Posted by: David Offutt | August 13, 2016

Our National Park Service at 100 Years (Part 1): Memories of My First Vacation

Roosevelt Arch at the north entrance to Yellowstone National Park (Photo: David Offutt 2015)

Roosevelt Arch at the north entrance to Yellowstone National Park (Photo: David Offutt 2015)

August 25 is the 100th birthday of our National Park Service, signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson in 1916. There are more than 400 national treasures included in the system owned by the American public so that generations to come will be able to enjoy them by either being able to visit them and/or being confident that they are secure from destruction.

 

I’ve been to our first national park, Yellowstone, three times – most recently in June 2015. I was looking forward to finally seeing the Roosevelt Arch, dedicated by TR in 1903, only to find it unapproachable. All around it was a huge construction site, so I had to settle on a distant view. They were sprucing up the northern entrance to the park to be ready for a ceremony this August 25. Engraved on the arch are the words “For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People.” I was really glad to see its surroundings being refurbished.

 

The Roosevelt Arch, June 2015, with construction taking place to improve the appearance of Yellowstone's northern entrance (Photo: David Offutt)

The Roosevelt Arch, June 2015, with construction taking place to improve the appearance of Yellowstone’s northern entrance (Photo: David Offutt)

In the late ‘70s when I began visiting a lot of national sites, I had been impressed at what a great job the park service did. That was before the Reagan Administration initiated major budget, personnel, and maintenance cuts that have been ongoing for 35 years. Throughout the ‘80s, I was always seeing embarrassing signs like those in park restrooms apologizing for not keeping them clean due to the lack of funds.  Slough Creek Campground, where I had camped on my first visit to Yellowstone in 1980, had to be closed for a while in the ‘80s because of insufficient personnel. I don’t know when it reopened. I planned to camp there last summer, but it was full-up. I had to settle on a national forest campground outside the park, which was fine.

 

David Offutt at Slough Creek Campground in Yellowstone National Park, June 1980

David Offutt at Slough Creek Campground in Yellowstone National Park, June 1980: Due to funding and personnel cuts, this campground was closed for a while during the Reagan Era.

All of our parks are essentially showplaces for who we are and what we stand for, and we need to fund them properly. The “greatest” and “richest” country in the world can do it if it has the moral will to do so. Every dollar spent by the federal government on the park service generates ten dollars in revenue on the state and local levels: visitor spending, job creation, taxes paid. Even Congress’s birthday appropriations for our parks this year left the parks with $12 billion of unfunded backlog maintenance, and there’s no excuse for this. Our parks must be included in future major funding for renovations to our national infrastructure that’s been neglected for 35 years.

 

We all get interested in our parks for different reasons. My father, an electrical contractor, never wanted to be away from work, so my first real vacation was during the summer of 1968 after my sophomore year at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. My Uncle Harper asked me to go with him on a trip to California. His wife had recently died, and some old friends in Los Angeles had asked him to come for a visit. He needed someone to share the driving and expenses – my father agreed to pay my share. To entice me, he mapped out two great routes from El Dorado to L.A. and back. Using Interstate 10 on the way out and Interstate 40 coming back, he planned many side trips including Tombstone, Ariz., and the Grand Canyon.

 

Harper Nixon, summer 1968, at a rest stop near El Paso, Tex. My uncle was one of my mother's (Foster Nixon Offutt) older brothers. On the way home from Los Angeles, he suggested that since the Grand Canyon was so far out of the way that we should skip our plans to see it. I reminded him that we were also going to visit Old Oraibi, one of the oldest continually inhabited villages in the U.S, in the Hopi Reservation to the east of the canyon. (Photo: David Offutt)

Harper Nixon, summer 1968, at a rest stop near El Paso, Tex. My uncle was one of my mother’s (Foster Nixon Offutt) older brothers. On the way home from Los Angeles, he suggested that since the Grand Canyon was so far out of the way that we should skip our plans to see it. I reminded him that we were also going to visit Old Oraibi, Ariz., one of the oldest continually inhabited villages in the U.S, in the Hopi Reservation  east of the national park. (Photo: David Offutt)

Our first side trip was to Carlsbad Caverns, and that’s when I discovered what kind of vacation this was going to be. Driving into the parking area, he said that we didn’t want to stay very long: “We just want to be able to say ‘I’ve been there.’” I couldn’t believe he didn’t want to tour the caverns. He even offered to wait on me if I insisted. Not wanting him to wait, I consented to leave. And that was the way it was for the rest of the trip, although there were times I made him wait, like at the replica of Independence Hall at Knott’s Berry Farm.

