National Parks: 100 years of America at its best
From the purple majesty of the Grand Tetons to the fiery oranges of the Grand Canyon, from the rolling green Smoky Mountains to the steaming, multicolored rarities of Yellowstone, our national parks represent the most transcendent of who we are as a nation.
This year, as the National Park Service celebrates the centennial of its founding, we visited with three families for whom the parks have played a key role.
For Howard and Melissa Fisher, their first trip as a young couple was to the Grand Canyon National Park; they were so moved they made a plan to visit all 59 of them together. So far they’ve made it to 49 of them.
For Becky Luman, the annual trips to national parks formed a highlight of her childhood, and now that she and her husband, John, have children, sharing those parks has become one of their greatest joys.
And for physician and landscape photographer Steve Fadem, the landscapes of the national parks have formed a stunning backdrop for his travels.
Forty-nine and counting
Howard and Melissa Fisher had been married for less than a year when they decided to go to the Grand Canyon. “We certainly didn’t have any expectations that we were going to fall in love with the National Parks...,” said Howard, “but it was something we’d heard of, and we wanted to see what the fuss was all about.”
They spent a week there, getting up at 5 a.m. to see the sunrise, hiking around the South Rim, trekking down into the canyon, marveling at the vibrant colors as the sun shone on the rocks. “As you step deeper into the geologic layers, it’s like walking back in history,” said Melissa.
She remembers training for six months to make their hike down into the canyon, carrying 30-pound packs around the neighborhood and walking up and down the stadium of Rice University.
Subsequent journeys took them all over the map. They learned what an everglade was when they traveled to South Florida. They saw the remains of an ancient civilization in Mesa Verde National Park. They watched the lava flows at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. They looked through “The Window” at Big Bend National Park. They explored a lush tropical forest turned into a vast array of petrified logs in the Arizona desert. They traveled 70 miles west of Key West to the tiny islands known as Dry Tortugas National Park, and found them full of American history and surrounded by aquatic life.
They traveled to the far west to see Yosemite, Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons, and to the near west, a West Texas-New Mexico loop, including Carlsbad Caverns, the Guadalupe Mountains and Big Bend National Park.
In the Smoky Mountains they learned a little-known secret. “People always want to have the best weather – but we didn’t have the best weather. It rained an awful lot, but we didn’t let it stop us and did a lot of hiking in rainy, foggy, dreary weather,” said Melissa. “What we found is how different a park can be, and the sounds you can hear, the way it feels, the smells….”
“There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing choices,” chimed in Howard. “We decided we would never let the weather bother us; if it’s raining or snowing or whatever’s happening, we’re going to get out in it.” They went to Yellowstone in late May and found 8-foot snow banks, and Crater Lake National Park in June, when they awoke to find snow falling all around.
Now recently retired – Howard from his work as a construction manager and Melissa as an executive in the medical field – they headed north this summer to Alaska, to five national parks, including the biggest: the vast Wrangell–Saint Elias National Park.
In Denali they saw grizzly bears and black bears, moose and golden eagles, trumpeter swans and ptarmigans, and a whole herd of caribou. “Eagles in the Inside Passage were as common as cardinals and bluejays are here,” said Melissa. They saw the fjords of Kenai Fjords and the glaciers of Glacier Bay. Finally, they made their way to Lake Clark National Park, which is only reachable by bush plane.
Looking back over the years, highlights include visits to the deserts: first, to Death Valley, where they expected a barren landscape, but were greeted with one of the century’s most dynamic wildflower blooms. Another was in Joshua Tree National Park, where they hiked through a hot, dry desert to a palm tree oasis.
“We were the only ones there, and it was the only shade for miles around – and then another couple walked up.” They were from Australia, just starting a journey to see the national parks, and asked the advice of the veterans.
“It really brought home that this isn’t just a gift we have for ourselves,” said Melissa. “It’s a great gift we have for the world. “
Learning as a family
When Becky Luman was growing up, her mother would map out extensive vacations for their large family, always starting the summer by getting the six kids out of Texas and up to the mountains. “Taking us camping and exploring would bring us all together,” recalls Becky, who grew up the youngest in a family with an age span of 10 years.
Now as the mother of Ariana, 12, and Zane, 10, she’s finding that modern life with all its activities takes its toll, and once again the road trips are what brings them all together. So far, they’ve visited an estimated 65 National Park Service sites – including national monuments, national historic sites and other designations under the National Park Service domain.
Before planning road trips to visit relatives, Becky’s mother would find the national parks along the way and map their journey accordingly. That strategy took them to many parks of the East that commemorate our country’s early years – such as the Liberty Bell, Ellis Island, the Boston National Park, where they saw the colonists’ blacksmith shops and learned how they stored their food by canning. “The East is so much older than what we see growing up in Texas,” she said. “You can say, ‘This is where pilgrims landed; this is where they either worked with Indians or not….’”
They also traveled to the great parks of the West – Yellowstone, Yosemite, Glacier. Those journeys ingrained an understanding of “Christian stewardship, combined with a respect for our Indian heritage that tells us to protect the Earth for seven generations” and eventually led her to become an environmental consultant.
Nowadays, she and lobbyist/lawyer husband John figure out where they want to go, pull out a national park system map and overlay it on the route. They have opened a window onto history and into other cultures that has become a passion.
