Daily Archives: May 21, 2012

In praise of several US National Parks.

I suppose I should point out straight away that we were in the country for National Park Week where entry to the ‘Parks was free.

My working-class wiring pre-disposes me to a bargain. Thus I fear that a bias has crept in somewhere, nay everywhere to this piece. Not that it matters, this is not a class on creating a balanced argument now is it?

Alright, alright. Since we didn’t visit them ALL, how about I just praise a few eh? Happier now? [Jeez.]

And no photos neither. My snaps are no match for the professionals and even before that, actually being there.

Volcanoes National Park, Hawai’i

On the Big Island – the one actually called Hawai’i – there is a huge chunk of land dedicated to volcanicity. Indeed, it’s not just a chunk, it’s a boiling, creeping, growing mass of land. The volcanoes make new land here. How about that?Several acres per annum a freshly minted. Around the south of the island it becomes pretty obvious that you are on a volcano. The black, pumice-like scenes you drive by are pretty clear evidence. You are 2,000 miles from a proper land mass, stood at the foot of a mountain. How many clues do you want? Of course when you stand back far enough – Google Earth stylee – you can see that the whole bally shooting match is a volcano.

I found this all very exciting and was soon commenting about the myriad of other-worldly rocks surrounding us. Not a thrilling subject for all apparently. “Ooohing” and “Ahhing” at rock is not the same, nor as appropriate as doing so at a firework display I’m told. Gets very boring very quickly they say. Each to their own I s’pose.

When we arrive at the visitor centre – there’s always a visitor centre, there’s always a gift shop – we are just in time to catch a hour walking tour. A free one. (Woop, woop: quietly this time by way of inner monologue.) In the event we are the only tourists interested enough to be told things by a Ranger, so tis effectively a private tour. Our Ranger – Travis, a native (albeit a very white one) – takes us though the undergrowth to the rim of the Kiluea crater which steams like a vast cauldron. He tells us all kinds of biological factoids and local stories about the ecology of the island. The flora and fauna care not that they live on an active volcano, they just get on with it. The introduced species are edging out the locals in many categories because the locals have not had any competition till man carelessly loosed new plants and animals on the islands.

Beyond the biology, beyond the volcanoes there’s a highlight to the tour. Nose flute. No, not a typo, a nose flute. Travis plays, we are transfixed. Simultaneously I am convulsing with stifled laughter at the surreal element. It was like being an unwitting part of a (particularly out there) Vic & Bob skit with the story of goddess Pele who lives in a pit of fire. The lad Morgan loved it.

The Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona.

In the press this week there is uproar for a proposed development at the small (500 soul) town of Tusayan a couple of klicks south of the Grand Canyon National Park. The developers want to “edutain” visitors and make a fat pile of cash. The Grand canyon is the Daddy. It has such a draw and doesn’t limit its appeal to outdoorsy nature lovers. In other words, eejits and chavs visit this park too. This is evidenced when you take the 30 second walk from the car park to the South Rim and – BAM! – there it is. There’s much nature to gawp at: the mile deep drop, the churning Colorado River, the majestic swooping Californian Condors, the prat in urban camo’ who has vaulted the safety fence to stand millimetres from the precipice for a “look at me Momma” photo.

Natural selection is a strong force here. The day before our visit, someone died from having too much enthusiasm for going near the edge.

Stoopidity = 1, Looking Cool = Nil.

Darwinism = 1, Sympathy = Nil.

When you walk further from the tourist hub, the safety fences peter out and it’s just you, high plateaux and the distinct chance of certain death by falling. Being eight, the (Bart Simpson-esque) boy fakes tripping/stumbling/fainting/slipping and – being a Mum – Gilly freaks’n’shrieks every time. This is funny for longer than you would imagine, but maternal sense of humour loss eventually requires he be sensible. The unhindered drop to our side is dizzying, monumental and barren. It’d take days to find the body. Then there’d be all that paperwork… we tell him to refrain (like proper serious grown-up parents).

I shall refrain from describing the ‘Canyon further. You really do have to be there.

Joshua Tree National Park, California.