 

Nobody believed that we went to so many places in such a short time! It became known in the family as the “notorious ten-day trip.” We even got stopped for speeding by a park ranger in the Petrified Forest. Harper was trying to not stop at all the scenic turnoffs and, if he drove fast enough, was hoping I might miss some of the signs. My brother John once said that he always felt sorry for Harper because he was the only one in the family with money, but he never knew how to enjoy it.

 

Zuni Pueblo, New Mexico, summer 1968: My uncle paid these boys 25 cents each to pose beside this oven. (Photo: David Offutt)

Zuni Pueblo, New Mexico, summer 1968: My uncle paid these boys 25 cents each to pose beside this oven. Ever distrustful of native Americans, when Harper saw two older Zuni men on the bridge coming our way, he said, “Hurry up, David, we’ve got to go.” (Photo: David Offutt)

Nevertheless, that was the trip that got me hooked on wanting to see this beautiful country. I was later inspired by Alistair Cooke’s 1974 13-part TV series “America”, which was an early 200th birthday present to the United States. I began taking annual summer trips in the mid-1970s and have never stopped. And I eventually returned to all the places my uncle and I sped through.

 

There are national monuments, historic sites, battlefields, wildlife refuges, forests, lakeshores, rivers, and recreational areas; but only 59 are specifically designated as national parks. It would take a lot of effort to count how many of the others I’ve been to, but I know I’ve been to 38 national parks. Using Kodachrome slide film on most of my 20th century travels, I shared my photos with my students whenever appropriate. My American history students used to say that there was nothing we could study that I couldn’t show them.  That was an exaggeration, but not because I didn’t try.

By David Offutt

A version of this essay was published August 13, 2016, in the El Dorado News-Times as a guest column.

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Responses

  1. I enjoyed learning about your family, David. Parker would have gotten along well with my dad — our family vacations consisted of seeing how many miles we could cover in one day, hardly ever stopping, especially if the stop would involve spending money!

    As a child I got to see nearly every state east of the Mississippi and a good chunk of Canada, as viewed from the back seat as my dad zoomed down the highway. We saw all the Great Lakes — but never did anything at the Great Lakes, just drove by them. The Smokey Mountains — drove through them many times but never once stopped and did anything. Upstate New York, the Adirondacks, the Finger Lakes. Most of the big Eastern Cities — just drove through them without stopping. The Thousand Lakes area of Minnesota. New Hampshire, Maine. “Keep an eye out for moose,” my parents would tell me as we zipped along at 60 mph.

    The one thing my parents did like to stop for was winery tours, so I got to see lots of wineries, some of them multiple times.

    Also, my mother liked fancy glassware, so we toured the glassworks at Corning, NY.. That was pretty neat.

    My dad was interested in military history, so the one thing he did like to stop and visit was forts, particularly from the Revolutionary War. Ticonderoga, Niagara, and a bunch of others I don’t remember — they all looked pretty much the same. But for some reason he never had any interest in Civil War battlefields.

    So Parker’s trip lasted 10 days? Heck, my family trips between Arkansas and New York were typically 2 days each way. Once my parents drove straight through without stopping.

    Ditto for trips to Morehouse Parish, Louisiana to visit my mother’s family — the drive was boring as hell under the best of circumstances, nothing but cotton fields, with the only interesting stretch being the White River refuge. In those days there was no bridge over the White River, only a rickety little ferry. You always wondered if the ferry would make it across in one piece.

    No wonder I lack any interest in traveling. Of course now I have a good excuse because I can claim that staying home is the environmentally responsible thing to do.

  2. Good article. Good pictures. Glad it featured in El Dorado paper.

    Sent from my iPad

    >


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