I’m not always great at slowing down when I travel. When I visit a national park, I want to see all the things and hike all the trails and explore as many nooks and crannies of the place as I possibly can. So I go and go and go until I collapse into a dreamless sleep around 9 p.m. only to wake up before the sun the next day and do it all again.
Ugh, you guys, Death Valley is so good. It's so good I cried on the way into the park. It was so pretty, so breathtaking, so different and so brilliant that it brought fat, literal tears to my eyes, tears so fucking big they rolled down my cheeks.
This is surprising to me because I've always thought of myself a forest creature, but here I am, spending all my vacation time in the desert, scaring lizards from their sun-soaked perches, guzzling water by the gallon, talking to cactus friends and falling madly, deeply and truly in love with America's deserts.
We were going to Crater Lake National Park. This was it, finally. We made the plan in the spring, knowing good and well Oregon might be on fire come the end of August, but still. We’d spent four years talking about visiting Crater Lake together and this was our year, dammit. Fuck the historical data, we were doing it.
“Fine,” I said, when I started planning this year’s birthday trip. “I’ll go to Arizona.”
I’d been thinking about the Petrified Forest since I drove past it on a cross-country road trip a few years ago. It felt like fate when I got there, like I was exactly where I was supposed to be.
Until a pronghorn walked across the road and I reached for my camera and realized it wasn’t there.
“No,” I said to the pronghorn. “Not fucking possible.”
But it was. I’d left the camera on the bed of my cabin, more than hour behind me. I stared at the pronghorn as it pranced across the road, cautious of me and my rental, then drove through the park, stopping a handful of times to gaze at the place I’d been dreaming about for four years before heading back to Flagstaff to get my camera and explore a few parks closer to my cabin.
I went back the next day, early.
“Ok,” I told myself. “This one’s for real.”
And it was.
There’s a way I laugh when I’m delighted by a park, a very specific sort of cackle that comes out of me. It’s involuntary and uncultivated, but it exists and I have noticed it escaping from me in moments of awed delight. I don’t know where it came from or when it started, but it’s there, my National Park-induced cackle.
It’s the sound I made when I scampered down the hill into the backcountry of Petrified Forest National Park, mud sticking to my boots, a swirling sort of mist making the day feel eerie and empty. It’s the sound I made over and over again as I got deeper into the park, as the colors changed from red to blue and back again. It’s the sound I made almost every time I got out of the car and it’s the sound I made when I looked at the colorful swirl of mud I’d accumulated on my boots at the end of the day.
I wish I had more words for the parks, more ways to describe the way they make me feel, the heavy fullness they generate in my heart. I use words like amazing and magical and special a lot when I talk about them and sometimes I feel like a broken record, going on about how this place is amazing over and over again, but it’s true. They’re all amazing, all the parks, the big ones and the littles ones, the ones you’ve heard of and the ones you haven’t.
Petrified Forest National Park is easy to visit if you’re heading east or west on 1-40. It’s on the way, no matter what direction you’re heading and is a beautiful and convenient scenic detour. Plus, this is the only park that includes part of the Mother Road, old Route 66, marked today by a 1932 Studebaker and a line of telephone poles that disappear into a field.
There are several easily-accessed trails, many of them paved, along with opportunities to head into the backcountry and explore off a maintained trail. There’s the petrified wood, of course, which you should not remove from the park, and some incredible desert landscapes as well as a few tasty historical morsels involving the Civilian Conservation Corps, the National Park Service and Fred Harvey and his girls.
Admission into Petrified Forest National Park is $20 for 7 days. The park is open every day of the year expect Christmas Day. During the busy season (June-September), the park is open 7 a.m. – 6 p.m., and 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. the rest of the year.
There were probably other light houses before this light house, but this is the one that I remember. This is the one I was first captivated by.
I can’t explain it, really, the lighthouse thing, why I find them so delightful, fascinating and intriguing. There’s just something about them, something special.
