Americans are not a disagreeable people. On the contrary, by and large, we are a very agreeable bunch of bananas—we just don’t happen to agree on much of anything, particularly when it comes to matters political, and especially the fitting and proper limits of governmental reach and influence in our affairs. That’s historically been a real sticking point among my fellow citizens and it seems to be getting even stickier now than in times past. It probably isn’t, but it sure feels that way in the 24/7 news cycle.
There’s one subject, however, on which we all miraculously find common ground—and it’s literally our common ground.
I speak, of course, of the National Park System, and specifically the National Park Service which this month celebrates its 100th birthday.
The passage of the enabling legislation, the Organic Act, signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson on August 25, 1916, was no small miracle in itself. That was a time of busy westward expansion, undertaken in furtherance of our presumed national mandate of Manifest Destiny; it was a time of a nearly—and, even explicitly—religious conviction that the continent was ours to tame and exploit. A time of systematic upheaval and relocation of native populations and of a belief that the vast natural resources at our feet were there to serve our economic engines—and if it involved laying waste to pristine landscapes, mining the ground, clearing the forests, damming the rivers, and subjugating ancient and fragile grasslands to the will of the plow, well, that’s progress. Our vast landscape was viewed as an inexhaustible source of wealth for the enterprising.
The sudden awakening to the true worth of wilderness areas actually began some years earlier in 1864 when, concerned about the unfettered exploitation of Yosemite Valley as expressed by the likes of Frederick Law Olmsted, the architect of New York City’s Central Park, President Abraham Lincoln signed into law the Yosemite Grant, ceding stewardship of the land to the State of California, and thus sowing the first seed of what would become the National Parks—the envy of the world—and what the premier chronicler of America’s western experience, Wallace Stegner, deemed “the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.”
As the National Park Service turns 100, it is comprised of 58 parks in 27 states and two territories. More impressively, the list includes the highest peak (Denali), the lowest point (Death Valley), the hottest spot (yeah, Death Valley again), the wettest location (Olympic), and the driest (um… Death Valley). There are a good many other superlatives in the collection as well.
Small wonder, then, that the National Parks are the default destination of touring motorcyclists, and pretty much have been for a century. If you show me a biker who doesn’t have a harrowing or enlightening tale of a time in a National Park I’ll show you a piker. My personal favorite anecdote occurred nearly 25 years ago when riding west from our Michigan nuptials and Sturgis honeymoon I routed us through Yellowstone, where despite a long resume of travels in North America, Europe and Asia, My Personal Nurse had never visited the place. As we rode towards the park entrance from the east, over the towering Absarokas with a storm cell threatening, she asked me—and I quote, “Are we going to see any wildlife?” Seriously. And I replied, “Oh yes. We’ll see wildlife. And the easiest way to tell when there’s a noteworthy specimen afoot; you shall know it by this sign: there will be a chaotic clot of tourists’ vehicles parked helter-skelter on the pavement. Stay alert.”
We didn’t have to wait for a traffic mess to see exotic fauna, however, as within the first hour in the park a bald eagle flew right over her on the road, and shortly thereafter, a mother moose and calf were suddenly running alongside her in the brush, literally pacing her progress. It was magical. And then as we rounded a curve the road looked like an apocalyptic parking lot, and tourists in Bermuda shorts brandishing Instamatics were chasing through the trees in pursuit of… a grizzly bear. No ordinary grizz, either, but the largest and gnarliest male of the species I’d ever encountered. And these idiots were chasing it.
We kept a respectful distance, being possessed of a healthy survival instinct, as the footrace proceeded. At which time, the grizz sort of tired of the game, and stopped in his tracks, threw his immense head back over his huge furry hump of a shoulder, and got serious. You never saw so many soiled Bermudas, dropped Instamatics, and panicked photographers in your whole life as the audience fled in palpable terror.
I have more anecdotes, from Glacier to Yosemite, to Zion and Great Basin, and, yes, Death Valley. So do you, I’m guessing.
Come the end of August when the official birthday celebrations are set to take place, entry fees to all National Parks will be waived from the 26th to the 28th, and the bikes will be out in profusion. And a good many of those bikes will be piloted by foreigners, especially Germans, taking advantage of the virtually countless Wild West moto-tour operations offered them. It will be a good time to visit the parks so you can say you were a part of the hallowed observance of “the best idea we ever had.” It will be a better time to visit Germany—because the Germans will all be here.
It’s all right here in the diaries.