As the government shutdown ends and our National Parks open up, I’d like to take a minute to remind everyone of the possibilities these natural wonders give us, the importance of experiencing them, and why it’s vital to enjoy them responsibly. With the world expanding faster than ever, it’s easy to forget that some of the best exploring in the world is right in our own backyard, and backyards are where some of the most important exploring occurs. This isn’t a knock on traveling abroad because I think that if you have the opportunity it’s an extremely important one to take. This is more of a head nod, handshake, and hug to the endless opportunities of domestic travel in the good ol’ US of A. Despite increasing attendance, the national and state parks and forests are still one of the travel world’s best-kept secrets. All it takes is stepping outside your door, maybe your comfort zone, and actively seeking these places out.
Throughout college a majority of people I knew took the time to study abroad, but I am continually shocked at how few of them have taken it upon themselves to drive around the blue highways of America. They were after the same attractions – charming cities, interesting people, natural wonders, beach bumming, architectural landmarks, rebellious impulsive decisions – they just didn’t always think to look here at home. All of these things exist in abundance within the U.S, you just have to look in the right places. Both geographically, and personally.
People seem to forget or be unaware of the variety of landscapes, climates, cultures, and vegetation we have here. In a 21 day road trip, spending only $600 and significantly more time in a Toyota Camery with four people than I care to experience for a while, here is a list of climates and natural features I encountered:
Planes, prairies, alpine meadows, swamps, rainforest, mountains, glaciers, glacial rivers, glacial lakes, glacial freeze Gatorade, beaches, rivers, hot springs, Sturgis Bike Festival, angry bikers, high desert, low desert, coastal desert, chocolate dessert, ice cream dessert, the Western Montana County Fair and Rodeo, cirques, eddy’s, boreal forests, coastal forests, deciduous forests, grasslands, and tidal pools just to name a few!
You want mountains? How tall? Canyons!? How deep? You want charming cities? Avoid Cheviot. You want lakes? Choose the color, temperature, and formation method. You want landmarks? How culturally insensitive do you want it’s placement and symbolism? You want extreme environmental conditions? How miserable do you want to be?! You want easy access to sweeping vistas? In which state?
Those golden valleys, peaks gigantic, country roads, and fabulous vinnnyyyaaaarrrrrdds that Rudy Guthrie, Walt Whitman, John Denver, and Oprah Winfrey were talking about are all out there just waiting to be found. And the best part is, you don’t need to be Bear Grylls to go see it! You just have to be willing to place yourself on the x and y axis of comfort and sights seen. The more comfortable you are, the less you’re probably going to experience - BUT THAT’S OKAY! It’s okay to like hotels and hot water and the safety of knowing a bear wont maul you in the night. And to be totally honest, a lot of the most iconic spots are surprisingly accessible. High adventure is there is you want it, but it’s not the only way to experience places, especially places of “wilderness”. Travel should never be, and isn’t, completely exclusive because of comfort level.
You don’t need to be a raw-meat-eating-rugged bad ass to enjoy the outdoors. You just need an open mind and honest self awareness. The biggest misconception I run into is that the outdoors are only the deep woods of Yellowstone, the unmapped islands of the Pacific Northwest, the high peaks of the Rockies, or the cul-de-sacs of Westwood. But by taking your lunch break outside. By going for a walk in your neighborhood park. By maintaining a garden. By enjoying a sunny day and appreciating a breath of fresh air, you are experiencing the outdoors. You are experiencing AMERICA! The cold nights in a tent on glaciated peaks, the sunless rainy days in the virgin forests. Relentless elements are out there if you want it, (and believe me if you want it bad enough time and money won’t stop you) but it’s not the only way. The stigma of beautiful places only accessible by harsh adventure too often deters people from going to destinations they’re intimidated by, but have always had a burning desire to go see. Appreciating the world around you doesn’t HAVE to mean hiking for miles and not showering for days. It doesn’t even require a passport!
In fact most of the people that go out and experience the United States do it in a very comfortable way. The Griswold’s weren’t Rough Riders (for Teddy Roosevelt OR DMX) but they still went out there, met the locals and saw the sights. Harry and Lloyd, weren’t Lewis and Clark, but they felt the sting of that mountain fresh air; the gaze of the women flocking like the salmon of Capistrano. Hell, even this kid took the time to stare out and ponder the rolling fields of agriculture in topographic Illinois. Stay in a hotel, drive to a National Park, get out and walk around a little, then drive back to your cozy bed. You’ve still reached out to this great country and given it the chance to introduce itself. I promise you, you’ll be glad you did. When you do, just try and leave the place a little better than you found it and minimize the impact you have while you’re there.
Preservation will sometimes mean monitoring your encroachment on the environment, be it throwing away your straw wrappers at a small town diner or avoiding walking on the prairies of Mt. Rainier. Try your best to pick up after yourself, and be deliberately careful about the impact your leaving. This land is your land, but it’s also my land. From California to the New York Islands. From the red wood forest to the gulf stream waters. This land was made for you and me. This land is our land, and like most things in life, it’s better because it’s shared.
If my idealistic thoughts, writing, and pictures aren’t enough to make you buy into the fact that there are a quantity of the world’s most incredible natural wonders just a car ride and some gumption away, take it from one of histories most well traveled. I think one of the most influential reason Teddy Roosevelt started the National Park system was because even after traveling to every corner of the world, his favorite parts of the planet, the parts he wanted to preserve and share the most, were right here at home. At the laying of the cornerstone to the gateway to Yellowstone National Park in April of 1903 (29 years after its establishment) Teddy Roosevelt said, “The geysers, the extraordinary hot springs, the lakes, the mountains, the canyons, and cataracts unite to make this region something not wholly to be paralleled elsewhere on the globe. It must be kept for the benefit and enjoyment of all of us; and I hope to see a steadily increasing number of our people take advantage of its attractions.” (You can read the entire speech here)
So venture forth Pioneers, O Pioneers and see what Edward Abbey, Bruce Springsteen, and Leslie Knope alike are talking about. Everyone will find something, and most importantly, some things, will find everyone. Bag some peaks, wade some rivers, paddle some angry seas, or just walk your dog. The outdoors are a great place to be, and some of the best are right here in the land of the free. They’re begging for you to take notice, and to take notice with a sense of reverent responsibility.
A great man once told me that when you get out into the world you see for miles instead of feet. In a world where we are constantly inches away from our computer screens and text messages, it’s important to look up every now and then and see just how many miles are out there, waiting to be looked at. From sea to shining sea.