With the exception of a lovely long weekend in Florida in March with my parents, by Labor Day 2014 Sean and I had not taken a real vacation in 2014. This was due both to the whims and vagaries of his firm and that the summer months are busy at Openlands. (For comparison, by Labor Day 2013, we’d already visited the Virgin Islands, California, and Florida and had driven around the whole of Lake Michigan.) It was past time for a vacation. It was time to sleep in a tent.
We decided upon a trip to the Dakotas (and Wyoming). We’d hit three parks: Badlands, Wind Cave, and Theodore Roosevelt, plus three monuments.
I’d been itching to go to Theodore Roosevelt since reading Edmund Morris’ biography of him two years ago. I’d even thought of visiting the park between my time at Marwen and my time at Openlands.
In 1917, the United States purchased the three islands of the Danish West Indies, St. Thomas, St. John, and St. Croix, in order to prevent German holdings in the Western Hemisphere should Denmark be conquered in the First World War. Virgin Islands National Park was established in 1956 after Laurance S. Rockefeller donated 5,000 acres on St. John for a park. Today the park boundary encompasses two-thirds of the twenty-square mile island, although because of private inholdings, the park service owns only about half of the acreage on the island.
Shortly after our trip to Olympic National Park in April 2012, I switched jobs, as Sean had earlier in the year. The life transitions ultimately meant no more park trips in 2012. But the time also afforded the opportunity to do some systematic thinking about how to proceed with this project. Over the summer, in lieu travelling, we began to reach out to friends who had expressed interest in the project and to ask them which parks, specifically, they were interested in. We received a wonderful range of responses and potentially some tantalizing mixes of people were various trips to work out.
Looking ahead in the summer of 2012, Sean was keen to visit a warm weather park in the winter. His previous firm had been very busy during tax season, so now he finally had a chance to escape the Chicago winter. That, plus specific, enthusiastic interest from several friends placed Virgin Islands at the top of the list.
Tomorrow I begin a new job at a conservation non-profit, an opportunity to blend my interest in and love of the natural world with my career in non-profit communications. In preparation, I read for the first time Aldo Leopold’s 1949 classic, A Sand County Almanac. (It’s a wonder that I hadn’t picked it up before.) Leopold, who worked for the forest service before becoming a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, proposes a land ethic that recognizes man as part of a larger ecological community, rather than as master for whom nature is valued only in economic terms.
The title of this blog is an adaptation of Theodore Roosevelt’s words upon seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time:
Leave it as it is. You can not improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it. What you can do is to keep it for your children, your children’s children, and for all who come after you, as one of the great sights which every American if he can travel at all should see.
Roosevelt was talking about a great natural site before it would be protected. Already there were mining designs on sections of the canyon. Parts of it were no longer pristine wilderness, and they aren’t now, nor will be. Now, as then, there are parts of the park designated wilderness and others for heavy tourist use.
I have no illusion that the parks as my traveling companions and I will experience them are truly pristine (save for perhaps the remotest of the Alaska parks), but they are somewhere on a continuum between civilization and wilderness.
This morning as I lay in bed waiting for it to be time to get up and face the aftermath of a Chicago blizzard, I tried to name all 58 parks from memory, counting off on my fingers. I remembered 55 of them.
Virtually every project I’ve ever undertaken has begun with, or sometimes extended from, reading. And this National Parks project is no exception. My old, beloved copy of the Reader’s Digest Our National Parks from childhood is sorely outdated, both stylistically and factually. So I turned my attention, at least to start, to this volume:
National Geographic Guide to the National Parks of the United States, Sixth Edition, March 2009.
The immediate origin of this project was a trip to Akron, Ohio that Sean and I took in July 2010 to celebrate the marriage of friends. Although for years I’d seen the sign announcing Cuyahoga Valley National Park as I’d driven the Ohio Turnpike from the Midwest to New York, New England or D.C., I’d never really had the opportunity to see the new park.
But there we were with the valley rolling north into the distance clearly visible from our downtown Akron hotel room. We decided to get up earlier than we needed to the next morning in order to have a chance to drive through the park on our way back to Chicago.
And such has it been. Save for two family excursions to the Grand Canyon and Yosemite, my other encounters with the National Parks have involved spontaneous, almost foolhardy, reroutes of trips that had nothing to do with visiting a National Park.
But each pell-mell trip, whether it be a drive from Kittyhawk to Ann Arbor diverted through Shenandoah National Park because “we’re in the same state so why not?” or deciding suddenly to truck it to Badlands National Park in the middle of January because a massive snowstorm was blocking routes south, resurrected the nagging little voice that at thirteen had been certain that I would see Arches, Glacier, Olympic and all the others before I died.
At 31, driving through Cuyahoga Valley on a warm, sunny Sunday summer morning, I asked why not see them all?
Why not indeed?
This project is predicated on the idea that it is possible for an average American to visit all 58 National Parks in a lifetime, regardless of how daunting American Samoa or Gates of the Arcric may feel. The sixteen-year parameter is less a fixed deadline than a guideline. And I fully intend to live my life normally, advancing my career, pursuing other interests, and doing other traveling during this time.