“I always saw Oklahoma as Indian Territory,” Becky said, “but never realized they called it that because the U.S. government had forcibly moved all the Indians there. We learned that when we explored the Chickasaw National Recreation Area.”
The next year, they took the kids and traveled along the Trail of Tears, the paths several Indian nations were forced to take when they were expelled from their homelands. “We saw that injustice in the name of progress, so we were able to tie that experience into what we’d seen at the Jefferson Westward Expansion Memorial – and ask ourselves, ‘How did we do this, and how do we use history to fix this?’”
One year the family went to Abraham Lincoln’s home, and the next year to the battlefield at Gettysburg National Military Park. Lately they’ve been educating their children about the Civil Rights Movement by visiting such national monuments as Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., where nine black high school kids had to have a military escort to go to school every day after the Supreme Court decision Brown vs. Board of Education. There was Montgomery, where they walked the road where slaves were dropped off and sent to market to sell. “The kids were in disbelief,” said Becky. “They are very blessed to have grown up at Briargrove Elementary, an elementary school that’s very socially, economically and culturally diverse, and they couldn’t believe this happened in our country.”
But they also went northward, up through the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, to its headwaters in Minnesota, and westward, toward Colorado and Utah, to immerse themselves in the natural wonder of parks such as the Great Sand Dunes National Park, where they slid down the giant dunes in the morning and hiked up to fresh mountain waterfalls in the afternoon; Dinosaur National Monument of Colorado and Utah, where they got to touch million-year-old dinosaur bones; and Colorado National Monument, whose dramatic scenery she found to be easily the rival of the much more famous Canyonlands.
Becky expressed gratitude for those with the vision to protect the national parks. “Our family was not wealthy, but my parents were able to save and organize and do this for their children. I’m trying to do the same and making the time to do it, because they’re only kids once.”
Through a special lens
Ansel Adams was an accomplished pianist, but was inspired to become a photographer during his trips to Yosemite National Park. Physician Steve Fadem found his parallel in the iconic Arches National Park in Utah.
He had just gotten a new medium format camera and was learning his way around it, and he couldn’t have chosen a better place. “Every few feet I had to stop and use it. It was so inspiring, a year later I went back,” he recalls. “There are just no words to describe how beautiful these arches are.”
Since then he’s photographed African safaris and the Peruvian Andes, but nothing calls to him more than the national parks, and photography is the best way he’s found to interact with them.
Like the Fishers, he’s tagged Big Bend as a favorite; he goes for the splendid bird photography, for the dramatic vistas, for the dynamic weather that makes for a constantly changing scene. “There’s an area called the Basin in the center of the mountain range… where if the clouds are just right you feel like you’re in The Lord of the Rings; it’s got this eeriness to it makes you feel you’re in a different part of the world. It’s hard to believe you’re still in Texas.”
He celebrated the Centennial with a trip to Montana, where he and wife Joyce spent the August anniversary of the National Park Service on a trip to Glacier Bay National Park.
Highlights include Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks in Utah. Both can be seen on the same trip, and both have totally different characteristics, Fadem says. Bryce Canyon is characterized by unusual geological formations called hoodoos. “The erosion has caused these little statue-type structures. There are just tons of them, and the way they’re carved out, it reminds you of the Terra Cotta Warriors.”
The best way to take in this unearthly landscape is to go with a tripod before the sun rises, he says, and have your camera set up to take photos while first light of the sun is hitting them. Likewise, when he went to Zion he found a peak experience for photographers on the bridge crossing the Virgin River. “The bridge has little markings where everyone stands with their tripods so at sundown you’ll have 30 tripods all lined up and everyone’s trying to get their shot,” he said. “The sun behind you gives you an amazing glow along the mountains, and then there’s the cottonwood trees along the river, with their gorgeous yellow leaves that just glisten....”
Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons have also left their mark on Fadem. “The Grand Tetons are young mountains, not weather-worn but sharp … to see them at sunrise with the Snake River winding around them is just an amazing view. Yellowstone is this gigantic underground volcano so you have all this steam and hot pits with chemicals that create different colors.”
For Fadem, the most amazing of all is Sequoia National Park, with its monumental thousand-year-old trees. “They’ve survived fires and all kinds of weather; you really feel the awe of being in nature when you go around the Sequoias.”
When Fadem reflects on what the national parks have taught him, he draws on the inspiration of John Muir, an early conservationist and a tireless advocate for Yosemite and other national parks.
“We’re guests on this planet; we don’t own it. We cohabitate it with other creatures and we have to respect their existence just like we want them to respect ours,” he said. “You can’t just grow a sequoia in your backyard; it takes a whole forest to nurture the area where the sequoia live.
“You have to recognize to respect your environment. It’s not a partisan thing – it’s not liberal or conservative, it’s common sense. If we destroy it we won’t have the beauty to hand on to our children, and they deserve it as much as our grandparents did and as we do.”
From the rim of the Grand Canyon to the glaciers of Glacier, to the geysers and potholes of Yellowstone, to the majestic redwoods of California, the National Parks served as classroom, family bonding space and lifelong inspiration for Becky Luman. Now as a mother, she’s turned back to the National Parks to serve that same role for her children. Download her personal essay, “Becky Finds Her Park – Celebrating the National Park System’s 100 Years,” at her website.
Steve Fadem has found a wealth of inspiration for his photography at national parks all across the country, especially in the West. You are invited to take a few moments for a virtual tour of their grandeur.
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