How a Great American Road Trip Shows the Need to Protect Our National Parks and Monuments

“Make it scenic.”

My father’s parameters for a road trip—which were the same for every road trip—were in my mother’s wheelhouse. She pulled out the extra-large map book of the states and began highlighting roads from the flat farmlands of Ohio to the vast deserts, prairies, and towering mountains of the West.

This year, I returned to these nomadic quests of my family tradition—trips to national parks and monuments. As a child these were opportunities to lose and find myself in an endless sky and total, deafening silence.

Life’s drama, uncertain, yet necessary career decisions, and our dismay at the mess that is American politics, left Mindy and me craving that silence. We also wanted to remember what we love about our country—that hasn’t been easy lately. The National Park Service—honored last month in the Fourth of July Google Doodle—seemed an ideal place to find perspective.

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The Grand Canyon. Photo credit: Brandon Withrow

The future of the Park Service is, however, at risk.

The National Park Service is facing a $296.6 million budget cut to its already underfunded oversight of national parks and monuments, according to the President’s proposed budget from June. “America’s Best Idea,” as Ken Burns calls the NPS, is in trouble. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, whose office is tasked with re-evaluating public lands, is already making recommendations that are expected to benefit the energy sector. His department, according to a new website from the Western Values Project, is currently staffed with those who once worked in energy interests.

As of Thursday, Zinke plans to recommend changes to 27 national monuments, according to The Associated Press. The monuments are not to be eliminated, he insists, but there will be boundary changes for many.

But what will happen to the land as a result of these changes? According to The AP, “Zinke declined to say whether portions of the monuments would be opened up to oil and gas drilling, mining, logging and other industries for which Trump has advocated.”

I would be surprised if opening them up to serve these energy interests wasn’t the case.

Clearly, the NPS—along with the land and animals it protects—needs us, but as my trip showed me, we also desperately need it.

“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in,” said John Muir in The Yosemite, “where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike.”

So we started our plans for healing and cheering. We gathered our daypacks for hiking and put together a road trip to seven national parks and recreation areas, which spanned eleven states, over 4,600 miles, and innumerable photos for Instagram.

From one turn to the next, the West demolishes every sense of scale and every expectation of topography. High peaks and deep valleys—the constant climbs between—and the ever-changing color palette stuns the senses. We donned our daypacks, hiked The Grand Canyon, ventured into the lush green of Zion, and journeyed up to the Delicate Arch on a 102-degree day.

Every carved canyon, fallen boulder, and petroglyph was a reminder that stories were happening here long before we showed up. We are all mere guests here—vanishing mayflies on a planet that spent most of its life without us.

But the NPS is also a place where we mayflies can gather.

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Condor at The Grand Canyon. Photo Credit: Brandon Withrow

While hiking at the Grand Canyon, we met an individual from France and together quietly observed a California condor resting just a few feet away. Kids from an American family stood motionlessly with us as we watched elk eating. At Zion, dozens enjoyed the cool clear waters of the Virgin River on a 98-degree day. At Delicate Arch, we shared rocky seats with someone kindly extending water to an older, unprepared hiker. We shared admiration for the human spirit displayed at Cliff Palace in Mesa Verde National Park with a German couple.

What brought all of us together was what we shared: our love for preserved nature and history. This came home for me during an encounter at Wolf Creek Pass in the homeward leg of our trip.

From our 630 feet of elevation at our place in Northwest Ohio to 10,857 feet at Wolf Creek Pass in the San Juan Mountains, we stopped to enjoy the snowmelt in shorts weather. Wolf Creek symbolically marks the “spine of the Western Hemisphere”—a so-called “great continental divide.”

Wolf-Creek-PassThere we met two couples traveling together and passing through from Texas. They smiled exuberantly, telling us they hadn’t seen snow in a long while. We shared their enthusiasm for this moment. Whatever political ideals we (statistically speaking) might not have had in common (I tend to the left), we shared a love for nature.

Our moment at Wolf Creek Pass was anything but a divide.

Human beings evolved for nature. When we are around it—when the beauty of nature reminds us that there is something grander than we are—it provides a chance for healing and friendships based on a shared value, rather than the fear driven by global theater and the division of identities provided by our binary political system.

We still met our share of inconsiderate people; I’m not naively going to sing John Lennon’s Imagine. But we are not all the sum of our worst characteristics. For every Charlottesville there is a Boston. Generally reasonable people can find common ground and the National Park Service—and other sanctified lands—help make that possible.

So perhaps no time before now shows the need for protecting America’s best idea; now is a good time to plan that great American road trip.

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Bryce Canyon. Photo credit: Brandon Withrow

Featured photo credit: Brandon Withrow