As Sean and I flew home from New York on March 2, 2020, we couldn’t have known how profoundly the world was about to change. We also couldn’t have known that it would be some eighteen months before we’d visit our next National Park unit. We’d had plans to visit Parks: a visit to Great Smoky Mountains National Park with my parents was already booked for April 2020; we were looking at Santa Fe and White Sands National Park in 2020; September of that terrible year was supposed to include a marriage celebration on Cape Cod followed by Acadia National Park and the Canadian Maritimes; we had loose plans for a weekend trip to St. Louis and Gateway Arch National Park. For 2021, we’d been considering possibly the Hawaiian Parks and American Samoa, maybe a 10th anniversary return to Isle Royale National Park combined with the Lake Superior Circle Tour, and then maybe that marriage celebration would be feasible for fall 2021.
None of those trips happened. Instead we stayed home, coped, watched in horror as the pandemic raged. We adjusted and created new ways to socialize. We even made some great new friends. Between gorging on poetry and the news, I built my business. As soon as it was our turn, we got vaccinated. We’re still skittish about flying, which was of course a fundamental component to nearly all of our Park trips. In June 2021 we bought a car, my first in seventeen years, because without it our horizons had contracted to the quiet, leafy streets of our Chicago neighborhood.
In early spring 2021, when it became clear that New England and the Canadian Maritimes were unlikely for the fall, we looked to alternative trip ideas. It may have felt optimistic, but we figured it would be good to get a trip booked even if we later had to cancel. Anticipating a road trip (even though we were yet to actually buy the car), we turned our gaze to Colorado.
On Sunday, March 1, 2020, Sean and I spent the day eating, drinking, seeing old friends, and going to the theater again. We also visited one more National Park Unit, Castle Clinton National Monument at the lower tip of Manhattan. Of course we could not have known then that this would be the last unit we’d visit before a global pandemic set in, making it also the last unit we’d visit in 2020 or the foreseeable future.
On Saturday, February 29, Sean and I started a long, fun-filled day in Manhattan with a sobering visit to African Burial Ground National Monument, which marks and memorializes an early colonial slave cemetery that was only rediscovered in the early 1990s. The visit anchored and provided framework for a day that would focus on history, science, family, and race, culminating in an activist-minded Broadway show. But even with all that on a packed day during a packed weekend, African Burial Ground National Monument was deeply resonant and has stuck with us in the months since our visit.
Early afternoon on February 28 Sean and I wandered over to the West Village to our second National Park unit of the day: Stonewall National Monument, which was established by President Barack Obama in 2016 as the first LGBTQ+ National Park site. The National Monument honors a key catalyzing event in the burgeoning gay rights movement of the late 1960s, the June 28, 1969 raid by New York City police of The Stonewall Inn, a mafia-owned gay bar, and the six nights of riots that followed as LGBTQ+ New Yorkers fought back, led by homeless gay youth and transexuals, many of whom were people of color. While not the start of the gay rights movement, nor even the first riot, Stonewall led to an explosion of gay rights organizing across the country as gay people embraced a stance of being out and proud about their sexual orientation.
A grave personal injustice was done to the American citizens and resident aliens of Japanese ancestry who, without individual review or any probative evidence against them, were excluded, removed and detained by the United States during World War II.
Personal Justice Denied: Report of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians
As the afternoon of September 18 progressed, Sean and I drove over from Petroglyph Point at Lava Beds National Monument to nearby Tule Lake National Monument, one of the newest in the system. In 2008, George W. Bush had established WWII Valor in the Pacific National Monument, which was subsequently abolished by Congress in March 2019. Its three sites each became their own park units: Pearl Harbor National Memorial, Aleutian Islands World War II National Monument, and Tule Lake National Monument.
Tule Lake National Monument preserves and interprets Tule Lake Segregation Center, the largest and most controversial of the ten internment camps in which Japanese Americans were imprisoned during World War II.
Lava Beds National Monument. A place containing the wonders and the terrors of both nature and human nature all within its boundaries.
