At four years of age, I saw a Jerry Lewis movie.
The transformative joy and laughter of the audience around me made me decide then – at age four: to be an actor when I grew up. And though I also received intensive, comprehensive training in classical music (which I loved) as a precocious brat, I kept my nose to the acting grindstone. I learned what being an actor REALLY entailed, trained thoroughly and bucked the overwhelming odds to become – miraculously: a successful stage actor based in New York and London for 20 years.
But I have a secret. I was tempted by one other career. That of a Park Service Ranger.
Growing up in Fresno, my family wasn’t the outdoors type – but I certainly was. Discovering as a young teen the Sierra’s sublimely gut-punching beauty, the impact of amazingly clean cold air, the scent of cedars and firs, the eye-popping expanse of vistas all best typified (to me) by incomparable Yosemite: I was hooked. I loved Yosemite’s mountains. Its trees, streams, falls; its very geology. Its creatures and flora of all kinds, its natural and sociological history. And in my now-past days of hiking the Four-Mile Trail or exploring Lembert Dome or experiencing the magnificent, magical near-silence of the Clark Cabin at twilight or the blindly-shattering, bone-hammering power of an all-night high Sierra tempest spent in my hiker’s tiny tube tent: I’m still hooked. Irrevocably. Though I was to travel extensively to other international sites of natural beauty, to me Yosemite remains IT. And while I only barely opted to be an actor over a ranger, Yosemite remains a home to me.
It’s why Diane and I returned to Yosemite to be married on January 20, 1985. It’s why – after my career-ending disabling injury at age 42 in 1999 – we settled in Jerseydale. Though we loved Manhattan and both coasts of the Atlantic, we just had to be back here. And if we couldn’t actually live IN Yosemite, we had to be somewhere very similar, and nearby.
That stunning feeling of being part of THAT – nature at its most remarkable: is why I’m delighted to show first-time visitors the park, to re-discover it through their eyes. It’s partly why I founded the Mariposa Symphony Orchestra: as countless artists have known for over 150 years, the fine arts are at one with the natural beauty of Yosemite – and the utter joy both we and our MSO audience experience when we perform IN Yosemite, perform symphonic works inspired by Yosemite while actually within view of Half Dome, Yosemite Falls, Glacier Point – it’s as close as I can come to feeling blissfully, ecstatically, at home. In nature, in the art of humanity – and within the greatest inspiring beauty of our planet.
And it’s why this great honor – being a National Park Service Centennial Ambassador – is so meaningful and profoundly humbling to me.
But one final confession: now that I’m (somewhat) an adult, I’m not at all amused by Jerry Lewis.
Photo credit: Brent Gilstrap