What I Learned from "The National Parks: America's Best Idea" on PBS

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"The things you don't know are in the history books that you have not yet read."
-- some history professor from Arizona State University whose name has now fizzled out of memory (how ironic), first day of class 1998

Last night, while watching America's Best Idea on PBS, I saw the damnedest thing: an old black and white Kodak photograph of a 1920's era Buick, a darling beauty with a rag top and parked by a tall rock wall off of a dirt road.  Some bright soul - presumably Ed Gehrke - attached what looked like a big tarp at least as long as the automobile itself and twice as wide.  The tarp pulled taut and staked to the ground so as to create a traveler's shade cave underneath. Sensibility tells me that's where they slept at night, parking along some dirt road in the middle of nowhere, rolling out the tarp, and setting up a home-away-from-home like a nomad.

Today, many of us would just go buy a modern interpretation by Hannibal, ARB, or Eezi-Awn for something shy of a thousand bucks, but more than a hundred.  Nevertheless, in the photo a happy lady in a long dress and wide brimmed hat - presumably Ed's wife, Margaret - poked her head out from under the improvised tent and grinned all toothy, full-faced, and full-hearted while lumbering over their stacks of boxed gear and food. Margaret and Ed used their Buick (all told, they owned 17) to get to the various National Parks starting in the 1920s and continued to do so for 30 years.

In the show, they used Ed and Margaret as the shining examples who took to "auto camping," a craze that began due to the emergence of automobile ownership and the dawn of the National Park system.  American overlanding isn't as new as we might think. I've said this before, but it should be said again: overlanding is a borderline euphemism for "seeing cool stuff on the cheap and on our own whim, but most importantly, on our own craving." I'd even like to go back to the term "auto camping" because it's so simple yet descriptive, and assumes no class system among stationwagons, trucks or motorcycles; and it seemingly erases the what ever negative or un-adventurous connotation "car camping" can insinuate. Drive what you may, get outside.

I'm kind of moved at the idea that cars were invented not so we could make hour-long commutes in bumper-to-bumper madness of middle fingers and bad commercials to sit in gray cubicles under flourescent lights with 800 pictures of our cats and overweight selves impossibly pinned to those impervious walls.  Put a bumper sticker on the back that reads, "My rottweiler is smarter than your honor student" next to the one that says, "Don't blame me, I voted for McCain," but between the other one that sums it all up thus: "What if the Hokey Pokey really is what it's all about?"  Contrarily, and conjecturally if I may, the automobile was birthed out of a kid-like longing just to get outside and see more of the world. Top down whenever possible.

What can possibly compare to a good road trip and a quiet campsite? Vacuuming the living room?

Photo Break: "Auto Camping" in the National Parks with Adventure Parents

As these things go, Stephen Mather and Horace Albright (the first National Parks director and his assistant respectively) set out during the 1920s leveraging automobile travel to promote the National Parks.  Mather's intentions weren't terribly dismal, although even back then many saw the writing on the wall should the Parks have easy vehicle access: pollution, noise, crowds, the necessary services and buildings that come with managing the public, and ultimately widespread surface level tourism as experienced solely from behind a windshield.

Even John Muir, prior to his death in 1914, exhibited mixed thoughts about the automobile and National Parks - he admitted the auto would bring attention to the Parks (and in turn, Congressional support and funding) but would also introduce pollution to the pristine air.

A hundred years later, I share Muir's conflict as a vehicle traveler, "auto camper," who wants to visit the wild places on the planet and likes the autonomy of an automobile.

"What's the most I can see in the shortest amount of time?"

Other opposition argued that visitors to the parks would become windshield tourists who never experience the parks for the precise reason they exist in the first place.  Right that opposition was.  The madness continues on, and it's no secret that so many approach the parks today with, "What's the most I can see in the shortest amount of time?"

Brooke and I, when we first bought the Eezi-Awn roof top tent, immediately ramshackled it to the truck's cargo bed rails in such a haphazard manner that I won't repeat it here, and then ran off to the Grand Canyon National Park. We set up camp and used our bikes for pedaling around the park. How about that for reconciling driving a carbon-exhaling truck? While riding the trail that skirts along the South Rim's edge to Hermit's Rest, the sun had gone down and we coasted a leisurely pace as it became dark.  I approcahed a man walking ahead of 3 other people; he wore a Michigan sweatshirt and waved me down to a stop.

"I hear there's a good view up here somewhere."

I thought he was kidding, so I smiled, nodded, laughed, and gazed at the enormous colorful pit to my left, "Yeah, it's around here somewhere. I still can't find it."

"Oh, okay." He said. "They said it would be up here about 50 yards or so.  You didn't see it?"

Then it occurred to me, yes, yes, there was a little outcropping that had railings and a couple of those twenty-five-cent binocular thingies.

* * *
I tip my hat to Margaret and Edward Gehrke, those early overlanding folks who explored the National Parks for 30 years. They make the case for us modern fools with our roof top tents and National Geographic topo maps. Thank you, Margaret, for penning this in your journal:

"Let those who will, buy lands and horde money. We will have our memories, glad memories of golden experiences together."




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