Everyone has their own opinion as to what the federal government does best -- which government dollar is the most well-spent, in other words. Some would say the military, or Medicare, or farm subsidies. For me, it's a close tie between the Interstate Highway System and the National Park System, both of which I appreciate whenever I get a chance to use them.
Which is why it was heartening to see President Obama taking his family to visit two of the crown jewels of the National Park System -- Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon. Most presidents don't even get around to visiting a National Park in their first year in office, unless you count the many places in Washington, D.C. which are administered by the National Park Service (technically, even the White House would count, under this designation). And even when most presidents do visit National Parks, it is usually to make a political point or push a specific piece of legislation, with a park as a convenient photo-op backdrop.
But Obama and his family weren't pushing any environmental legislation or making any kind of political point this past weekend. They looked like any other tourist family, there to enjoy the spectacular beauty with their kids (except for the Secret Service detail, of course). Barack Obama made a trip West with his own mother and grandmother when he was a young boy, and he obviously was taking the opportunity to do the same with his children. What could be more American and more family-oriented than that?
Some in the media didn't agree, and wrote fairly snarky reports of the Obamas in the parks. I chalk this up to the elitism of the coastal set, who sneeringly look down their noses at anything in what they like to call "flyover country" (since you're obviously supposed to fly over it on your way from one coast to the other).
Their loss. America has lots to offer, and much of it is hundreds of miles from a coast. Admittedly, there are some pretty boring parts of America (the Great Plains spring to mind), but there are also wonders to behold, tucked away here and there, that you'll never see unless you get in a car and drive there.
To be fair, I have to admit my own bias, which you've probably already guessed by now. I am unashamedly and unabashedly pro-park. I just got back from a trip where I visited my thirty-second National Park (Capitol Reef, in Utah). Since there are only 58 parks in all (eight of which are in Alaska, which I have yet to visit), I consider myself well on my way to seeing most of them in my lifetime.
Of course, the number of official National Parks changes over time, too. When I was growing up, for instance, there were only 35 National Parks. Some other sites (National Monuments, National Historic Parks, etc.) got upgraded to National Park status, and a few even got downgraded (to National Recreation Areas, for one). National Monuments I've visited have since become National Parks (Great Sand Dunes, in Colorado, for instance). But whatever their official designations, all are encompassed within the National Park System.
The Obamas picked a good park to start with, since Yellowstone was the first National Park in not just America but in the whole world. It became a National Park before the National Park Service or System even existed (which took place around 50 years later, in 1916). Yellowstone became a National Park owned by the federal government because there wasn't any state government in the area at the time (Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho all became states later). And anyone who has been to see it can easily tell why it had to be protected -- because it is simply spectacular. Beautiful enormous canyons, waterfalls, rivers, and mountains all lie within the park's boundaries, but what makes it truly unique are the hot springs and geysers. Everyone knows "Old Faithful" of course, but there are hundreds of other thermal miracles to see as well, including deep pools of hot water the color of emeralds -- or any other color in the rainbow you'd care to look at.
Likewise, the Grand Canyon does not disappoint. Some sights you travel to and kind of shrug your shoulders and say "Eh... it's not as spectacular as I thought it would be." Some things look a lot bigger in photos than they do when you're standing in front of them, leading to a sense of disappointment. The Grand Canyon is not one of these sights. It's big. Really, really big. Stupendously big. Mere words cannot describe its bigness. Even mere photos cannot capture its gargantuan size -- because no lens is that wide. You stand on its rim and look way, way off in the distance, and you can barely see the other side of it, miles away. You look down into it -- down, down, down -- and when you think you've spotted the bottom, you find there are more layers beneath that. You finally focus on the Colorado River (the culprit who carved the thing), and it is hard to believe how far down you're actually seeing. Quite plainly, it is almost too big for human minds to conceive.
The word "awesome" is massively overused, mostly because it's just so darn awesome to say. But only very rarely is anything labeled "awesome" truly full of awe, or awe-inspiring. Both Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon, however, measure up to the word -- I defy anyone to see either of them and not leave with a sense of awe.
In fact, I encourage everyone, no matter what part of these United States you live in (or even if you live elsewhere), to take a "trip out West" at some point in your life. Get in a car, and go explore everything west of Denver. Your choices of what to see along the way are numerous and varied. You can see the most beautiful mountains this country has to offer (my personal choice, as well as every magazine advertisement ever to use a mountainous backdrop, would be the Grand Tetons). You can also see: glaciers, deserts, canyons, natural bridges, giant trees, huge cliffs and waterfalls, cacti, rivers, sand dunes thousands of miles from an ocean, oyster shells on the top of a mountain ridge, the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere (Badwater Basin, Death Valley National Park, 282 feet below sea level), the highest point in America (Denali), volcanoes (dormant ones in the continental U.S., active ones in Hawai'i), seashores, lakeshores, landscapes that make you think you're on another planet (White Sands, Bryce Canyon, Joshua Tree), humongous caverns, balancing rocks, Native American ruins, a rain forest (Olympic), petrified wood, dinosaur bones, hot springs, and (of course) geysers like Old Faithful.
That's all just west of Denver, mind you. There's plenty of other stuff to see in the other direction, too. But seeing President Obama and his family take in two of the western parks (just after I got back from seeing some of them myself) prompted me to write this paean to the parks out West, to strongly encourage everyone -- yes, even you! -- to plan on a trip like this at some point. It's worth it.
And it's worth every single one of my tax dollars that go to pay for it. Yours, too.
Chris Weigant blogs at: ChrisWeigant.com
[Note: This column originally ran August 17, 2009. I don't usually re-run columns (and never so soon after their original appearance), but after watching the debut of Ken Burn's "The National Parks: America's Best Idea" last night, I had to dig this out. I strongly encourage everyone to watch the rest of Burns' series, which is running all week long on your local PBS station. I also strongly urge everyone to visit our National Parks, as well. This column was written just after a road trip I took this summer, and just after President Obama had visited Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon.]