“May I ask how old you are, Ma’am?”
Give me another five years and maybe I’ll bristle at the question, as many of the people I interview do. But so far, I’ve never been offended at being asked my age, or reluctant to divulge it. It’s just life, right?
Still, it was a little surprising, given the circumstances. I was stopped at the Thornton Gap entrance to the Skyline Drive, the spectacular scenic route across one spine of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. The 105-mile, two-lane road winds south from Front Royal to Rockfish Gap before proceeding as the Blue Ridge Parkway. I was just hopping on for about six miles in order to access the trailhead to a short hike. Nonetheless, I knew I’d have to pay for the privilege — $20 dollars for a car and driver.
The young park ranger smiled at me from the window of her booth as she asked the question. Her blond pigtails stuck out awkwardly from under her regulation, Smokey-the-Bear-style park service hat. She might have been in her mid-20s, no older. I smiled back and answered.
“I turned 62 in August,” I said. “Why?” Her grin broadened with genuine pleasure. “Because you’re eligible for a Senior Pass!” she exclaimed.
She gave me a quick explanation. I filled out a simple form, right there in the driver’s seat. I gave her a 10-dollar bill. She leaned out of her booth and thrust a clipboard at me, and a pen.
“You just sign this card,” she said, “ and it will get you into any national park, national monument or national historic site for free …” — she paused for breath and dramatic effect — “… for the rest of your life.”
I was almost teary as I slid the colorful pass into my wallet and drove off into the muted loveliness that is the Shenandoah in late autumn. My emotions were stirred by the kind sincerity of the young ranger, the prospect of a peaceful hike alone in the Blue Ridge and the affirmation of my confidence in at least some functions of my federal government, particularly in the bitter aftermath of the recent elections.
I plan to squeeze a lot of goodness out of my Senior Pass in the next 25 or 30 years.
“This land is my land,” I’ll recall, each time another pleasant public employee waves me through another entry station into another piece of well-maintained, protected, public land.
And, “This is my tax dollars at work.” Of course, it’s your land, too, and your tax dollars as well. So, thank you.
Be sure to step right up and claim your card if you’re 62 or older. Don’t be shy. You’ve worked hard for this.