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Lassoing the Sun: A Year in America's National Parks

Lassoing the Sun: A Year in America's National Parks

by Mark Woods


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"In this remarkable journey, Mark Woods captures the essence of our National Parks: their serenity and majesty, complexity and vitality—and their power to heal." —Ken Burns

For many childhood summers, Mark Woods piled into a station wagon with his parents and two sisters and headed to America's national parks. Mark’s most vivid childhood memories are set against a backdrop of mountains, woods, and fireflies in places like Redwood, Yosemite, and Grand Canyon national parks.

On the eve of turning fifty and a little burned-out, Mark decided to reconnect with the great outdoors. He'd spend a year visiting the national parks. He planned to take his mother to a park she'd not yet visited and to re-create his childhood trips with his wife and their iPad-generation daughter.

But then the unthinkable happened: his mother was diagnosed with cancer and given just months to live. Mark had initially intended to write a book about the future of the national parks, but Lassoing the Sun grew into something more: a book about family, the parks, and the legacies we inherit and the ones we leave behind.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250105899
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Publication date: 06/14/2016
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 347,713
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Mark Woods is the metro columnist for the Florida Times-Union, the daily newspaper in Jacksonville, Florida, and a recipient of the Eugene C. Pulliam Fellowship. He lives in Jacksonville, Florida.

Corey M. Snow is a full-time audiobook narrator and voice talent from the great Pacific Northwest, working from his home studio in Olympia, Washington. In his life before becoming a narrator he has been a typesetter, a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division, a software developer, and much more.

Read an Excerpt

Lassoing the Sun

A Year in America's National Parks

By Mark Woods

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2016 Mark Woods
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-250-10590-5



My alarm went off at four A.M.

I hit my watch and took a few seconds to remember where I was and why I was there.

I was in Maine for New Year's Day. It was dark, 30 degrees outside.

The first light of another year in America was about eleven miles and three hours away — 7:09 A.M., atop Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park, the highest mountain in Maine and on the whole North Atlantic seaboard.

* * *

WHEN PEOPLE HEARD about my chance to spend a year in the national parks, they inevitably had two reactions. First, they asked if I needed someone to help carry my luggage. Second, they made a suggestion.

You have to go to ... Glacier, Crater Lake, Zion. Whichever park was their favorite.

I explained there were a lot of places I wasn't going to make it to in one year. When the National Park Service was created by an act of Congress in 1916, there were fourteen national parks and twenty-one national monuments. By the time I headed to the parks, the park service was on its way to passing four hundred sites, which fell into more than twenty different designations. National seashores, national monuments, national lakeshores, national battlefields, and on and on. The park near where I live in Florida has a one-of-a-kind designation — Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve.

They all are pieces of our National Park System, managed by the National Park Service. But when we talk about national parks, most people think of the places with the grandest designations, with "National Park" as their surname. There were fifty-eight at the time. A fifty-ninth was in the works. Pinnacles National Monument, south of San Francisco, was on its way to becoming Pinnacles National Park.

When people said I had to go to a specific park, I explained that my goal wasn't to see the most beautiful parks or to visit as many as possible. My goal was to go to twelve parks — one a month, each symbolizing a different issue facing the national parks in the next hundred years.

This, of course, was in some ways impossible. It's hard enough to see a hundred minutes into the future, let alone a hundred years. In 1916, kids were building miniature wooden forts with a new toy that Frank Lloyd Wright's son had created: Lincoln Logs. And actual homes were taking advantage of the latest technological advance: a toggle switch to turn on lights.

In 1916, who could have imagined some of the changes and challenges that the first hundred years would bring to the park service? Kids carrying around telephones in their pockets? Traffic jams on the floor of Yosemite Valley and on its rock walls?

And for all the talk about people loving their parks to death, the National Park Service heads to its next century facing a much bigger threat. People not loving their parks to death. Apathy. Or, if you prefer the word I heard used over and over, starting with NPS director Jonathan Jarvis: relevancy.

"We exist only upon the wishes of the people," he said when I met with him in Washington, D.C. "Remaining important to society is critical to our future."

