Oprah Winfrey took her star power camping in Yosemite National Park at the invitation of Ranger Shelton Johnson. While one of her goals was to encourage more “people of color” to enjoy our national parks, it remains to be seen whether she can now shoulder the mantle of national parks ambassador.
“If you haven't been to Yosemite, you’ve been missing out. It really was majestic, and it's one of those moments where you think, 'Boy, everyone should see this at least once in their life,'” Oprah told her television audience last Friday in the first of two shows, with the second coming Wednesday.
Now, coming from Oprah, that's the kind of statement that can drive millions of Americans to find Yosemite on map and plan their trip next year. Let’s remember that this is the Oprah Show with over 30 million viewers, mostly middle-aged women.
Her journey to the park came at the behest of Ranger Johnson, an African-American who played a starring role in Ken Burns’ documentary, National Parks: American's Best Idea. The ranger, who traced the heritage of African-American Buffalo Soldiers in the national parks in his book, Gloryland, had invited Oprah to Yosemite to help raise its profile among her audience.
"My entire career I have been bothered by the lack of African-Americans visiting national parks. It has bothered me when I look out and I meet people from Germany, from Spain, from Africa. And yet, I can't find an African-American from Chicago or from Boston or from Detroit,” Ranger Johnson noted in a letter to the celebrity. “I need your help spreading the word that the national parks really are America's best idea, and that this beauty belongs to every American, including African-Americans."
According to the ranger, just 1 percent of national park visitors are African-Americans.
The letter resonated with Oprah, who along with her gal pal Gayle headed off to Yosemite after stocking up on gear from their local REI store. But while the two women picked up a tent and sleeping bags at REI, her producer had chosen a pop up trailer for them.
No, the two women were not going to sleep on the ground and use the communal showers. During Friday’s show they walked the audience through their camper with its two comfortable beds, kitchen, and bathroom.
Once in the park, Ranger Johnson takes the women to some of its famous sites, including the Giant Grizzly, the park's famous giant sequoia tree. Its branches are larger in diameter than most full trees.
"What did I think of the Giant Grizzly? I thought it was like getting a little taste of God," Oprah says.
They find one African-American, Woody Square, and take a picture with him.
Oprah and Gayle also drive through the Wawona tunnel, and arrive at Tunnel View, one of the most famous views in a national park. Ranger Johnson points out Bridal Veil Falls, El Capitan, and Half-Dome.
"This is the most famous glacier valley in the world," remarks Ranger Johnson, while in the background you hear America the Beautiful played by Ray Charles.
Some people might point out that she should have gone to a national park closer to Chicago, her home base, but Yosemite is eye candy. There's no need to walk anywhere; you can just look up and out and take in the scenic beauty.
The drive through the busy campground is very helpful to those who might never have seen a park campground. Oprah notices the camping hierarchy from RV down to tents, and proclaims it to be “a community.”
Oprah and Gayle stayed one night in a site especially picked by a ranger to give her the best views next to the Merced River.
“Camping is a social event,” Oprah tells us, and as proof she makes Moscow Mule cocktails -- a drink made with vodka, ginger beer and lime -- and walks around the campground handing them out. “This is how you make friends," she says.
Perhaps we should have taken a hint from the comfortable camper, the canned music, and the cocktails, but Oprah’s visit might not have been everything we might have hoped for when it comes to building diversity in the national parks.
Oh, she tells her studio audience that, “I recommend the national parks. Seeing God in its best expression. Everyone should go there once in a lifetime.”
Yes, apparently Yosemite was a once in a life experience for Oprah. At the end of the show she announces that she won’t be going camping anytime soon. Not even in a camper. Back at the studio, she gives away the camper and the truck to Woody, the lone African-American that she met in the park who conveniently was in the audience.
The last time I checked, her site had almost 200 comments.
One of the most perceptive comments was, "I've been going to Yosemite since I was little. It truly is an amazing place. But I am disappointed that instead of focusing on the beautiful history of Yosemite, as in John Muir, or hiking some of the amazing trails, or the serious environmental challenges that our national parks face, Oprah chose to focus on how to make a Moscow Mule. Heck... I could do that at the local campground."
Will more first timers go to a national park because of Oprah’s show? Will more people of color start going to national parks?
Oprah seemed to have a genuine good time, but she gave up on camping after one night. That's not much of a recommendation. If Oprah with her expensive camper and her helpers couldn't enjoy camping, it won't encourage others to try camping for the first time. I was disappointed.”
Hopefully Wednesday's episode, in which Oprah will try fly-fishing and riding a mule, will provide a bigger encouragement to Oprah's viewers to get out and enjoy the parks.