Perhaps this is what our national parks hold for us: stories, of who we have been and who we might become—a reminder that as human beings our histories harbor both darkness and light. To live in the United States of America and tell only one story, from one point of view, diminishes all of us.
– Terry Tempest Williams, The Hour of Land
Monday, September 9 was our trip to Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay. The twenty-two acre island, now part of Golden Gate National Recreation Area, was once a rounded hill in the valley that would become San Francisco Bay after sea levels rose at the end of the last ice age. During the Gold Rush in the middle of the nineteenth century, the island held a lighthouse and a military fort. Later, the fort was converted to a military prison with a cellhouse at the top of the island completed in 1912. In 1934, the Federal Department of Corrections took control of the island and turned it into the nation’s first and most notorious maximum security prison. It served that function until 1963 when it was shut down by the Kennedy Administration. The island languished for over six years until it was occupied by Native American rights activists in November 1969. The occupation lasted nineteen months. The following year, the National Park Service purchased the island to add it to the newly established Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Shortly after taking ownership of the island, the Park Service began offering tours of the facilities in what had been intended to be a short term use while the agency decided what to do with Alcatraz. The tours proved to be so popular that they have continued for some forty-five years with annual visitation now topping 1.4 million tourists.
On Friday, September 6, Sean and I began what was our longest trip since our honeymoon in 2015. The night before, we had quietly toasted at home my final day as Director of Communications at Openlands. After our trip, I’d be starting a new adventure as the founder of Bold Bison Communications and Consulting. We had a lot of packing to do, so we celebrated with a couple drinks and some delivery Brazilian food for dinner. We were both behind on our packing since he’d had to spend a portion of the previous week in Philadelphia for work and I’d been wrapping things at my former employer.
For a long time, I’d known that I wanted to spend my 40th birthday at Guadalupe Mountains National Park. So I’d always be able to answer the question, “Which Parks are you going to do next?” with a nod to a distant trip to Guadalupe Mountains. Then it became the next Park, and then that trip came and went. Afterward, we weren’t sure where exactly we would focus for the next big trip, but a grand trip that had been percolating in my mind soon became the clear frontrunner. In early 2019 we began planning a trip with great bookend cities and some iconic Parks: flying into Portland, doing the three Parks that surround northern California’s Mount Shasta, and flying home from San Francisco. Redwood National Park just sounded magical. Crater Lake National Park is one of the iconic early Parks. And Lassen Volcanic has long been one of the Parks in the system I’ve been most excited about.
After our lunch on August 24, Sean, Angela, Mary, and I set off on our afternoon adventures at Indiana Dunes National Park. Since the morning, we had slowly been making our way west from the easternmost point of the Park. Our next stop was the Visitor Center, and then we’d do some more hiking. It was already clear to us that we would not be able to do all the hikes on our list in one day, but we knew we’d be back to this out-our-backdoor Park time and again in the future.
On August 24, exactly a month after our visit to West Beach, we were back at Indiana Dunes National Park. This time, we were again there as part of our Let’s Go Outside group of mostly Chicagoans who pick places near the city to go for day hikes six times a year. The group had last done Indiana Dunes in July 2015. Four years earlier, we’d run into some issues finding parking, so I suggested to the group via Facebook earlier that week that we try and get an early start. Our plan was to begin at the Park’s far eastern edge, Mount Baldy, and work our way west with a series of short hikes. If people wanted to join us later, they could text and find out where we were. Also, if people needed to get back to the city early, they could peel off whenever they needed to.
Ultimately, there were four of us who explored the Park that day: Sean, Angela, Mary, and me. It was our first time exploring a National Park with Mary!
In the summer of 2019, after Indiana Dunes became a National Park, Sean and I planned two day trips there. The first trip was on a hot July day with a bunch of my family who were visiting Chicago from both the Detroit area and Seattle. Our choice for the day was West Beach, a unit of the Park that Sean and I had never been to. It boasts both a beach with a bathhouse and lifeguards and some nice hiking trails.
On February 15, 2019, Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore became Indiana Dunes National Park, the nation’s sixty-first. The legislation to “upgrade” the National Lakeshore to National Park status, sponsored by U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky (D-Gary) with the support of the entire Indiana Congressional delegation (but over the opposition of the National Park Service), had been inserted into the omnibus bill to reopen the federal government after the longest shutdown in history. The legislation, however, added no land to the Park, nor did it change its appropriation budget or increase levels of protection for an exceedingly fragile landscape. Although sites become part of the National Park System in different ways (only Congress holds the authority to establish a National Park while, for instance, a president may unilaterally create a National Monument), since the National Park Service General Authorities Act of 1970, all the units within the National Park System have been managed equally as a single system. But the term National Park holds a special place in the imagination. As Park Superintendent Paul Labovitz writes in the summer/fall issue of The Singing Sands, the Park’s newspaper, “Sixty-one of the 419 [NPS units] are called National Park, and when you think about they way National Park visits are written about and promoted, those 61 are usually the places featured.”