This desert park is peaceful and under a big sky. Again by good fortune we enter by the less travelled route and drive for mile after mile alone – top down – through the bleak Mojave terrain. If your motah coughed its last here, it would not be good. When we arrive at the entrance the only real surprise is that there is an air quality gauge: here, in the middle (800,000 acres) of nowhere. It’s a saddening reality that the megalopolis of LA, San Diego and SoCal are prevailed upon by westerlies and that smog travels many, many miles inland blighting otherwise pristine areas.

J-Tree (I am so hip) has some cool rocks. Really. You find these immense jumbles of very gneiss rocks. [Look Mum, I did a geology funny, just then, did you see it? Gniess/Nice. Awwww.] Regardless of their scientific merit, they are top for scrambling and messing around on. We bimble about on foot, soaking up the isolation, imagining being lost in the desert. Skull Rock is aptly named (from a certain angle) but it’s the Joshua Trees that captivate with their uplifted “arms”. If I was a Dublin based rock band, I’d have named a whole album after it in the late 80s. (But I wouldn’t have made a whole website about it like some have.)

Zion National Park, Utah.

The bottom left bit of Utah has a rash of parkage with Zion being particularly popular. Named by the Mormon settlers, it’s a place of immense, glorious sandstone cliffs, petrified sand-dunes, hanging valleys and testament to momma natures powers of erosion. By happy accident we are lodging at the quieter north-east end of things and enjoy the unfolding dramatic vistas in peace. Less natural but dashed impressive are the tunnels that toiling engineers cut into the hillsides.: Highway 9 is a blast. The park took a wise decision some years back to ban cars from the main section and offer free busus. Genius. We take a shuttle, alight and skip off onto one of the many “trails”. It’s hot, sunny and still. The blue skies, sparse greenery and red stone make a riot of colour. The young Beers are captivated by teeny caves that they squeeze into causing minor panic from Mum.

Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah.

I didn’t know what a hoodoo was but I do-do now. Bryce’ is up higher – north and altitude – thus taking a bit more effort. How so? Well, to get into it you have to walk, er, into it. We park up and head on down, and down, and… Until we are amongst outrageous naturally carved pinnacles known as hoodoos. The good folk of the ‘Park Service have crafted reinforcements to the trails so that the many visitors don’t totally erode what they came to see. (A whole career of study in itself there I fear: tourism vs preservation.) Of course this doesn’t stop groups of Orientals scrambling to the very peak of one feature. If they weren’t being so obviously dumb, I’d have worried for their safety. Even J&M are aghast that people can be quite so idiotic and  – simultaneously – disrespectful: it doesn’t need keep off signage.

We prescribe a loop and try to imagine why the locals named the rocks. “Ooh look there’s Queen Victoria.”

They didn’t have telly in those days to be fair.

National Park Service

For Americans, the Parks are a masterpiece of restraint. You can only buy the minimum of supplies: no gas stations, malls nor food courts. They’ve made them accessible but not ruined the attraction. You have to work at it. The only OTT aspects are the parks themselves,they rightly remain the stars of the show.

What a triumph of vision and – doubtless – lobbying. To see the value in preserving nature back in the day shows a kind of long sighted nobility that is sadly absent in our modern times.

They are also a triumph of preservation over exploitation. You don’t have to be much of a bloodhund to spot the pressures on resources. For instance, there is a fascinating, painful back story about Uranium mining and the local tribes in Grand Canyon. One can only imagine the constant battles in DC to keep big business’ mucky paws of the wilderness. The parks resist such “progress” from constant attack.

For me US National Parks are the antidote to the homogenised nation that they are in. Variety, timelessness, history, science, nature: all are to be found in spades. Compare this to malls, drive thrus and all the other accompaniments to consumerism. Indeed, leaving Zion we headed to Las Vegas to fly home. Now there is an exercise in contextualising National Parks…

Mission Statement

“The mission of the U.S. National Park Service (NPS) is to conserve the scenery, the natural and historic objects, and the wildlife in United States’ national parks, and to provide for the public’s enjoyment of these features in a manner that will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

The Beers salute you.

We salute you US National Parks

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