We’ve officially finished the National Parks leg of our big trip. We’ll be a few more weeks in the RV visiting friends, going to the Minnesota State Fair, and trying to avoid be eaten alive by mosquitoes on the north shore of Lake Superior. At that point we’ll be switching over to backpacks and planes. More on that in a future post.
For the last several days we’ve been resting at R’s parents’ home in Minnesota. This downtime has given us the opportunity to reflect on the last three and half months. In short, they’ve been a revelation. If you’re considering taking a career break, do it. It’s the best decision I’ve ever made. I would not know half as much about this planet or be nearly as proud of my country had I not given myself the gift of this time off.
On the centennial of the National Park Service, August 25, 2016, we happened to be at Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota. We hadn’t planned it. I mean, we knew that 2016 was the 100th Anniversary of the park service (there are signs at every park nationwide), but we didn’t know that we’d shown up on the actual anniversary day.
It was wonderful both because of the celebration and because of the park we were in. Theodore Roosevelt is probably the president most responsible for the establishment of the National Parks. He reserved 230 million acres of land during his presidency, and the inspiration for his doing so started with his time here in North Dakota.
Roosevelt came to the state in 1883 from New York to prove himself a man. He bought a fancy cowboy outfit and showed up looking to fell a bison. And he did, though it took ten days to find one because there were so few left at that time. He would go back to New York and enter politics, but after the deaths of his mother and his wife he came back to North Dakota and threw himself into ranching. His time in North Dakota changed the course of this nation. The only way to thank him for this is to visit the parks, to see for yourself what he and others after him sought to protect.
It may surprise you to know that not everyone agrees with the decision to protect these lands. The first book I read when we started this trip was John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley. Steinbeck bought a camper and took his dog across the country “in search of America.” I felt a certain kinship with Steinbeck as we embarked on our motor home powered trip through a bunch of National Parks. Everything that happened to Steinbeck held a certain resonance because it happened to us as well, right down to the flat tires and telling people we were lost in order to spur a conversation.
But about halfway through the book I got mad at Steinbeck. “I must confess to a laxness in the matter of National Parks,” he wrote. “I haven’t visited many of them. Perhaps this is because they enclose the unique, the spectacular, the astounding – the greatest waterfall, the deepest canyon, the highest cliff, the most stupendous works of man or nature. … For it is my opinion that we enclose and celebrate the freaks of our nation and of our civilization. Yellowstone National Park is no more representative of America than is Disneyland.”
Now, look: it’s impossible to stay mad at Steinbeck, but for an hour or so there I was inconsolable. He’s just wrong. I admit that Yellowstone can have a bit of a Disneyland-esque feel to it, but the whole reason it became a National Park was to spare it the indignity of becoming another “Las Vegas of nature” ala Niagara Falls.
If we don’t “enclose and celebrate the freaks of our nation” then someone else will – someone who will exploit them for money. At some level, the National Parks are America’s way of practicing renunciation. We restrain ourselves from exploiting the land, allowing it to thrive in its natural state so that others – generations from now – can enjoy it and be inspired.
It is my great hope that conservation of land and water continues to be part of our national dialogue.
I’ll leave you with this quote, which I wrote down way back when we were visiting Bryce Canyon:
“If future generations are to remember us more with gratitude than sorrow, we must achieve more than just the miracles of technology. We must also leave them a glimpse of the world as it was created, not just as it looked when we got through with it.” – Lyndon B. Johnson