Friday, August 26, 2016

Happy 100th, National Park Service

If not for clicking on yesterday’s Google Doodle – something I rarely do – I never would have known that August 25th marked the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service.

I’ve been to a number of the National Parks, mostly in 1972 when my friend Joyce and I drove cross country, camping along the way.

I remember the National Parks as grand and glorious. We drove through Wind Cave, where the buffalo were roaming. We drove through Black Hills, and gawked at the stone faces on Mount Rushmore.

Ah, Mount Rushmore. Goofy, yet so magnificent. George Washington. Thomas Jefferson. Abraham Lincoln. Theodore Roosevelt.

How does TR get to keep company with those greats?

Ah, well. Teddy Roosevelt might have been a jingoistic nutter. And I’d rather see his cousin Franklin D’s visage on Mount Rushmore. But he was one hell of a conservationist. And while it was Woodrow Wilson who founded the National Park Service to oversee our national parks, monuments, historic sites, etc., Teddy Roosevelt played a major role in raising our collective national consciousness about the environment, and during his administration, established a number of new national parks.

We camped (and had a flat tire) in Yellowstone, and camped (with no flat) in Grand Teton. When we were in Yellowstone, did we see Old Faithful? If we did, I don’t remember it. What I do remember was that, on the outskirts, we passed a motel called The Flamingo. Or The Palms. Or something that seemed – neon sign and all – spectacularly ridiculous in that setting. I guess the names like Mighty Pine, Grizzly Cub, and Old Faithful were taken. What I also remember was the breathtaking beauty of those western parks. And that, Grand Teton became one of my two favorite national parks.

We breezed through Crater Lake, and Redwoods, and camped at Yosemite and Sequoia. I suppose we saw El Capitan. Mostly I’m thinking about the road signs that posted a speed limit of 5 MPH. They don’t call them hairpin turns for nothing.

At Yosemite, we spent one night ‘camping’ in the confines of our Karman Ghia. After spending some time visiting with the folks at the next camp site – okay, we were sharing a joint – we came back to our spot only to find two bear cubs playing in the well of our tent. We didn’t wait for mama bear to come back and fetch them. We hopped in the car and spent a fitful night trying to get a bit of shut-eye.

In Arizona, we buzzed the Petrified Forest which disappointed me. Somehow, I had imagined that the trees in the forest would be full standing, not the logs and stumps that make it up.

We did not hike down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, but did (sort of) peer over the ledge.

It was cold and rainy when we camped in Rocky Mountain.

We spent a night at Hot Springs but, even though a ranger encouraged us to take the waters, we didn’t.

I think that our last national park was Shenandoah which ties with Grand Teton as my favorite. Just beautiful. Although scary. We were the only tent in a large site (it was late September, mid-week), and a ranger came by to warn us about bears. We knew all the precautions to take: no food on the ground, don’t sleep in the clothing you cooked in, don’t use scented hand cream. Still, Joyce and I were a bit nervous. We didn’t want another repeat of our night at Yosemite.

Then, in the middle of the night, we were both awoken by the sound of an animal sniffing around our tent. This was it. We reached out to each other across the space that separated our sleeping bags, and held hands while we tried to remember if we ever knew what to do when a bear is sniffing your tent. Scream? Play dead? Bang a pan? Oh, the pans were well away: washed up and stowed in the car.

Just as we thought we might be breathing our last, the clouds parted and, in the bright moonlight, we saw that what was sniffing around our tent was a skunk.We weren’t quite sure whether it would be better to be mauled by a bear or sprayed by a skunk.

I’ve been to a few other national parks since then. A couple in Arizona. Catoctin, where Camp David is, and where I spent a week winter camping a million years ago. (We were in an very rough, uninsultated cabin, and we did have a fireplace, but, boy, was that cold.)

When I worked for Wang, I went out to Tacoma, Washington, with a colleague to meet with a client to spec out a project. The schedule had been set up by a business development guy, without our input, and he planned for three days. We were done in one day.

Because it was going to cost a few hundred bucks to change our plane tickets, Wang wouldn’t approve our coming back. This was in the days before laptops and the Internet, so there wasn’t a lot of work we could get done. So we decided to go up to Mount Rainier National Park and spend the night. We did, in a rustic hotel at the base of the mountain. We couldn’t do much hiking in our business clothing. Even my travel outfit didn’t quite work: a pair of silk slacks and some Cole Haan loafers. But we did have a very nice meal at a nearby restaurant: just-caught trout, and blackberry pie made with just-picked blackberry. Yum. Best business trip ever…

I haven’t been to Acadia in Maine, which is the only – I think – national park in New England. We have a whole bunch of national historic sites, and I’ve been to plenty of them. Boston is one big national historic site, and there are plenty of national park rangers floating around.

So since it was the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, I went to one of those national historic sites: the Museum of African American History, Boston. It’s just up the street, and I’ve been planning on stopping in for years.

They had a wonderful exhibit of photographs of Frederick Douglass, who was the most photographed American of the 19th century. (Now you know.)Talk about fascinating. The most interesting picture wasn’t a solo portrait, but a crowd picture of Abraham Lincoln giving his second inaugural address. In the crowd: both Douglass and John Wilkes Booth.

A National Park Service ranger gave us a tour of the African Meeting House, which is part of the Museum. It’s the “oldest black church edifice still standing in the United States.” Frederick Douglass spoke there many times, as did abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison.

Maybe not as magnificently scenic as our magnificently scenic national parks, but magnificent nonetheless.

Happy 100th to the National Park Service. May you have many more years of preserving our amazing physical, historic, and cultural heritage.

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