– Sean M. Santos
Sean wrote the above on Instagram after we concluded our visit to Lava Beds National Monument and nearby Tule Lake National Monument on Wednesday, September 18. As we were headed back to our night’s lodging, he also observed, “Everyone who finds themselves in this part of the country should come and visit this place.”
Lava Beds National Monument was established in 1925 to protect over 46,000 acres of the north flank of Medicine Lake Volcano, a massive and low shield volcano in the southern Cascades, not far northeast of Mount Shasta. Although relatively small, the Monument boasts three lava flows, multiple cinder cones and other volcanic features, and almost 700 lava tube caves, the highest concentration in North America. At around 4,000 feet in the eastern foothills of the Cascades in northern California, the vast sagebrush sea washes right up to the Monument’s tortured volcanic landscape. The Monument is bounded on the north by Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge and on the west, south, and east by Modoc National Forest with some private property to the northeast toward the town of Tule Lake, California. It contains over 28,000 acres of federally protected wilderness.
President Barack Obama established Pullman National Monument on Chicago’s far South Side in February 2015. The site, Chicago’s only National Park unit, commemorates layers of industrial, labor, and race history that continue to the present day.
When I started working at Openlands in June 2012, I was excited that my new job would expose me to lots of places to get outside in and around Chicago. A native Detroiter, I knew precious little about Chicago’s suburbs and exurbs or about rural Illinois. Getting outside meant going up to Wisconsin or back to Michigan. In 2014, Sean and I started taking one Saturday a month between May and October to go with friends on a day hike somewhere within two hours or so of Chicago. The places we visited included Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, Sagawau Canyon, Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, the Openlands Lakeshore Preserve, Ryerson Woods, and others. What started with a few friends grew into a Facebook group with friends of friends of friends. In 2018 the group has over fifty members.
On Sunday, June 18, 2017, our “Let’s Go Outside” group went to Pullman National Monument and a few other South Side spots.
On Tuesday, September 13, we left Zion National Park for a day trip back up the Grand Staircase to the Pink Cliffs at Cedar Breaks National Monument on the western edge of the Markagunt Plateau. The Pink Cliffs here are the same geological layers as at Bryce Canyon National Park, but at Cedar Breaks, uplift has caused the rim of the amphitheater above the cliffs to soar 2,400 feet higher to an average elevation of 10,400 feet. That was also some 6,400 feet higher than the elevation of the floor of Zion Canyon where we’d slept the previous night.
Cedar Breaks National Monument was established on August 22, 1933 by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It protects just over 6,100 acres of the subalpine edge of the Markagunt Plateau and the spectacular Cedar Breaks amphitheater plunging 2,000 feet below the plateau rim and spanning three miles across. Despite its close proximity to some of the most famous National Parks in the country, Cedar Breaks National Monument is lightly visited, averaging fewer than 500,000 visitors per year.
Aquarius Plateau and Sinking Ship (foreground) from Bryce Canyon National Park
On Friday, September 9, 2016 Sean and I began our trip down the Grand Staircase with an evening flight to Phoenix. More often than not, this was our modus operandi, to fly out after work, stay overnight near the airport, and begin the trip proper on the ground in the morning wherever we were. That Friday, I was more than ready to be gone. It had been a very long week at work, culminating in issues with a new vendor. (I’d ultimately be proven right in my assessment of their shoddy service.) But either way, it would be good to do some hiking in a place I’d wanted to visit since childhood.
In August 2016, in the midst of our Centennial Year goal of eight National Parks, Sean and I unexpectedly visited three National Park Service units that were not National Parks.
After having spent ten days in late May in California, in August Sean and I spent another week in the state. It would ultimately be the second of three trips to California that we would make within nine months. The first trip’s goal was to visit our friend, Patrick, at the Getty and hit two National Parks: Yosemite and Channel Islands. While we were there, Sean mentioned that he’d likely be coming back in a few months as his firm rolled out a new software at its offices across the country. Back in May, I’d dismissed out of hand the idea of returning with him. But as the summer progressed, I found myself persuaded.