Maybe it’s the scene they set, the pop of interest they add to an already stunning shoreline. Maybe it’s the drama, the tales of pirates and shipwrecks, a fascination evoked early in me with countless playings of “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” Maybe it’s just their association with the shore and the sea, an association that makes them feel exotic no matter where they are, Ohio or some godforsaken craggy coast in a faraway land. Maybe it’s the mystery and intrigue they invoke, this power they have to make me wrinkle my brow and wonder about them, wonder about the people who manned the station, who sailed past it, who built it.
I can’t look at a lighthouse without wondering about its story.
The northernmost lighthouse along the Cape Hatteras National Seashore in North Carolina’s Outer Banks is the Bodie Island Light Station. Legend will tell you that Bodie, pronounced like “body,” is named after the bodies that washed ashore after shipwrecks. The waters off Cape Hatteras have claimed more than 5,000 ships since record keeping began in 1526 and the area is called the “Graveyard of the Atlantic.”
By 1837, the Cape Hatteras Light Station, now the tallest brick lighthouse in the country, was already built to the south of where the Bodie Island Light Station would eventually sit.
By order of the federal government, Lt. Napoleon L. Coste searched for potential sites for an additional lighthouse along the cape. Of Bodie Island, he claimed, “more vessels are lost there than on any other part of our coast,” and determined that ships heading south needed a beacon on or near the island to help them navigate.
Congress provided the funds for a lighthouse the same year, in 1837, but land purchase complications delayed construction by a decade. An unsupported brick foundation was laid at the behest of the project overseer, who had no lighthouse experience, and within two years the tower started to lean. By 1859, after several attempts to fix the tilted lighthouse, it was abandoned.
A second lighthouse was constructed nearby in 1859. Then the Civil War started. Confederate troops feared it would be used by the Union, so, in 1861, they blew it up.
Bodie Island remained dark until 1871, when construction began on the third Bodie Island Lighthouse, this time on a new 15-acre site purchased for just $150.
On Oct. 1, 1872, the Bodie Island Light Station exhibited its light for the first time.
Sixty years later the light was electrified, in 1932, and then, in 1953, the majority of the site was transferred to the National Park Service. Historic renovations have been completed on both the keeper’s duplex, which now serves as a visitor center, and the lighthouse, which still serves as a functioning navigational aid and is open for public tours.
As I drove past the entrance sign for Cape Hatteras National Seashore I tried to remember if I’d ever been inside of a lighthouse, if I’d ever had the opportunity to actually climb one. There are plenty of tight-spaced stair climbs in my memory, but none that I could positively identify as lighthouse related.
So this one, Bodie Island, would be my first.
I arrived early, like usual, purchased my ticket for the first lighthouse climb of the day and at 9:10 a.m., I followed six other visitors up the spiral stairs to the top of the lighthouse.
There are nine landings on the way up, only one person is allowed on each flight of stairs at a time and only eight visitors are allowed entry per climb. It’s slow-going as you stop and wait for the person in front of you to make their way to the next landing, but there’s plenty to admire on the way up.
“Hold on to your hat,” the ranger at the top said. “It can get pretty windy up here.”
And it was.
“You can stay as long as you like,” she added.
So I walked around the gallery deck maybe five times taking in the view from all angles, listening to the other visitors talk about what they could see, the places they were going or had already visited and could spot from the air. I listened as the ranger answered questions about the lighthouse, about the amount of visitors it gets, about how busy it gets up top, about where else she’d worked and how she was enjoying her time at Cape Hatteras.
I watched as an older woman tucked herself just inside the lighthouse and peered out onto the gallery platform, hand firmly placed on the door frame. She said she appreciated the view very much, just not the heights and was fine looking out from within, thank you very much.
The ranger pointed out the line where the the National Seashore begins. It’s easy to see from the top of the Bodie Island Lighthouse. It’s where the giant beach houses stop, where the coast goes wild. There’s some 70 miles of wild coast after that, all protected by the National Park Service.
“It just goes on and on,” I said to the ranger. “That’s great.”
I made my down slowly, pausing at each landing, peering around the twist of the stairs to see if anyone was heading up, careful to follow the rules, like always.
