Rural Identity, Academia, and my Complicated Romance with National Parks (Part 1)

Welcome to the second in a short series I’ve been writing in honor of the National Park Service’s centennial celebration. Last week I kicked off the series with a fun little post featuring a list of some of my favorites spots for visiting. I had started this series with the intention to expand on that introduction with a post or two anecdotes about visits to parks. But as I began working on that essay, I realized that I wasn’t being totally honest about how I think about the National Park Service.

My views are complicated by my academic training, where I’ve learned to view the National Parks and the history of tourism from a critical lens.  In my capacity as a college instructor, I challenge students to see the development of the Park system and earlier forms of nature appreciation within a broader context of Westward Expansion. I talk about how National Parks are part of a longer nationalist project that involved the forcible removal of Native Americans from new park lands and elsewhere across the U.S. We discuss how they instill a patriotic pride in the land and treat that land as though it is a national treasure that should be viewed, appreciated, painted, and photographed. And I know, because I have done my research, that this kind of landscape appreciation has long obscured the troubling realities of Westward Expansion and productive conversations about this episode in American history.

But still, I love National Parks.

In fact, I love them in a way that doesn’t even make sense to most people who live in the Pacific Northwest. Here, natural beauty is abundant enough that it’s quite common for me to find someone who is perfectly content to stick to hiking within a 60 mile radius of their house. There are people who never even think to go to Mount Rainier National Park because they have Mount Hood in their backyard. Why would we choose to go to a National Park when we can visit the Oregon Coast and find beaches that are arguably more sublime than most National Park sites? But for me, there’s nothing that beats staying for a few days inside park grounds.

What’s more, if I really think on it, I am pretty sure that my visits to National Parks as a child played a role in my later decisions to pursue an academic interest in art history – the very field of scholarship that has given me the tools to reflect critically on my own interest in the park system.  In fact, as I lay out in this multi-part essay, I think I can even attribute the National Parks to some of the most meaningful childhood growth experiences.

To unpack all of this, the rest of this posts starts where we often do at Un/Settled: with my rural background, but even more specifically, with a childhood in the rural midwest.

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A Kid of the 1980s in the Rural Midwest

Where I grew up as a child in the rural midwest, the world seemed composed of neatly articulated rectangular plots of land. I’ve defended the subtle beauty of this landscape before on this blog, and indeed I still believe that some of the most sublime displays of nature I’ve experienced were the storms that rolled in from the west. But in my particular corner of Iowa especially, there were virtually no hills much less a mountain. The land was articulated by a straight horizon line dividing patchwork from sky. Only a few buildings and an occasional tree broke this geometry. All the spectacle of natured happened on the top half of that line, and only on an infrequent basis,  always through some kind of transient phenomenon like a storm or a sunset.

This place did not look like the natural world depicted on TV or movies, which were usually filmed somewhere in the hills of southern California or somewhere else in the Southwest. There was nothing to resemble the surrealist red and orange mesas that appeared in both Westerns and the eponymous Looney Toons cartoons. There was no wilderness where an alien could crash like there is on E.T. (E.T.’s landscapes have long fascinated me. In some ways they are a pastiche. Elliot and his family live right next to a cornfield, but in other scenes their house seems situated in a desert city; other scenes are set among mountains and trees.)  

My brothers and I were starved for a nature that looked closer to the wilderness of the “all-American” kid and so we’d go on expeditions to seek out somewhere, anywhere, that might resemble that kind of setting. But the the closest things to cliffs were the gravel roads and driveway (I recall the adults chuckling whenever I’d collect rocks from them). I remember grumbling about how ugly our mud-bottomed rivers and streams were compared to the streams in popular fiction, those clear waters with smooth skipping stones where kids would fish or go swimming. Teachers told us that Iowa was blessed with rich black soil from the glaciers that plowed their way across the upper midwest. I was a bit jealous of Missourians in the Ozarks who were too far south to have their landscape leveled by these enormous frozen land compacters.

And so, I came to savor the summers when my family would drive across the country to visit our grandparents in southern California, as though they completed some missing part of how childhood was supposed to be.

Family Road Trips

These trips started after my youngest brother was born, right around the time the movie E.T. came out, in fact. Flying to California with three kids was too expensive, but because my grandparents were unable to travel in our direction, my parents chose to take us there. We’d go every other summer because the journey was such an enormous undertaking – three days there and three days back, give or take, depending on if my parents chose to drive through a night or chose to settle in somewhere for sightseeing.  On that first trip, I remember we three siblings squeezed in a backseat of a little miniature sky blue hatchback. Later we became a 1980s cliche in our wood-paneled pale yellow station wagon.

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Family on Mosaic Canyon hike at Death Valley NP last winter

I can’t remember exactly when we started going to National Parks, but I know that most of the ones we went to were between the Rockies and the Sierra Nevadas, in that patch of land that looks a little like Mars because everything is red.  And because my dad’s career involved a deep engagement with the earth, much of what we talked about was the color of the soil itself. I remember us talking about it like it was Mars or like some other planet – because it looked so entirely different than where we lived.

And that difference – that powerful sense of dislocation – was a key part of why the National Parks were so formative.

(Stay tuned for my final post on the topic, when I talk more about the National Parks themselves!)

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Titus Canyon Road Drive in Death Valley, last winter

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Feature Image: Public Domain photo of Delicate Arch in Arches National Park, in Utah near Moab.

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