Growing up, I was blessed to have camped, hiked, canoed, played, relaxed, and soaked in history exploring several dozen of our National Parks. Every summer since I was six month old, all the way through my teenage years, our family loaded into the station wagon, hooked up our modified pop-up tent, and set off from Austin to get away from the stifling mid-summer Texas heat. My family had been doing this long before I was born…as the youngest of six, I started these camping trips when I was 6 months old. While not yet complete, I’m compiling a list of the National Parks I’ve experienced during my nearly half-decade, and have a recurring question…can I “count” being in Big Bend NP when I was inside my mother the previous summer?
Mama & me. Inks Lake State Park, Texas (1969).
Our mother was the inspiration for our natural journeys…she was a women well before her time in everything she did…going to college in the late 1940s, being a chemist in the 1950s when most women didn’t work, and setting out on camping trips with her girl friends before she married…just the girls and a pup tent, way before this was cool. Our father never hesitated to let my siblings and me know that if not for our mother, we would never have gone on these fabulous escapades.
Mama hiking in the 1950s.
I recall these summer vacations fondly…with six kids, Mama, and Papa, our trips were always full of adventure! We hiked up mountains, through grasslands, besides lakes, and around canyon and volcano rims, dipping our toes & swimming in streams and lakes, and being drenched by unexpected storms along the way. We saw wildlife viewed before only in picture books…moose, elk, big horn sheep, marmots, coyote, pika, and of course my favorite, black bears. Noisy birds of every color and size graced the sky, trees, and bushes. History was brought to life for us kids getting to wander on Civil & Revolutionary War Battlefields, explore villages that Quakers and Colonial families lived and worked, and Indians had dwelled. The views were always spectacular…from the rim of the Grand Canyon to the glaciers of Glacier, to the geysers and potholes of Yellowstone, to the majestic redwoods of California, we relished it all during our roadside travels and hikes. Then, we would wind down our days at our campsites playing hide and seek, king of the mountain, and gin rummy sitting around our campfire or Coleman lantern together.
Being raised in a family that was privileged to take off two to four weeks every summer, I grew up with the misconception that everyone got to take that much time off work to spend with their families in the summer. While not wealthy, our parents understood the importance of family time and getting us outside in nature to play and explore, so they made these trips happen every year.
Hiking with my family in the early 1970s.
Flash forward to two summers before graduating college when my internships in Los Angeles kept me from partaking in the family summer vacation, then joining the working-world, where the much needed “two weeks/year vacation” benefit translated to a few smaller trips split throughout the year, helped me realize just how very special those long summer vacations were. Over the next two decades, my husband and I still got out to enjoy our National Parks…camping with our church groups amongst the Joshua trees and sequoias, cycling the rim of Crater Lake, and venturing back to the Tetons and Yellowstone, where I recalled my youth…soaking in the views, enjoying the wildlife, and catching the periodic glimpse of a black bear here and there. These road trips and days away from work were much shorter than the weeks of my youth, but very much valued.
Cycling around the rim of Crater Lake, Washington (1991).
My career took me from Texas to California to New York, and then back to Texas, where I learned that each state is amazing and unique in its own way. As a Civil Engineer in the environmental field, I was blessed to do much of my work out doors. My field work involved investigating sources of contamination in soil and groundwater, so while my time was spent outdoors, it was not exactly a hike in a National Park, yet it allowed me time outside and the opportunity to do something to right environmental wrongs caused by errant human activities. Some of my favorite times were spent in upstate NY, where my job often pulled me away from people and into rural areas, and even to the Adirondack Mountains. Who could have imagined that a degree in Civil Engineering would have taken me on trips to the middle of the Adirondacks, riding in the back of a pick up truck on high-rails, marking wetlands?
I transitioned from contaminated site assessment work into compliance and auditing…my hopes that keeping companies in compliance with environmental, health, and safety regulations, would prevent them from messing up the environment or harming their workers. Things got busy, travel increased, and my field time was spent more in manufacturing and petrochemical facilities, at gas stations or bulk petroleum facilities, or simply in the office than in nature. The further my career advanced, the more time I spent inside, managing projects rather than getting out into the field. I value all my career experiences, knowing that my time as a child getting out into nature gave me the passion to go into a career to help cleanup the environment and develop plans for industry to prevent further contaminating our great Earth.
Marking wetlands along the Adirondack Scenic Railroad (1994).
