The Centennial of the National Park Service has inspired many people to take journeys through the parks and write about them. Mark Woods planned a year-long odyssey to twelve national parks to ask questions about their future. Each park was supposed to symbolize a different issue the parks are facing in the future. He ended up on a journey that was more emotional and meaningful than he had anticipated, as his mother was diagnosed with cancer in the spring of that year. Lassoing the Sun: A Year in America’s National Parks is part memoir, part history lesson, and part a wondering of what the future will bring.
Many of the parks Mark Woods visited had family memories associated with them from his childhood. Memories of times with his parents and sisters growing up, of epic road trips to the Redwoods and other parks of the West and the East Coast. Woods wanted to recreate some of these memories with his own daughter, and planned a couple of trips with his family. One of my favorite quotes from the book was from his first trip with his wife, daughter and extended family to Redwood National Park, where he writes: “She already had figured out one of the great truths of about the national parks. The beauty wasn’t just the towering trees or rugged ocean. It was in being together, away from the concerns of work and school and daily life.” Woods was able to have other special times away with his mother, and Saguaro National Park became one of the backdrops as he dealt with her illness. I appreciated these sections of the book; I believe other parents will find encouragement to continue to plan trips with sometimes reluctant tweens and teens.
Another thread that winds throughout this book is the threat of climate change and the impact it will have – and is already having – on our national parks. He saw firsthand what could happen at the Dry Tortugas, the challenges the park is already facing as it sits precariously only a few feet above sea level. In the Grand Canyon he learned that protection of the parks needs to happen every day, in every generation, as they continually face threats from different directions. At Saguaro National Park, he discovered that management is complicated – even when there are challenges, as with declining populations of saguaro cacti, it’s not necessarily obvious what the causes or solutions are. I could really relate to the refrain of “it’s complicated” as I’ve read more in depth about the management of the parks this summer. Woods also tries to help readers think about what the parks are really supposed to be protecting – is it a snapshot of a moment in time, or something more fluid?
Woods was able to visit a wide variety of parks, and I enjoyed the poetry of his choice to watch sunrise at Acadia, Maine, the westernmost park, on New Year’s Day, and to watch sunset at Haleakala National Park in Hawaii at the end of the year. Some of the parks surprised me, such as Gateway National Recreation Area, which includes an abandoned air strip in New York City, and Flight 93 National Memorial in rural Pennsylvania. Woods makes interesting connections between places, between memories and the future.
I’m glad I got to go on a virtual journey with Mark Woods, seeing the parks through his eyes. I imagine it was difficult to write about his mother’s illness, but I appreciate him sharing some of those intimate family times with readers. This book made me want to go to even more parks, introduced me to some I had never heard of, and stimulated thought-provoking questions. I think you’ll enjoy his journey, too.