaps the most famed, and most unusual, camping trip in U.S. history: naturalist John Muir’s 3-day escapade roughing it with U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt through Yosemite Valley in 1903.
It was a moment of precipitous change. In the 19th Century, many Americans perceived the country’s vast swaths of wilderness as seething, dangerous realms—places that should be tapped for their rich economic resources but ultimately tamed out of existence. But by the turn of the century, attitudes were shifting. Artists and writers were bringing new views of the natural world into cultural vogue—and more and more people found themselves turning to the great outdoors as a respite from a new age of encroaching technology. At the same time, Americans were becoming more aware that wild lands were being stripped of the nation’s most spectacular animals, trees and rivers. Worried about losing a sublime part of the American character, the battle for public lands turned political.
At that time, there were only a few moderately protected wildernesses in the U.S. In 1832, Congress had approved Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas as the first nationally protected land reservation. In 1872, Ulysses S. Grant signed the Act that made Yellowstone the first official national park. But there was no central mechanism to create, protect and manage national parks in perpetuity.
That might have remained the case if it were not for Muir, one of the most vocal, poetic and effective advocates for preserving wild places. A character unto himself, Muir had been born in Scotland but grew up in Wisconsin before heading West as a fledgling writer and glaciologist, where he fell madly in love with Yosemite. He wrote of the stirring emotions he felt there: “It was like lying in a great solemn cathedral, far vaster and more beautiful than any built by the hand of man.”
He argued that it would be an incalculable loss if these “temples of nature” were to be hunted, logged and mined into oblivion. Muir—not to mention Yosemite—convinced Roosevelt. Already a devoted conservationist, the President returned to Washington fired up to argue that America’s wild assets must belong to the public and must be staunchly preserved by the laws of the land.
Following in these historic footsteps, the MacGillivray Freeman Films team shot at Mariposa Grove, where Roosevelt and Muir camped on their first night together (and where the President was given a towering bundle of 40 blankets to assure his warmth!) “It was amazing to recreate the very moment when these two towering American figures sat together and determined what the National Park Service would be,” says Greg MacGillivray. “They realized that much as Europeans protect their cathedrals and castles, Americans must protect the wildernesses that serve as our Notre Dames.”
Portraying the two legends are a pair of actors who know these men through-and-through: Joe Weigand, who travels around the country portraying Roosevelt in a one-man show, and Lee Stetson, who has portrayed Muir in numerous films including Ken Burns’ National Parks documentary.
“To watch these guys in action was transporting,” says director of photography Brad Ohlund. “They were never not in character and that inspired us to really try to recreate the atmosphere as it must have been in 1903.”
Writer Stephen Judson notes that twining historical re-creations into the middle of an in-the-moment adventure can be risky. “Greg’s decision to film Teddy and John Muir on 1570mm film was bold because re-creations, when they don’t work, can be perceived as cheesy. But this is the key moment in the birth of the national parks, so it was essential. If we had told the story without letting the audience see this moment in Yosemite, there would have been a hole in the heart of the film. To avoid the contrived look that plagues some historical re-creations, Greg kept the shots fairly wide, to emphasize how the massive scale of the trees dwarfs our characters, so the scene becomes less about the men themselves, and more about their relationship to Yosemite Valley.”
For producer Shaun MacGillivray, the moment brought him back to his own early introduction to national parks. “I always remember the first time I saw Yosemite Valley and Half Dome as a kid,” he muses. “So it was really special to be taking this trip back in time there. With these two wonderful performances, it felt like history was unfolding before our eyes.”
Following that breakthrough moment, Muir got more than he imagined. Not only did Roosevelt resolve to protect Yosemite—he would go on to sign into existence five more national parks, 18 national monuments, 55 national bird sanctuaries and wildlife refuges and 150 national forests.
Roosevelt also enacted The Antiquities Act, a precursor to the park service, which obligated federal agencies to preserve “scientifically, culturally and historically valuable sites,” and authorized the President to designate national monuments. In doing so, Roosevelt told the people: “We are not building this country for a day. It is to last through the ages.”
A system that could truly last the ages became full reality in 1916 when President Woodrow Wilson signed The Organic Act. The Act established a brand new government agency, the National Park Service, mandated “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein…by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”
For climber Conrad Anker, no film about the national parks could ever be complete without a tip of the hat to Muir. “He was an inspiration to all who love the American wilderness,” Anker observes. “He was a man ahead of his time who had a deep vision and his willingness to speak passionately and honestly with Teddy Roosevelt became a key to preserving the parks for the future.”
Judson notes that Muir continues to influence how we value the relationship between nature and our own humanity. “Muir celebrated the living spirit that he felt in every rock and leaf and blade of grass. Being in nature almost always refreshes us, but some spots go far beyond that; they fill us with a sense of awe, wondering how anything so sublime could exist here on Earth. That profound spiritual connection is the gift the national parks keep giving us, visit after visit. That’s what John Muir fought so hard to preserve,” he summarizes.
As filming wrapped in Yosemite, Ohlund and a team of four continued eastward on their own rag-tag, family-style road trip—but one with a major mission: to see how many parks they could shoot in three weeks. “It was infectious, going from park to park to park,” recalls Ohlund. “It was an industrial-strength road trip with non-stop adventure and excitement.”
The team soon found themselves roaming the primeval landscape of Yellowstone, with its gushing geysers and alien-like thermal basins encircled by lofty alpine peaks. But this was no ordinary park hike as they roamed with two carts jam-packed with hundreds of pounds of camera equipment.
Because most geyser activity, outside the aptly named Old Faithful, cannot be accurately predicted, there was a lot of chasing and waiting. But throughout, the one constant was attracting crowds. “We felt like the pied pipers,” Ohlund laughs. “Everywhere we went, people followed. We had whole busloads of tourists surrounding us at times, waiting their turn to look through the camera lens. But it was so much fun and we saw it as our chance to be not just ambassadors for the film, but also a bit like ambassadors for the parks in the tradition of Muir.”