Then the kids came. My husband and I’d had a wonderful 13 years together building our careers, exploring our country and beyond, spending time together and apart on all our adventures, thinking we knew what life was all about. Our little girl joined us early one fall day, and forever changed our lives…immensely for the better. As we both adjusted our work and play schedules to this new bundle of joy, we wondered where we had spent our free time before she arrived. We assimilated her into our world, continuing our work and small journeys, bringing her, and later, her brother along to the places we traveled. We took the kids to our local nature preserves, ventured to faraway places to see natural and historic sites from Hawaii, to Paris, always avoiding vacationing during times that school kids would be out of school. Once again, our world was rocked when Ariana hit kindergarten and we had to join the masses during our summer adventures. As the kids got older, their studies and participation with group sports gave us less time to explore the natural world together.
It was Christmas time in Ariana’s 3rd grade year, that my father gave me a paper I had written in 4th grade titled “What I’m most Proud Of.” Reading it brought back amazing memories…what I was most proud of was that by 4th grade, I had been in 42 states, Canada and Mexico, and had never been on an airplane. Memories of all those road trips with my family, all those views, hikes, king-of-the-mountains, animals, and battlefields, returned. I realized that while our two young children had been fortunate to travel to many great places and a few National Parks, they had never been on a road trip to see our countryside…to truly experience what our great nation has to offer.
Our children on the Kalalau Trail, Hawaii (2008).
So the next summer when my husband was scheduled to be in trial, where there would be many weeks of 18 hour days for him, I decided it was time to take the kids on a road trip, out of the Houston heat, and to the mountains where you can play outside during the day! That first summer road trip was a success…we traveled 26 days, through three states (TX, NM, and CO), camping, hiking, and exploring eight of our National Parks and many State Parks, with the kids becoming Junior Rangers in both National and State Parks. Our adventures took us to dormant volcanic craters; to sand dunes and mountains waterfalls; to the majestic Rockies; to cliff dwellings and historic forts; and amazing natural springs. Returning to many places I had been to as a child brought back wonderful memories, and getting to share them with my children, along with creating new memories with them, was priceless. We didn’t want to return home, but we did, and set our sites on the next summer!
The following year, Summer 2014, I started planning for our summer adventures in the spring. I pulled out a map of all the National Parks & Monuments in the lower US, touched base with family and friends along the general route we wanted to travel, and set to work mapping out a route to capture as much history and beauty of our country that we could in our weeks away. Our journey took us up the Midwest through Indian Nations; to a memorial to innocent lives taken and our nation’s resiliency; to tallgrass prairies; to the Gateway to the West; to the Lock and Dam Systems of the Mississippi; to ancient burial grounds shaped like bears and eagles; to the monument depicting four of our greatest presidents. We saw towering rock formations and evidence of prehistoric beaver dwellings, explored the pristine waters of the lakes on our nation’s border, and saw eagles soaring above us; learning the stories and history behind the places along our travels.
Listening to the Park Ranger at Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve (2013).
And, I found my park. Through the many years, many miles, and many National Parks I’ve been, I found the park that will forever hold the number one place in my heart: Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
Even venturing into its state was a wonderful first…North Dakota…my 50th state. The visitor center posted a sign asking, “Is this your 50th State.” “Mom,” my kids asked, “did you see the sign? They want to know if this is your 50th state?” Indeed it was, so I was greeted enthusiastically by tourism staff, signed a registry, and received pins and a magnet touting that I had “Saved the Best for Last.” It was a welcome surprise, and it did have a special feeling, saving North Dakota for last (my kids are still a bit slighted that I didn’t “save the best for last” for them).
Traveling across the state on Interstate 90 in North Dakota was much more beautiful than I had imagined…I’d expecting flat, dry, and boring, and it was lovely and green with rolling terrain and ponds galore. Then, we arrived at our destination, Theodore Roosevelt National Park, and it took my breath away…the colors and the topography, the vastness of the ND Badlands, and the openness. “Mom, you’ve already taken our photo here!” “Oh, but the view is so different every way you look!” I was thrilled to have finally gotten to a National Park in a state where I had never been…and it was beautiful!
I found my Park! Theodore Roosevelt National Park (2014).
We explored the visitor center, learned a bit of the history of the park, picked up our park map and Junior Ranger materials, took our mandatory photo next to (well, on top of) the Theodore Roosevelt National Park sign, and set off to find our campsite. We found a great one in the South Unit, set out to explore the campground, and checked out the bulletin board to find upcoming park activities. I was a bit disappointed to learn that nightly Ranger Program, normally starting in the amphitheater just after dark, was being replaced with a “night walk” that would start much later than I’d preferred for my 8 and 10 year olds. My daughter, however, was thrilled to see there was horseback riding right in the park. “Mom, we need to ride a horse in Teddy Roosevelt National Park, just like he did!” Who could disagree with such great rationale?
