I must admit: Up until this year I didn’t think much about our national parks.
As a person who appreciates nature, but often stays clear of destinations that draws large crowds, the national parks fell roughly between “meeting Danny DeVito” and “petting a sloth” on my bucket list. (Meaning “nice-to-haves,” not “must-haves.”)
That all changed this summer when a I traveled 5500 miles by car across the great United States of America simply because I’m terrified of flying. And when I say terrified, I mean the last time I took a flight — 3 years ago — I had:
- Two Xanax
- Three cocktails
- One activity tracker that kept telling me my heart rate was over 200 beats per minute.
- The realization that I was not going to die because of a plane crash but because of a massive heart attack.
Ever since that day, I swore off flying and have strictly traveled by car or train. (You can read about my train travels here.)
So when my mother, a citizen of New York, and I, a citizen of Texas, planned to make our yearly mother-daughter trip a pilgrimage to Yellowstone, the only way we could do it was by traversing the major freeways and scenic byways of the United States.
Our trip, which consisted of me, my boyfriend and later my mother, entailed:
- 18 days
- 19 states
- 12 national parks, monuments and forests, including Yellowstone (WY), the Grand Tetons (WY), Devil’s Tower (WY), Badlands (SD), Mount Rushmore (SD), Jewel Cave (SD), Mammoth Cave (KY), Indiana Sand Dunes (IN), Dinosaur (CO) and Seneca Falls (NY).
- 2,000+ burping bison
- 1 seedy motel in Custer, South Dakota, with boarded up windows and framed stock photos of guns, gambling chips and sheriff badges.
- 1 less seedy motel in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, with framed stock photos from the 80s of people flying fishing.
- 1 lone cooler sitting on the freeway which was gently picked up by the gushing wind of a passing tractor trailer and thrown into the front of my rental car.
- 1 suicidal rabbit who made it across the road but quickly decided that life was too much to bear and that he must hurl himself underneath my rental car.
- 1 bag of fucking delicious fried cheese curds in Wisconsin.
To get me excited about the trip, my friend Meg bought me a national parks passport book, which I became overly obsessed with to the point I was willing to bulldoze down 5-year-old junior park rangers who took too long at the passport stamp booth.
Our trip began in Texas and led us through Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and New York, where we picked up my mother. From there we traveled through Canada, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois Wisconsin and Minnesota before hitting the national park-dense region of South Dakota and Wyoming. It was upon entering South Dakota that I realized everything I always thought about America’s national park was stupid.
How does one describe the Badlands?
Frank Lloyd Wright did a pretty good job:
“I’ve been about the world a lot and pretty much over our own country; but I was totally unprepared for that revelation called the Dakota Badlands…Yes, I say the aspects of the Dakota Badlands have more spiritual quality to impart to the mind of America than anything else in it made by man’s God.”
Like Wright, I was not prepared for what I saw in the Badlands. Blasting “Badlands” by a man-made God known as Springsteen certainly didn’t help as we passed through the park’s entrance, but I’m glad it didn’t.
It was magic hour, and we had difficulty comprehending the vista in front of us. The never-ending domes of changing earth tones, the winding paths that led into oblivion and the warm hues of the fading sky made the three of us silent for the first time on the trip. Much like the suicidal rabbit, I fought the urge to run out into the landscape, immersing myself in a place that would certainly kill me in no time. The Badlands calls to its viewers in a way that we cannot understand.
And it was at this moment that everything changed for me.
I realized that our national parks are truly a treasure to be held close.
As we continued on the Great American Road Trip, with layovers at Mount Rushmore, Jewel Cave, Custer State Park and Devil’s Tower, I began appreciating the foresight a bunch of old white dudes —including Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt — had in preserving “country that belongs to the people.” (I later dug into the complicated history of national parks and Native American lands, which is something that should not be ignored.)
Staying multiple nights in Yellowstone, a.k.a the land of 10,000 geysers, a.k.a. the land of four types of visitors: beautiful, slender Europeans, fashionable, multi-camera-wearing Asians, Trump-supporting Americans with large vans carrying ten-person families and non-Trump supporting Americans with Prii (yes, that’s actually the plural of Prius), only confirmed my realization that America is more beautiful than ten million Jolie-Pitt offspring combined, and our parks should be respected and preserved.
If you’re also on the fence about national parks, go to Yellowstone, the stoic, no-bullshit, you-learn-how-to-swim-by-throwing-your-child-in-the-lake mother of national parks. It’s exhilaratingly terrifying in only the way an untouched piece of land with wild animals can be exhilaratingly terrifying to Americans who find themselves both free and lost when their home Internet goes down. Even staying in one of the handful of lodges on the park property confuses you into thinking you’re a badass, ready to take on any hangry grizzly bear, a la Teddy R-style, with your bare hands. By the time you get to the Grand Tetons, just south of Yellowstone, you’re already an “expert” on national parks, given unasked for advice to fellow visitors, and becoming a self-officiated park vigilante who yells at the Trump-supporting visitors who throw their cigarette butts out of their passing vans.
As our trip came to close, a deep melancholy befell the three of us. We didn’t want our adventure to end. If we could have continued traveling on the open road, hitting up the rest of the 413 locations managed by the National Park Service, we would have. I was ready to throw my life away and become a Yellowstone volunteer, though the minute I’d see a snake, I’d probably pick up a 5-year-old junior ranger and chuck it towards the snake in hopes of preventing it from coming near me. Even as I write this, I’m nostalgic, wanting to return to the Badlands or Yellowstone, but looking forward to hitting up the many other beautiful protected lands our country offers and standing in line for my goddamn passport stamps.
The National Park Service celebrated its 100th birthday on August 25 of this year, and with that celebration came a slew of conversations about the various risks that threaten our national parks, including the GOP’s desire to give federal lands over to the individual states, climate change and a long, deep maintenance backlog. It’s more important than ever that we visit or donate to our national parks. Sloths and Danny DeVito may be around forever, but our national parks might not be.