In the last hundred years, America has changed, becoming less rural, more diverse, and — for better and worse — more attached to technology. America will continue to change. And in another hundred years, will Americans still care passionately about the national parks?

To start the year-long search for answers, I decided to start in one symbolic spot: Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park.

When a new year dawns in America, this is where it begins — with first light hitting the 1,530-foot summit on Mount Desert Island in Maine.

Maybe. In America, we seem to debate everything, even the site of our first sunrise. In 1999, the town of Lubec protested after the U.S. Naval Observatory declared that the summit of Cadillac would be the first place to see the sun rise on January 1, 2000. Lubec, located in Maine's Washington County (billed as "Sunrise County"), argued that while its Porcupine Mountain is only 210 feet, being sixty miles east of Cadillac gave it a thirty-second edge.

The U.S. Naval Observatory redid the calculations and — saying that the refraction of light in the atmosphere can cause fluctuations in how quickly light arrives at a spot — conveniently declared it a tie. Siasconset, Massachusetts, also claimed to be first. And if you want to get technical, St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands beats all the New England sites. And it is trumped by Guam ("Where America's Day Begins"). And there's a small island managed by the U.S. Air Force ...

Suffice it to say: While it was tempting to begin the year in St. Croix, first light atop Cadillac seemed fitting.

The park was created in 1916, just weeks before the park service, when President Woodrow Wilson established it as Sieur de Monts National Monument. It was the first national park east of the Mississippi River. It became Lafayette National Park in 1919 and Acadia National Park in 1929. And as both the park and the park service headed toward their centennials, Acadia seemed like a 47,000-acre microcosm of the future.

In many ways, it is a model park, a place that with the help of partners such as Friends of Acadia is better off today than it was several decades ago. But it has dilemmas about technology and infrastructure, cell phone towers and parking lots. It is intertwined with towns, creating a mix of cordiality and conflict. It has something the park service is trying to preserve here and in other places: stunningly dark night skies. It straddles geographic zones, making it a place to watch the effects of climate change. And in the last century, the summit has become such a popular destination that one of the park's biggest dilemmas is how to handle the traffic and crowds.

"It's our Old Faithful," park planner John Kelly says.

Compared to other iconic national parks, Acadia is a compact park. Yellowstone is 3,472 square miles and attracts about 3.4 million visitors a year. Acadia is 73 square miles and attracts about 2.4 million visitors a year. Many of them, including President Obama and his family in 2010, go to the summit of Cadillac. On a typical late summer day, the road and parking lot are packed with cars and tour buses.

There was another reason to start the year atop Cadillac. Long before any of this — before today's cruise ships and tour buses, before yesterday's cog railway and hotels, before anyone was arguing about the location of America's first sunrise, before there even was an America — this was a place where the original locals gathered.

Ancestors of several modern-day tribes, collectively known as Wabanaki ("People of the Dawnland") came to the top of this mountain.

They came to greet the sun.

So with all of this in mind, I circled New Year's Day on my calendar, contacted several people in Maine, and asked if they knew of anyone who started each year by watching sunrise atop Cadillac. More than one gave the same answer.

"Lili Pew," they said.

They said Lili, a former board chair of the Friends of Acadia, was very active in the park. And by active, they didn't just mean raising funds. She was in the park nearly every day. Biking, hiking, cross-country skiing.

They gave me her contact information. They wished me luck trying to keep up with her.

* * *

STATE ROAD 3, heading toward Bar Harbor, was quiet. I passed motels and cottages, signs for putt-putt golf and glider rides, lobster pounds, antiques shops, handcrafted wood cupolas, and homemade hard ice cream. All closed.

I could picture this two-lane road bustling with activity in July. But with January around the corner, it felt like I had dropped into a Stephen King novel. And not the first few chapters when everything is almost normal. The end, after some sinister force has taken a quaint corner of New England and wiped out all but a few humans.

It had been an unseasonably warm start to the Maine winter. The lakes and ponds weren't covered with ice yet. But the fall leaves were long gone, and they seemingly had taken with them most of the other colors. Even though it was not much past noon, the sun was low and muted.

It was both bleak and beautiful.

