Got Americans? Our National Parks Don’t.

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In early June, I set out on the Great American road trip across the United States, Billy Joel ready in my Spotify music queue and my French Bulldog Blanca beside me in the passenger seat. I was starting my journey in Los Angeles, heading north to Lake Tahoe to pick up Highway 50, dubbed by Life Magazine as “The Loneliest Road in America.” I yearned for the quieter less traveled path away from the roadside rest stop with gleaming McDonald’s arches. I wanted to see landscape and wayside cafes.

I mapped out the National Parks along the route from Nevada, Colorado, Utah, Kansas, Missouri, Kentucky, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and my final destination New York City. Upon visiting the Grand Canyon 5 years earlier, there was a connection not only to the panorama but also to my family who had visited before me. My grandmother had stood on that same spot, looking out at the same vista 50 years before me. Unlike the urban landscape, which shifts with every given day, the Grand Canyon has maintained the same magnificence for millions of years. In a day and age where changes seem to happen at light speed, this is a novelty. I imagined my grandmother standing in the exact location looking at the same Colorado River below. The memory of her was palpable. Hence, I am fascinated by the magic of our National Parks.

My first stop was the Great Basin National Park in Nevada pictured above. I had never seen the mishmash of glacial slow and warm summer heat. The bugs flew in droves before me like fairies spreading pixie dust. I met a couple along my hike and we chatted about their drive across country in an RV from Venice, Florida. They were recent grandparents brimming over with emotion while telling me about their new grand baby. I, a stranger, shared with them my story of my grandmother and we shed tears together in the parking lot. I imagine they were in their 60’s although I’m a horrible judge of age. We struck up a conversation about the National Parks and I told them my experience has always been that they are filled with foreigners. They concurred and we expressed our similar sadness for the state of things. For clarity’s sake, this couple was American.

My friends and colleagues have always tended to be adventurous and travel-hungry. However, many of my friends have never visited the Grand Canyon or driven across the country. They have devoted their travel affections primarily with distant lands preferring Thailand to Texas and Spain to South Dakota. But why? Why is the fascination on foreign lands but not our own?

Balance Rock Arches, National Park Utah

Balance Rock Arches, National Park Utah

My next park adventure was in Utah at Arches National Park. As someone who grew up in the northeast, rocks and cliffs of this scale are incredibly odd to me. In the parking lot, I slid my little Fiat into a parking space with the help of a man sitting on the guardrail. He was an Italian tour guide driver waiting for his group to return to the bus. On my way back to the car, he was still sitting by my car as the group of energetic Italians approached. “Ahhhhhhhh!!!! It is one of ours!!” they exclaimed while beaming in my car’s direction. “Yes, Forza Italia!” I responded while smiling appreciatively. I didn’t meet a single American on this particular journey.

Colorado National Monument, Colorado

Colorado National Monument, Colorado

Next on the list, and my favorite, I headed to Colorado National Monument. I had read about this park in Bicycling Magazine being an avid cyclist. While on my bike ride through the park, I met a couple from the Netherlands. They had sought out this park because they wanted to see mountains, something they don’t have in their country. While filling my water bottle, I met a retired Belgian policeman with his shirt off and belly proudly hanging over his khaki shorts. He lamented how expensive bike rental is in this country and asked me why. In response, I didn’t have a suitable answer as I realized that renting a bike is more expensive than renting a car in many states. I did meet a few Americans similarly biking up the incline and smiled and waved almost too enthusiastically in return.

Where are you America? To be fair, most of us are chained to our desks with the average American worker getting 14 days of vacation. What’s more, 51% of those employees only take half of their vacation time. This is a disservice both to our individual well-being and the jobs we are performing. While explaining to the Belgian policeman our average vacation time, he stared at me incredulously with his jaw slightly ajar. “2 weeks? How could anyone live on 2 weeks of vacation?!” True enough.

I recognize and am grateful for the opportunity to be a freelancer and work from any destination. It has allowed me the ability to see things and meet people, both of which have enriched my experience by uncountable lengths. Our National Parks are majestic and waiting for anyone with the adventure for discovery and the gift of vacation time. Some happen to be in our backyards, around the corner from our Wi-Fi enabled Starbucks and movie theaters with films about resplendent landscapes.

In the beginning of the video below is Independence Monument. President William Taft dubbed this a national park after the tireless efforts of the first climber to the top, John Otto. In remembrance,  climbers scale it every July 4th to coronate the event. Celebration and personal reflection are the best part of the National Park experience. The space they provide is both an external and internal gift.

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