A cross-country trip through America’s national parks on the eve of the Park Services centennial celebration this August.
In 1960, as famed writer John Steinbeck’s health declined, he faced his mortality by buying a new truck, building a tiny house on the back, and driving around the country with his poodle, Charley. “I’m going to avoid the cities,” he wrote, “and concentrate on farms, mountains, woods, ranches, and villages.”
The author, like Theodore Roosevelt before him, was disturbed by the voracious appetite of urbanity. “I wonder why progress looks so much like destruction,” Steinbeck wrote after driving through the sprawl of east coast metropolises. Both men believed that time in the wild was essential, not from some larger sense of altruism, but on a deeply personal level. Roosevelt, who did more than any other president to conserve land, believed that the hardships of nature built character. Wilderness, he wrote, "taught a man self-reliance, hardihood, and the value of instant decision." For that reason, he preserved millions of acres from development. “We have become great because of the lavish use of our resources,” he wrote. “But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone.”
Today, how we interact with nature—who gets to decide what land is used for, and what impacts that has—is more important than ever. This August marks the 100th anniversary of our National Park Service, which was created in 1916 “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” National parks now comprise a total of 84.9 million acres. If you count wilderness areas, national monuments, and national forests, 13.9 percent of the U.S. is within a protected area.
This past fall, as the leaves turned in the east and the rain returned to the west, I drove across the country to see what our protected areas look like, not in their photogenic peak, but in the off-season. Normally crowded parks were desolate. Early snow trapped me miles from a paved road for several days. But as anyone who’s spent time in the woods knows, that was part of the journey. “For how can one know color in perpetual green,” Steinbeck wrote, “and what good is warmth without cold to give it sweetness?”