I stood outside and looked at the lighthouse for a while, leaning into my car trying to imagine all that happened before I showed up and climbed the 214 stairs to the top of the Bodie Island Lighthouse.
What was it like, I wondered. What was it like to live in this place, in the duplex below a lighthouse that helped stop ships from wrecking?
The Bodie Island Lighthouse at Cape Hatteras National Seashore is open from the third Friday in April through Columbus Day and climbs are available every 20 minutes, starting at 9:10 a.m. every day. Tickets are required and can be purchased for $10 from the visitor center starting at 9 a.m. Tickets are available on a first come, first serve basis and go quickly on weekends and holidays. The light is not air conditioned and can be hot and cramped, especially during the warmer months. Climbers must weigh less than 260 pounds and be taller than 42 inches and be able to climb the stairs on their own. Only eight visitors can climb the tower at one time, however there’s no time limit once you’re inside the lighthouse. The Bodie Island Lighthouse is one of three lighthouses within the boundaries of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore.
I’ll tell you that his mother died when he was three, that his father was already gone and, an orphan, he was adopted by John and Frances Allan in Richmond. I’ll tell you he considered Richmond his home, called himself a Virginian and gave one of his last readings of “The Raven” here. I’ll tell you about The Poe Museum and the two black cats who live there, kept by the museum in honor of Poe’s love of cats. They’re named Edgar and Pluto.
When I went to Philadelphia, I realized I have some very strong feelings about Poe and what cities should be able to claim him. Philly is home to the Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site, and that makes sense because Poe lived and wrote there for six years. They were some of his happiest and most productive years.
While Poe lived in a bunch of houses during his Philadelphia years, the house where the National Historic Site now resides is the only one still standing. He rented the house in 1843 and probably stayed there for less than a year with his wife Virginia and mother-in-law Maria Clemm, who was said to always be busy cleaning and cooking for the couple.
He wrote some of his most-known works in Philadelphia, including “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and, in total, he published 31 stories during his time there.
While no remnants of Poe’s time in the house exist today, the National Park Service has done an incredible job telling the story of his time in Philadelphia and in the house. They fill in the details where there are none.
The site includes the original home Poe and his family lived in, along with two adjoining residences built after his time there, now used to house a welcome area, a gift shop, theater and a few exhibits.
There’s even a creepy basement.
Poe and his family moved out in the spring of 1844 and a few other families rented the house until Richard Gimbel bought it in 1933. He was a fan of Poe and opened it as a museum, leaving it in his will to the city of Philadelphia. In 1978, the National Park Service took control of the home and opened it to the public in 1980.
The ranger here was incredible, which was actually pretty standard for all the park rangers I encountered during my time in Philadelphia. As I walked up from the creepy basement, I told the ranger I thought Poe would approve of the place, that I think he would have liked it. He said he liked to think so too, especially when the spiders were busy in the basement and the slugs were sliding their way across the walls.
So, Philly can have part of Poe. They can claim him, just like Richmond can, but what I learned in Philly is that I’m really not good with Baltimore hogging all the Poe-related attention. Yes, he lived there for a bit, but mostly he died there – on his way from Richmond to Philadelphia.
He was 40 then, in 1849, when he was deliriously wandering the streets of Baltimore. He was taken to Washington Medical College but died Oct. 7, 1849, and no one really knows what happened. The clothes he was wearing weren’t his own. He allegedly called out the name “Reynolds” a handful of times the night he died, but no one knows who he was talking about, and his medical records and death certificate are lost.
That’s mostly all we know. There were rumors, of course, that he was drunk, that it was rabies that killed him, or syphilis, or heart disease. But mostly, we don’t know.
Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site is located in the city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, although it’s more than a mile from the main historic district.
Admission is free and the site is open Friday-Sunday 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. You can request a tour from a ranger or you can pick up a self-guided tour guide and explore at your own pace. There’s a Reading Room on site, too, and visitors are invited to read or listen to Poe’s stories and poems.
My boss asked, “Do you want to go Bedford for D-Day on Wednesday?”
In mostly one breath I said, “Yes, yes, of course I want to go to Bedford because the Booker T. Washington National Monument is there, or at least near to there and if I go down earlier on Tuesday and use it as a travel day then maybe I can swing by and spend a few hours there, so, yes, I’ll go.”
It was a lot of words all at once and I went full nerd about the chance to visit the site, one of the last national parks in Virginia I haven’t visited. It’s three hours away so popping down for a day didn’t seem like a great use of my time when I have a job that sends me all over the state and I knew if I waited it out, sooner or later, I’d get myself down there.
Booker T. Washington was born into slavery in 1856 in southwest Virginia, a little southeast of Roanoke, on a plantation owned by James Burroughs. When he was nine, in 1865, Booker and his family gained their freedom under the Emancipation Proclamation.
According to Washington, a stranger, presumably an U.S. Army officer, came to the plantation, made a speech, read the Emancipation Proclamation and told the slaves gathered there that they were free. Washington said his mother, Jane, leaned down and kissed her children as tears of joy ran down her face.
Now free, Washington and his family went to West Virginia where he started school. He continued his education and eventually made his way to the Hampton Institute, and, in 1881, the president of that institution recommended that Washington head the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute in Alabama, which later became the Tuskegee Institute and is today Tuskegee University. He led the school for the rest of his life, adding to the curriculum and the campus and, along the way, becoming a national leader.
Today, the Booker T. Washington National Monument preserves the birthplace and boyhood home of Booker T. Washington, while also serving as a place to reflect upon and learn about this part of our collective American history.
I started my visit in the visitor center, like I usually do. I wandered through the displays, talked briefly with the volunteer manning the front desk – himself a graduate of Tuskegee – and set out down the hill on the Plantation Trail, a quarter-mile loop that goes past the garden, a few reconstructed 19th century farm buildings, the footprint of some of the original buildings and a farm area.
I visited a reconstructed tobacco barn, walked a little of the Jack-O-Lantern Branch Heritage Trail and then headed toward the farm area of the park, just in time to be let inside the turkey pen where I met Turkules (sounds like Hercules) and Xena.
Turkules is a very proud turkey and he had a lot of things to say to me about being a turkey and about how beautiful his feathers looked. It was all very impressive and he’s definitely a ham. Apparently, this is a show he puts on whenever there are guests around.
There are ducks too, some fat sheep, a few pigs and some very sweet horses. As with other national parks that include a farm, attempts have been made to include the same breeds that would have been on the farm when Washington lived there.
I walked back up the hill after visiting all the animals and taking one last look at the park’s buildings. I talked to the ranger and volunteer in the visitor center for a while, like I always do when there’s time and things are busy. I tried to think of good questions, but we talked mostly about the other parks we’d visited, about the different sorts of people who come through the park, about how beautiful New Mexico and Arizona are and I left smiling, like I usually do, thankful to have visited another important part of American history and to have spent time in the company of a few fellow park nerds.
Associate yourself with people of good quality, for it is better to be alone than in bad company. – Booker T. Washington
Booker T. Washington National Monument is in southwest Virginia, near Roanoke, and admission to the park is free. The park is open daily 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and is closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. The park is also sometimes closed due to inclement weather and visitors can call 540-721-2094 to make sure the park is open and for more information.
That – the flight stuff – is something you’ll definitely notice if you visit the Outer Banks, home to the Wright Brothers National Memorial and the site of the world’s first successful, manned & powered flight.
It all started in 1900, at least the part that includes the Outer Banks.
Orville and Wilbur Wright, two brothers from Dayton, Ohio, wanted to conduct some manned gliding experiments and, after looking at some data from the U.S. Weather Bureau to find the most favorable and consistent winds for their flying adventures, headed to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. They’d been thinking about flight for a few years at that point and were finally ready to test some of their theories and creations.
They tested a glider that first year in Kitty Hawk, launching it from the Kill Devil Hills, a spot they’d continue to use as the base of their aviation experimentation for the next several years and the spot where, today, the Wright Brothers National Memorial sits.
After a few years of experiments and near-constant tweaking of their gliders, the brothers built the Wright Flyer I, their first powered machine. On Dec. 17, 1903, Orville climbed aboard the flyer. The wind was cold and hard at 27 mph. At 10:35 a.m., Orville released the wire, the flyer rolled down its rail and lifted into the air for 12 seconds while Wilbur ran along beside it.
According to the National Park Service, it was the first time “a manned, heavier-than-air machine left the ground by its own power, moved forward under control without losing speed, and landed on a point as high as that from which it started.”
That same day, the Wright Brothers conducted three more test flights, taking turns piloting the flyer with each flight. When Wilbur flew his second flight, and their fourth and final attempt that day, he managed 852 feet in 59 seconds, a considerable jump from their first 12-second flight.
Today, a marked flight path shows the end of each of those four first flights attempted by the Wright Brothers in 1903.
The Wright Flyer I never flew again. A gust of wind caught it just after its fourth flight, flipped it over and damaged it beyond simple repair. The brothers sent a telegram to their father reporting on their success.
On March 2, 1927, the site of the Orville and Wilbur’s first flights was dedicated as Kill Devil Hill Monument. A few years later, in 1933, the War Department handed it over to the National Park Service and 20 years later, on Dec. 4, 1953, fifty years after the first flight, the site was designated as the Wright Brothers National Memorial.
Today, the 400-acre national park includes a 60-foot memorial that sits on top of the now-stabilized Kill Devil Hill. It was dedicated in 1932, on a cold, windy and stormy day, and Orville Wright himself was the guest of honor. There’s the flight line to explore too, reconstructed camp buildings and a sculpture that serves as an artistic rendering of the first flight.
I visited the park on the last day of my last minute beach vacation back in May. I’d driven past the entrance to this park dozens of times over the years on various Outer Banks adventures, but had never taken the time to go inside the park. I got there early, right after they opened and just as a school bus full of screaming, racing, scampering children poured into the park. I was ahead of them for a little bit – it takes time to organize a gaggle of school kids – but they caught up to me as I walked the flight line, racing their way from point to point, screaming, laughing and yelling the entire way.
As it turns out, history can be real fun for kids, so long as they can barrel through it at full speed and maximum volume.
Every time I visit North Carolina, I’m reminded of its flight-related feud with Ohio.
The Wright Brothers lived in Dayton, Ohio, and Ohio has taken credit for their accomplishments, adorning their license plates with “Birthplace of Aviation.” In 2003, Congress even declared Ohio as the birthplace of aviation since that’s where the brothers were from.
Still though, North Carolina’s plates claim the state at the “First in Flight.”
It’s also possible they’re all wrong, that the first flight had nothing to do with the Wright Brothers and that neither Ohio nor North Carolina can claim it as a license plate-worthy highlight.
Wright Brothers National Memorial is located in Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina, in the state’s Outer Banks. It’s open daily (except on Christmas Day) from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission to the park is $10 per adult, while kids under $15 can visit for free.
In the gift shop, I bought a National Parks Passport, a small booklet with information on America’s National Parks with room for commemorative collector stamps and cancellations, which are just stamps with the site name and date. I got my first cancellation at Alcatraz and that’s probably where it started.
“I think I want to try and visit all 59 National Parks,” I said to Tara as I made my way to the cash register, National Parks Passport in hand.
For a few years, that goal, to see America’s 59 National Parks seemed sufficient. Until it didn’t.
Now, there 60 national parks administered by the National Park Service that are called “National Parks.” There are 417 national parks in total that are administered by the National Park Service, but they go by a lot of different names. They’re called “National Monuments” and “National Battlefields” and “National Seashores” and “National Historic Sites” and there’s even one “National Park for the Performing Arts.” They’re called a lot of different things, but they’re all part of America’s Best Idea, all part of the National Park Service.
At some point I decided that just seeing the sites designated as a “National Park” wasn’t enough. I wanted to see them all, all 417 glorious, varied and scattered sites.
I’m still at the beginning of my quest, still just 68 parks into this adventure, but it’s created a fire in me. When I travel, I want to see these sites. I want to go to these places that America picked to protect and save and commemorate, for whatever reason, whether it’s a battlefield, a stunning and unique landscape or the home of one of America’s most famous figures.
Sometimes people ask me why I’m doing such a thing, why I want to visit these 417 sites, and it’s a thing I couldn’t really articulate in the beginning.
“Because why not?” I’d exclaim. “Because it sounds like a great adventure!”
It makes more sense now, now that I’m in the thick of the thing.
I’m doing it because I love this country. It’s not always perfect, this land of ours. We’ve made mistakes in our short history and we’re still figuring ourselves out, still forging our own identify, but I love it, flaws and all. It’s why I raised my right hand and swore allegiance to protect and defend it more than 15 years ago and it’s a big part of why I want to see all these parks, to spend more time with America, the land that I love.
I’m doing it because I love learning. This quest has taken me to the place where George Washington was born, to the site of hundreds-year-old ruins in New Mexico and Arizona and to a spot in Washington, D.C. that served as a headquarters for the fight for women’s suffrage. There’s the battlefields, too, and, of course, places like the
When I visited Casa Grande Ruins National Monument, I spent 15 minutes talking to a volunteer about what it feels like to be there first thing in the morning, to wander through the ruins before the tourists arrive. He talked about the people who used to live there, the ones who built the centuries old site, who used to call the place their home. He told me he knew they were still there, that he felt them in those quiet morning moments.
I explored the ruins hoping to feel what the volunteer felt, but I didn’t and I was sad I wasn’t able to be there when the site was quieter and calmer.
When I found myself alone at a pueblo within Wupatki, more than 200 miles north of the Casa Granda ruins, I understood what he was talking about. I got it. I felt it.
I didn’t feel alone. I knew I was the only person there, knew the last visitors had left, that there weren’t any more cars in the lot and I could see the whole site and know that it was just me there, but I still felt them, still felt like I was a guest, one invited to stay just until the sun started to set. I felt welcome there, but there was a warning, too, that the place wasn’t for me once the sun went down.
Around 800 years ago, Wupatki was one of the largest and maybe most influential pueblos around. Archeological research suggests the eruption of nearby Sunset Crater Volcano pushed people toward Wupatki and aided in the site’s rising influence.
Today, Wupatki National Monument includes the remains of Wupatki Pueblo, the largest pueblo within the monument, as well as Lomaki, Box Canyon, Citadel, Nalakihu and Wukoki Pueblos. I found myself alone at most of these smaller pueblos, and that’s where I felt them, the ghosts.
I visited a total of seven National Park units while I was in Arizona, including the Grand Canyon and Saguaro National Park, but there was something I felt at Wupatki National Monument that stayed with me. Maybe it was that I had the place to myself or maybe it’s just a really, really special place.
The only way I know how to describe it is that this place continues to haunt me. I felt it when I was there, I felt it on the plane when I was heading home and I feel it still, the gentle pull of curiosity that comes from brushing up against otherness.
A LITTLE LIGHT HISTORY
The ruins within Wupatki National Monument were built by the Ancient Pueblo People.
The Wupatki Pueblo included somewhere around 100 rooms and experienced a population boom after the eruption of Sunset Crater Volcano in the late 1100s. It was the largest building in a 50-mile radius and was home to around 100 people.
In addition to the other pueblos, there’s a ball court, a visitors center and a geological blowhole, and, of course, a whole bunch of history.
GOOD TO KNOW
Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument and Wupatki National Monument are adjacent to one another. There’s a 34-mile scenic route that connects the two sites, leading visitors through ponderosa pine forests and then dipping into a painted desert. It’s beautiful and varied and an excellent primer to exploring the variety of Arizona’s landscapes.
Both Sunset Crater and Wupatki are just a short drive from Flagstaff, Arizona, and I spent about three and a half hours exploring the two sites, but if you’re interested in doing a longer hike or are someone who likes to read everything in the historical exhibits, I’d allow another hour or two.
The trails and pueblos of Wupatki National Monument are open from sunrise to sunset every day, while the visitor center is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day, except for Christmas.