Rain hangs in the air like dust and spits in my face as I walk. But I don’t mind. This is the greenest grass I have ever seen. A horse is nudging my arm. This is Dartmoor.
It becomes abundantly clear to me that national parks in England are not at all like national parks in the US, mostly because I can’t really tell that we are entering the park grounds.
We pull off of the highway onto an exit with a variety of signs, one of which is Dartmoor. There is no visitor’s center guarded by smiling twenty-something-year-olds dressed in cargo shorts and custom polos. There is no towering wooden sign being clambered on by children and old couples with fanny packs. There are no brick rectangles with restrooms inside. There are no trash barrels. We drive through a bit of forest area not unlike every other road I have barreled down in Devon.
“How far are we from the park?” I ask my friend Dave.
Dave is my tour guide today, singing along to John Mayer behind the steering wheel, entirely unaware he is doing so. He pays no attention to the ancient houses we pass. My own eyes can’t help but scan the dark, crooked beams supporting roofs. The houses looked hundreds of years old. Still, new Renaults and Audis sit in their driveways. Through the window I see a flat-screen television hanging over a fireplace. It seems wrong.
“This is it,” he answers, his head tilting a little as he pulls a sharp turn. The houses in my view are replaced with trees which, after a few seconds, reveal even more houses lined along the roadside. I scrunch my eyebrows in confusion.
“People live here?” I ask, incredulous. “In the park?” Dave gives me shrug.
“Yeah,” he says. His tone implies that he is unsure of why I find such a fact so strange. But it is! I consider the entrance to Niagara Falls with its great timber sign and blocks of arcades and gifts shops and an aquarium. Homes certainly do not belong there. I imagine the price a home would cost were it perched by one of the lakes in Yosemite, as if that would ever be allowed. Absurd.
“So different,” I mutter for probably the thousandth time since landing in London the week before. Then I stare back out the window and watch more trees pass. Some national park this is, I think.
“You’ll know once we’re in the moors,” says Dave. He’s recognizing my disappointment. I nod so that he knows I heard him but, honestly, I don’t feel any more excited. The gloomy wet forest neighborhood we drive through is no different to me than the forest outside his house.
When we finally break through the trees I am amazed. Suddenly, the world around me is bright and green and infinite. We fly up and down over the hills for miles. There is so much to take in. The air is cold and smells the way a garden does after it pours. There is so much light and yet the sky is entirely gray. We zip past miniature forests that sit atop grassy slopes in the distance. Then we pass a clearing where a car has stopped and a little girl is petting a horse. I lose it.
Dave holds his composure despite my shrieking and acquiesces my demands with nothing more than a quick English laugh and an eyeroll. We quickly draw near another clearing off the road, this one populated with not just wild ponies, but cows too. I clamber out of the car so fast that I practically fall in the mud.
The horses are real and beautiful. The sight is enchanting. They look up as we walk toward them, then return to eating grass. One fellow with a white coat shakes his mane in the misty wind. Rain hangs in the air like dust and spits in my face as I walk. But I don’t mind. This is the greenest grass I have ever seen. A horse nudges my arm. This is Dartmoor.