When we found out that a quarter of California state parks were closing due to a $22 million budget cut, we thought we must have been missing something.
It is a nearly insignificant amount of money in state budget terms, and what was being put on the line seemed so severe. We thought there must be other places that money could come from without having to shut down seventy California state parks. Couldn’t they have fewer rangers or cut back on maintenance and services? Some of the California state parks on the closure list were ones we visited often on weekend trips from San Francisco. When the closure came into effect we wouldn’t be able to enter them anymore.
It began with a crazy idea. My girlfriend Lauren and I were living in San Francisco working day jobs. After hearing the news, we started considering leaving our jobs and traveling to the seventy California state parks on the list to see if closure was really the only option. The more we talked about it—what an adventure it would be, what a story there was to tell—we felt like it was a risk we were prepared to take. When our college friend Cory Brown called saying he had purchased an airport shuttle bus converted to an RV and was headed our way from New York, it felt like all the pieces were in place.
Bouncing along on our way out of the city on our first big loop, the idea became a reality. We were optimistic on our first trip out and things went pretty well. There were high points of gorgeous hikes, breathtaking sunsets, and great interviews. We would review our footage on our tiny screens by the fire at night, congratulating each other on our best shots.
The world of parkies was opening up to us as we met more and more people. People were upset by what was happening; some were brought to tears. Each park for us was another checkmark off our list, but each came with an entire community of caring people who had made their homes in these places. These parks were their backyard, their passion, in some cases their livelihood, and they weren’t going to lose them. The magnitude of what was at stake was sinking in.
We were low on funds and uncertain about carrying on, so we took a hiatus after that first loop to put together a trailer and a Kickstarter page. We were asking for $35,500: enough that we could keep going for another few months. The project ended up raising $57,304. The next time we hit the road we could breathe a bit easier.
Still it was far from glamorous. The bus became a huge liability. It broke down often and guzzled expensive gas. Occasionally we’d find ourselves stranded with piles of camp and film equipment while the bus was in for repairs. At one point a rental car entered the picture for a few days so we could keep the project rolling. The beds were definitely too small, the nights were sometimes too cold, and the bus was literally splitting at the seams. More often than not there was no toilet nearby, and several nights were spent cooking on curbs in strip mall parking lots. A break-in at Candlestick Point cost us $7,000 worth of equipment. Times got trying, but the momentum and aliveness of the trip as well as the uplifting quality of nature kept us feeling positive and optimistic.
We learned that California state parks were already grossly underfunded with rangers covering multiple parks, hundreds of miles apart. The facilities were obviously in bad shape, and we almost never saw a parks employee unless we were seeking them out. Some of the parks seemed to be closed already. We also learned that many towns were dependent on the parks for their local economies. Mendocino County alone was set to lose eight.
It became painfully obvious that park closure was an absurd concept that had not been thought through, and the reality of the poor decision was being forced upon the citizens of California who knew better. Our interest became activism because what was happening was a mistake. And everyone outside of Sacramento knew it. We took action in the ways we knew how to protect our heritage and it worked. State parks are running a little bit differently now, but they are open. The people showed the politicians that our hearts are in these places and we will not let them be taken from us.
THE FIRST 70: CALIFORNIA’S STATE PARKS UNDER THREAT will be available from Cinema Libre Studio on DVD and digital platforms starting May 21, 2013. For more information about how to subscribe to MovieMaker Magazine, check out the MovieMaker home page.