As with many things that happen in life for a reason, despite my initial concern, the late-night program was a blessing. It gave the kids and I the chance to set up the tent, have dinner, check out where the horses were kept, and explore the river, experiencing so many new things before nighttime fell. After dark, we set off to find the Ranger group, armed with our nifty flashlights, but soon learned that we would not need them at all. The ranger explained how our eyes would adjust to the darkness, open our other senses, and we wouldn’t need a light at all. We hiked in an open field and listened to the night sounds, finding a thrill in not having to use a flashlight. We were further rewarded at the end of the Ranger Program by visiting astronomers who had set up a few telescopes, taught us more about what we could find in the nighttime sky, and let us experience it firsthand. We saw the Milky Way so vibrantly to the naked eye one could not imagine that it is not capable of being seen in most places because of ground lights. Through the telescopes, we got to see the rings around Saturn, and even another galaxy. The kids and I will never forget the magnificent darkness of that sky and the brightness of those stars!
Ariana & Zane check out the majesty of the Park.
The following day, our previous evening’s incredible experience was complimented with a horseback ride through the park. Taking advantage of the mode of transportation Theodore Roosevelt used was a real treat! It was so wonderful to cover the distance we did on a non-motorized peaceful manner, taking in the incredible views, seeing the colors of the hills and the vast expanse of the sky, and even experiencing a bison up-close and personal.
Our remaining time in the park included traveling the North Unit, enjoying hikes, climbing on rocks, and learning more about the history of the park and its namesake through the Visitor’s Centers and Junior Ranger program. While I may not always get it all right, I recall that a man named Teddy Roosevelt ventured out to North Dakota all those years ago to hunt bison and to recover from heartbreak, having lost his mother and wife on the same day. I remember the humorous stories of his bespectacled, polished, city-boy-on-a-horse appearance, and having to win over a roughneck in a bar to gain the respect of the locals.
In his own words, he held fast, “I have always said I would not have been President had it not been for my experience in North Dakota.” We are all so blessed that his time out in North Dakota, in what is now Theodore Roosevelt National Park, healed his soul, sparked his drive and commitment to conservation, and led to his being instrumental in protecting 230,000,000 acres of public land during his presidency.
Incredible rock formations in the Park's North Unit/
In the Summer of 2015, our family’s work dynamics changed again, and my husband got a chance to join us on our family’s summer road trip. He was a little leery at first, wondering how we were going to fit all our stuff into the back of my Jeep Commander (everything…clothes, camping gear, cooler, tools, and toys…has to fit inside…nothing can be strapped to the back or roof), and how two adults and two children were going to travel together in such tight quarters for so long (this year’s adventures were 39 days). We were all prepared for him to “need” to depart for meetings back in Houston, catching up with us occasionally when his schedule allowed. None of us will deny the first few days were challenging, particularly driving…I had been used to being the sole adult, mapping the route and taking off whenever I chose, but we quickly adjusted to him in the pilot’s seat, me navigating, and the kids chatting happily in the back (OK, so most of the time there was happy chatter…in between the bits of sibling bickering). This summer’s adventures took us to historic war sites…battles between Indians, Civil, Revolutionary, Battle of 1812, and WWII memorials. We walked where the slaves were herded from the boats in Montgomery, took in the history of our Civil Rights, and sat on the exact seat in the bus Rosa Parks refused to give up so many years ago. We took in the beauty of Gulf Island National Seashore, the Great Smoky Mountains, Shenandoah Mountains, Blue Ridge Parkway, New River Gorge, the Adirondacks, and everything in between, the kids earning Jr. Ranger Badges and us all meeting incredible people along the way, covering 17 states and experiencing 17 National Parks. The trip was amazing, made even more memorable, as every day of the trip was spent with our entire family of four, and catching up with family and old friends along the way.
So, while I am blessed to have experienced so many of our incredible National Parks, Monuments, Historic Sites, Riverways, and Seashores, and will continue exploring them with my family until I’ve seen them all, “My Park” will always be Theodore Roosevelt National Park. If it wasn’t for Theodore Roosevelt’s experience in North Dakota, rejuvenating himself in nature the midst of sadness, turning tragedy into triumph, recognizing the value and place of history, and setting a course to conserve our country’s natural resources, we may not be celebrating our Parks 100 Year Anniversary. There are times I believe we could all take a lesson from Theodore Roosevelt, take time out of our busy lives, remember our past, and connect with nature.
"I do not believe that any man can adequately appreciate the world of today unless he has some knowledge of...[and] some feeling for...the history of the world of the past." - Theodore Roosevelt
If not for nature and Theodore Roosevelt, we would not have many of our National Parks.
Becky Finds Her Park was originally submitted to the National Park Foundation in 2016 as part of the 100 Year Celebration of our National Park System (NPS). She and her children have now explored 45 states and over 85 NPS sites, including Big Bend National Park, the first NPS site she "visited" in the comfort of her mother's womb.