Is your favorite National Park Service site one of the well known places, Yosemite or Yellowstone, perhaps? A site of history such as Gettysburg or Chickamauga or the African American Meeting House? In the heart of a city, like Faneuil Hall, in a dry desert like Chaco Canyon, or a spot connected with water, such as The Everglades or Crater Lake?
In the United States, the National Park Service turns one hundred years old in 2016. Across those years the Park Service, individual parks, and the whole idea of national parks have been lauded and condemned, sources for solace and objects of controversy. At this writing, the Park Service’s 20,000 employees and more than 200,000 volunteers are responsible for 59 national parks, twenty five battlefields, ten seashores, as well as national recreation areas, historic sites, and other public lands coming up to a a total of a bit more than 400 properties.
Beyond all those numbers are landscapes, archaeology, wildlife, and history that individuals from around the world enjoy and are inspired by every year. Whether they arrive by way of a school visit, an family outing, or just because they are on the way somewhere — two of the most visited park service areas are the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Natchez Trace — national parks remain an integral part of life in the United States.
Beyond all those numbers too is the work of the rangers who staff them, the day to day places the sites have in the lives of those who visit and live nearby, and the hold each site may take on an individual’s imagination.
Mark Woods is one such individual. As a boy and young man he’d visited national parks with his parents; later his wife and daughter shared such visits. In the midst of making a career as a journalist in Jacksonville, Florida, Woods won a fellowship based on his proposal to spend a year visiting twelve national parks with the idea to explore what the future of the parks and the park service might hold.
Woods thought he’d reconnect with nature, and that he’d go back to the the sites of some of those early family trips, this time with his wife and daughter. He also planned to take his ever adventurous mother to a park she had not seen. All of that, he expected, would help give him perspective on the research and interviews he would do for the project.
Things did not turn out as he’d expected. A short way into the project year, his mother was diagnosed with a terminal illness. From thinking about his own struggles with being on the edge of burnout, Woods shifted over to coming to terms with the idea of what he could do to help his mother in her remaining time, and how to come to terms with her passing. His mother urged him to continue with his work, and with some modifications to his travel plans to spend time with her, he did.
Visits to the place where sunrise first strikes the United States in Acadia National Park in Maine, time among the long lived redwoods in California, and coming face to face with ecology and change at Dry Tortugas off the coast of Florida and Saguaro National Park in Arizona are seen with the backbeat of change, loss and an uncertain future in personal terms. Interaction of people and nature is a recurring theme — interaction that may be a source solace and challenge at the same time. Lassoing the Sun: A Year in America’s National Parks is the book which came from the year Woods spent on these parallel journeys. Along the way other places he spent time in include Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, the Gateway National Recreation Area in New York and New Jersey, Flight 93 National Memorial in Pennsylvania, Haleakala in Hawaii, and Olympic in Washington State.
Ken Burns is another who has been inspired by the land and people of the national parks. The series of programs he produced for US public television The National Parks: America’s Best Idea looks into both the beauty of the land and the stories of controversy that have attended the the parks and their politics across the years.
On the soundtrack of The National Parks: America’s Best Idea you’ll hear work of musicians who are themselves inspired by these same landscapes.
Jay Ungar and Molly Mason live in the Catskills in New York state. Their piece Blue River Waltz frames sections of the the stories in The National Parks programs. Al Petteway and Amy White, who live in the southern Appalachians, are the musicians on Sligo Creek, a tune written by Al which became the theme music for the series of films.
Want to hike the parks yourself? Then you may find Backpacker The National Parks Coast to Coast: 100 Best Hikes useful. It has detailed maps and GPS co ordinates for hikes in well known and lesser visited parks, along with fine photography and notes about such practical things as how to stay safe in bear country and how to keep warm in snowy conditions.
For thought provoking reading on parks, seek out the twenty three essays in A Thinking Person’s Guide To America’s National Parks in which people with deep personal and professional connections to the parks consider what’s present, what’s past, and what might be in the future. Up for more music? Take a listen as Mississippi native Caroline Herring connects history and present along the Natchez Trace.
Two of my lasting memories of the parks involve that connection of history and present. As a small child, I put my hands on the coquina walls of the Castillo de San Marcos in Saint Augustine, a place that was built in the 1560s. I remember knowing, knowing in that moment that I was touching the history and the lives of people who had been that way before me. I was only about five, but still…
Several decades later, I was out for a walk in Cades Cove in the Great Smoky Mountains, just before sunrise one morning early in December. I paused for a moment to enjoy the stillness — and across the road, saw a wolf looking back at me. That was a moment of stillness and respect on both sides. Later that day I found out that this was the first week wolves had been re introduced to the park. This program has since ended, but that December sunrise was surely a moment for me — and perhaps, for the wolf.
What is your favorite memory of a national park or historic site? Share it with us in the comments if you’d like.
Photographs by and copyright of Mark Woods (Acadia, Haleakala, and Olympic) and Kerry Dexter (Great Smoky Mountains). Thank you for respecting copyright.
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