Luke DeKoster could almost feel the hail of Union Army bullets and the smoke in his eyes as he charged up the steep hill to Cemetery Ridge in Gettysburg on a sunny, hot day.
``As I stumbled to the top of the ridge, I threw my arms in the air, exhausted, and gave my best impression of a Confederate yell,'' the Iowa college student recalled, explaining that he's originally from Virginia.
DeKoster was a young teen when he made his Gettysburg charge five years ago, but it's still planted firmly in his mind's vacation memory book as are other family national parks trips across the country.
``Teens won't get immediate fulfillment at these places,'' DeKoster offered. ``They've got to put down their electronic games and take off their earphones and be patient. Then they'll learn things they won't anywhere else.''
With millions of Americans heading to the country's 378 national parks, battlefields, monuments and historic sites this month and next -- the National Park Service estimates 290 million visitors this year, most during the summer -- I invited readers to send me some of their stand-out memories from trips they'd made with their families.
The good news is that there's more room at the parks this year -- even at the famous historic lodges at the last minute -- largely because of the drop in international visits, according to Amfac Parks & Resorts, the company that oversees many of the lodges. (Visit Amfac's Web site at www.amfac.com.)
Whether families stay in the historic lodges or camp along the way, drive thousands of miles or fly in for a few days, many agree the national parks are some of their best-remembered vacations ever.
``Those three weeks were such a gift, to be able to see the country and spend so much time together,'' sighed Sue Tober, who lives in New Hampshire and hit most of the major Western parks with her family five years ago on a 3,500-mile odyssey. Her husband Steve, an attorney, took more time off at once than he ever had before or since, she said.
She remembers the kids' ho-hum reaction to Mount Rushmore and their astonishment at Yellowstone's geysers. She also remembers locking the keys in the car in Utah and leaving overcrowded Yosemite in frustration.
``I still smile whenever I think of that trip,'' Tober said. ``I hope I'll be able to do it again with my grandchildren. I hope the kids will want to go back as adults.'' Now, she acknowledged, her two teens wouldn't consider a trip like that with their parents. ``Go before the kids get too old,'' she suggested.
It helps if the kids are leading the way. ``Ryan had the books and the maps and was telling us where to go in Grand Teton National Park,'' said Linda Mulloy, an Ohio administrative assistant who just returned from her family's second national park foray in two years. ``I expected him to get blase -- oh, another mountain -- but it never happened.'' He made a game out of getting his official blue National Parks passport stamped.
One day, they watched, holding their breath, as a frightened baby elk tried to cross rushing rapids. ``I was crying when he made it to his mother on the other side,'' Mulloy said.
The national parks seem especially designed for those serendipitous once-in-a-lifetime vacation moments you could never plan or even imagine. But they're not always wonderful. ``Camping is kind of like life,'' offered Jane Burroughs, a Santa Cruz, Calif., mom of four grown kids and veteran of national park trips. ``It's not perfect. You sort of roll with what's going on.''
Yet those imperfect moments often lead to the best stories later. Too much togetherness prompted the Burroughses to leave their two cranky teenagers at the car when they headed off one last time to spot Glacier National Park's famed bighorn sheep.
Their daughters pooh-poohed their sheep-spotting efforts. But when the Burroughses returned, refreshed from the break from the kids, but without having seen the sheep, the girls couldn't contain their glee. The sheep had wandered right into the parking lot: The sisters watched them from the car.
``We talk about that story all the time,'' said Burroughs, laughing years later about the day when laziness paid off. ``My husband and I never did see any bighorn sheep,'' she said. ``We're glad Christy and Lisa did. It brought some new energy to our foursome at a time when we needed it. We'll go back someday to find them. Until then, we have a priceless memory -- and years of a good family joke.''
Such trips also can foster family tradition -- even an unplanned career. Californian Mark Gilmour vividly remembers climbing to Vernal Falls at Yosemite, up the Giant Staircase of boulders, wondering what ``giant'' made those huge steps -- the same hike his dad had taken with his father. Now Gilmour and his wife Lisa -- who grew up in Los Angeles and had never camped before they met -- operate a new Web site, www.naturerangers.com. It's designed to make hitting the outdoors easier and more fun for parents and kids. There's plenty of advice as well as pint-sized gear to order.
Lisa Gilmour, incidentally, now is a confident camper who has been taking her 5-year-old to national parks since he was a baby. ``It helps to get them started young when they think everything's exciting,'' she said.
Gilmour added that they hear from many young parents anxious to create national park memories -- often rosier years later -- for their kids similar to the ones from their childhood. The Tober kids already argue over who will get to keep the memory-crammed national park trip scrapbook when they're grown.
IF YOU'RE PLANNING A NATIONAL PARK TRIP:
Call the National Park Service at 202-208-4747 or visit its easy-to-navigate Web site at www.nps.gov, where the kids can link to any park for a virtual tour to plan the hikes you'll take.
Purchase each child a blue National Park Passport at the first park you visit ($5.95) and let each make a game out of getting the book stamped at the different parks and monuments, as if to say, ``I was here!''
Check out KOA Kampgrounds at www.koakampgrounds.com, where you'll find hundreds of log cabins and campsites near national parks that often have availability when the parks are full. The KOA directory includes maps and kids' outdoor activities like making plaster-of-Paris footprints of animal tracks. The directory is free at the campgrounds or send $3 to KOA Directory, Dept. MK, P.O. Box 30558, Billings, MT 59114-0558.
(c) 1999, Eileen Ogintz. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate