“National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.”
-- Wallace Stegner, writer, environmentalist and historian (1909 – 1993)
I was 7, in 1951, when my father drove our old Dodge from our small Iowa town to Rocky Mountain National Park. I’ve been visiting national parks, monuments and historic sites ever since. My parents, both teachers, considered trips we made during my childhood educational. If I complained about the long, hot drive across Kansas, straddling the thermos filled with ice water, or questioned why we had to stay in cabins with no inside plumbing or drinkable water, they’d scold me. They'd remind me how fortunate I was to experience altitudes above the tree line from the top of the Rockies' Trail Ridge Road, or look across the breadth of the Grand Canyon, or into the caves at Carlsbad, N.M. They were right.
'Have you paid your taxes for the past 40 years?' the ranger asked. 'You deserve it.'
Nine years ago, a helpful park ranger at Montezuma Castle National Monument in Cape Verde, Ariz., asked my silvery-haired husband his age before accepting cash for the entrance fee. Then he told us that Art met the qualifications for a Golden Age Passport, renamed Senior Pass in 2007: U.S. citizen or permanent resident, 62 years of age or older, with U.S. driver’s license, green card or passport. For a one-time charge of $10, the card gives us lifetime admission to more than 2,000 recreation sites managed by five federal agencies, including more than 400 national parks and monuments. Art questioned the deal that seemed too good to be true.
“Have you paid your taxes for the past 40 years?” the ranger asked. “You deserve it.”
He issued the card on the spot. We never leave home without it.
I’m a tree hugger and a vista enthusiast who wants to visit Maine’s Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park, in every season. Art, a history buff and Army veteran has never seen a fort, parade ground or a battlefield he didn’t want to inspect. Fort Bowie in Arizona required an hour’s drive off the highway, including a dirt road, then a moderate 3-mile hike to see the ruins of the fort. For more than 20 years, the Apaches fought with U.S. soldiers until Geronimo surrendered in 1886. These dusty, treeless sites are usually brutally hot during the summer and freezing during the winter, but when the love of your life has read three lengthy books about General George Custer and Crazy Horse, you’re going to smile, take his hand and tour the Little Bighorn Battlefield with enthusiasm.
The pass to the parks makes multiple visits guilt-free. Day trips to my favorite beach and the salt marsh of the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge on Plum Island, only 40 minutes from our condo in Boston, can be spontaneous. We spent one perfect Thanksgiving Day eating apples and peanut butter sandwiches there in the sunshine.
We’ve revisited Death Valley, the largest national park in the lower 48 states, on two different trips to California so that we could see both north and south sections of this eerie place where signs remind visitors: “Stop. Extreme Heat Kills. Walking After 10:00 a.m. Not Recommended.” Other signs warn of rattlesnakes, wild burros, flash flooding and red ants. This most memorable National Park has no cellphone or Internet service, but it offers stunning, otherworldly views of wilderness that are unforgettable. And I love that this park is managed by a woman.
When the love of your life has read three lengthy books about General George Custer and Crazy Horse, you’re going to smile, take his hand and tour the Little Bighorn Battlefield with enthusiasm.
On Aug. 25, 2016, the National Park Service turns 100. The centennial is more than a one-day birthday party, however. This week is National Park Week, when everyone is invited to visit the parks for free. An initiative last fall, Every Kid in a Park offers all fourth graders and their families free access to all parks for one school year.
Art and I will be headed west next month, with plans to visit Canyonlands and Arches National Park, in southeastern Utah. We’ll use our Golden Age Passport with gratitude for those leaders who had the foresight a century ago to preserve these sites for our enrichment and enjoyment.