Today’s guest blogger and Connection Messenger* Esther Miller reminisces about her first visit to the Petrified Forest and Grand Canyon many years ago. If you haven’t yet read the post that launched our series celebrating the 100th birthday of the U.S. National Park System, go to “The National Park System: 100 Years of Nature, History, and America’s Stories.” I hope the series will get you pulling up a map and finding a new national park to explore and share with your family and friends. Each is a national treasure. Each will feed your soul.
In this centennial year for the National Park Service, one does not have to look very hard to find plenty of information about the Parks, Monuments, and other units of the NPS. I’ve been fortunate to visit many of those sites, and I’m happy to share some personal highlights of those visits over the past forty years. Some memories are etched forever in our minds, others are brought back in detail by journals I kept and notes made in field guides.
My very first visit was to Petrified Forest NP in Arizona in the early sixties. My mother had visited it in the forties and insisted we stop on our long journey west from Iowa to California. Route 66 went right through the park, so we stopped, found a little bit of petrified wood, didn’t stop at any visitor center, and I was disappointed that there were no trees made of stone. Lack of money meant no time for exploration and extra nights on the road, so off we went across the endless desert and I didn’t see another park for ten years.
My boyfriend in the early 70s had been to the Grand Canyon and thought that would be a good first park for me to see. We loaded his brand new VW camper van with a few clothes, a bit of food, and a ton of inexperience.
We parked the VW near the rim and walked over for a look. I don’t know what I expected, but my breath just stopped. Absolutely speechless, I stood there and stared.
Colors and textures and side canyons.
The width of the main canyon, the depth of the canyon and the tiny ribbon of water at its bottom.
The flat-topped mountains we could look down on.
There was simply too much to process all at once. Then the sun set and on the other side of the sky and the full moon rose, as if they were on a giant teeter-totter. We got pictures, but they’re faded now. The ones in our minds are the magic ones.
Because my boyfriend had a pilot’s license and a love of flying, we took a flight in a small plane out over the canyon. But he recognized the plane was close to its weight limit and the warm air at that altitude meant it was struggling to get off the ground. He spent most of the flight worrying about the competence of the pilot. Blissfully ignorant of density altitude and related issues, I craned my neck to see the wonders beneath our wings.
All I remember after that was a hurried trip around the eastern edge of the park and up to the brand new (at the time) Glen Canyon Dam. What initially looked like just another neato bridge was an engineering wonder. A graceful arch spanned the narrow canyon, holding up the weight of the roadway above.
I realized then there is much more than meets the eye, and maybe it was time for me to open not just my eyes but my mind. It was time to really see what I was looking at. That mindset shift has made all the difference in my travels and observations ever since.
Then there was an even faster trip back to Southern California for the first night of his class which turned out to be canceled. He had one more week of vacation, so we headed north to Yosemite NP, another trip and another story. (Don’t miss Esther’s post “Off To Yosemite.”)
Note from Elizabeth: What do YOU remember about a trip to a National Park? We’d love to hear about it in the comments below. My husband and I have enjoyed many trips (including armchair travels) from two wonderful books: the National Geographic Guide to Scenic Highways and Byways and the National Geographic Guide to National Parks of the United States.
Esther has worked professionally in special education and mental health and has had a variety of volunteer jobs. Gardening, cooking, and ham radio are among her many interests. She married and raised her family in California, then lived in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia for nearly 14 years. She recently returned to California to be near family.