The National Park System turns 100 in 2016, and the tendency at these milestones is to review the progress of the institution over the past century. In his applicationfor the Eugene C. Pulliam Fellowship, journalist Mark Woods made it clear that was precisely what he didn’twant to do. “My goal isn’t to tell the story of those first 100 years. Ken Burns already has done a masterful job of that in his documentary, ‘The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.'” he wrote. “My goal is to tell some of the stories shaping the national parks today — and examine what is going to happen to that idea in the next 100 years.” The result of his year’s worth of work is Lassoing The Sun: A Year in America’s National Parks, out today from St. Martin’s Press.
And it’s a daunting prospect. There are 59 National Parks, more than one for each week of the year, and likely more than one could cover with any depth on the $75,000 fellowship. So Woods proposed visiting twelve – one for each month, and each with a different set of challenges for the future. Dry Tortugas, off the Florida Keys, has decrepit facilities, no fresh water, and few visitors. Gateway National Recreation Area in Brooklyn has suffered from a lack of clear purpose of vision and little local interest. Meanwhile, Yosemite, with more than 4 million annual visitors, begs the question of whether it’s possible to love a National Park to death.
If you hadn’t read anything about the book before paging through the prologue, it might come across as another tome dealing with the frustrations of the generation gap – a family vacation in an anachronistic tourist destination peopled by a nostalgia-seeking Baby Boomer and his Digital Age daughter. It’s easy to prepare yourself for three hundred pages of congratulations for one’s own generation and hand-wringing over the questionable priorities of the next, easily a metaphor for the history of the parks and their uncertain future. It’s an almost familiar journey to sit down to read, but then, as often happens, there’s a surprise waiting around the bend for Woods and his readers: his mother, herself a lover of National Parks who nurtured his passion for them from childhood, was diagnosed with terminal cancer.
Throughout, the writing moves the reader from park to park, with a journalist’s exacting research and power of observation and a prose writer’s gift for metaphor. He meets colorful characters and recreates their conversations in a way that make one feel as though they’re sharing a mug of coffee at the same table. There’s no shortage of symbolism; he watches the year’s first sunrise atop Cadillac Mountain at Acadia National Park in Maine, the first place in the continental United States to see the sun rise, and watches the year’s last at Haleakalā on Maui, where he draws on Hawaiian legend for the title of the book. No spoilers, reader, you’ll have to find out for yourself.
Another topic of discussion throughout the book is the role of the National Park Service, which is charged with preserving the parks, but also making them available and accessible to the public, and what difficulties are inherent in trying to strike that balance. “I want you to feel like you’re home, because this is your home,” a ranger at Yosemite tells a group of children, “This is part of your property.” It’s a greatly American idea – that the nation’s most beautiful wilderness areas should be held in trust for generations of citizens to enjoy.
While the subject of National Parks might have been intensely personal for Woods from the start, the unexpected lessons on family, heritage, and legacy interwoven with technicolor descriptions of his visits to the parks along with a clear affection for each that makes them seem almost like family members themselves, make this gripping tale one that is almost guaranteed to haunt the reader long after the last page.
An advance copy of the book was provided by St. Martin’s Press in preparation for this story.