It was six weeks before the New Year. I was headed to Maine to meet Lili and plan for the first sunrise. At this moment, though, I was trying to make it to a campground before the rapidly approaching sunset.

I inadvertently ended up on the Park Loop Road. This twenty-seven-mile, mostly one-way road is one of the iconic stretches of pavement in the national parks. At certain times of the year, cars are lined up bumper-to-bumper. On this day, I drove the loop without seeing a single vehicle in front of me or in my rearview mirror.

By the time I made it around the loop and to the Blackwoods Campground, it was nearly dark. The booth at the entrance was empty. A sign said to find an available site and self-register in the brown box on the porch.

There are more than three hundred sites in the campground. A few months earlier, every single one of them would have been full, the campground buzzing with more than a thousand people. Now one section was open. And when I drove into Loop A, the light dimming even more under the trees, I didn't see another person.

There was a tent set up in one site, a motorcycle in another. But as best as I could tell, that was it.

I picked out a site, decided it wasn't right, picked out another, changed my mind again, and then finally realized how silly this was. I took one that seemed nice and flat, not too far from the one lone open bathroom. I pulled my tent out, and as I started to set it up, it began to rain. A cold rain.

I'm sure if someone had been there and had been watching me, they would have been shaking their head. I eventually got the tent set up, crawled inside, and looked up.

The rain fly was inside out.

This was hardly backcountry camping. I had a rental car twenty feet away, a bathroom nearby. And the temperature, while chilly, was above freezing. Still, this felt foreign and unnerving. I felt like a camping virgin.

I had decided that when I traveled during the year I would camp as much as possible. This was partly to stretch money as far as possible, partly because you have a different experience in a park if you sleep on its ground.

Or at least that's what I told myself. The truth was that I hadn't done much camping since I was a kid. I still was outside nearly every day. Running, biking, paddleboarding. But after I moved away from home at age eighteen, I had stopped camping. Not on purpose. It just happened. I tried to think of when I had camped since I was a child. I came up with four times. Each involved friends or family. On this trip, and most of the ones that would follow, I was alone.

I sat in my tent and listened to the rain.

This wasn't a pitter-patter of water. It sounded more like someone was hurling giant water balloons. I kept waiting to get soaked. But at some point I dozed off. And when I woke in the middle of the night, I was dry and it was quiet. When I unzipped the tent, I realized why I didn't hear rain anymore.

It had snowed.

It was still dark, still hours before sunrise, but I couldn't sleep. And while my new Big Agnes tent was doing its job, my old sleeping bag was not.

I grabbed it, climbed into the car, started the engine, and sat there, doubting myself, doubting my plans for the year.

* * *

THE NEXT DAY I met Lili Pew in Bar Harbor. From the moment she greeted me, I liked her. She had the traits that seemed to be standard issue for many of the year-round residents — down-to-earth, outdoors-loving, independent-minded, funny.

And she seemed as excited about my project as I was.

"How was last night?" she asked.

"Great," I said, deciding not to mention that I had ended up sleeping in a rental car.

We went to the Thirsty Whale, one of a handful of restaurants still open. She ordered her usual, fish tacos and an Arnold Palmer. Then she told me the story of how she ended up living here.

It's a story that begins before she was born, before the park itself was born. She grew up in Philadelphia. But her family has deep roots in Maine, houses that go back to a time I had read about, when so many families from her hometown vacationed here that it was known as "Philadelphia on the rocks."

"I used to summer here," she said.

When she said that, the use of "summer" as a verb jumped out. For me, summer had always been either a noun or an adjective. I had taken vacations in the summer. I had gone to summer camps. I never had summered anywhere. But the area around Acadia has a long history of people summering in it. And when Lili Pew mentioned this, I probably should have realized her roots were attached to one of the iconic American family trees. But I didn't.

For every detail that should have confirmed this — a mention of a godmother who helped found a nature center in the park, a friendship with one of the Rockefeller descendants — there were five others that defied whatever preconceived notions I had. I'm not sure what I expected. I guess some sort of stereotype. Maybe someone who was a little soft. And long before I returned for New Year's Day, I knew who was going to be the soft one atop Cadillac Mountain. It wasn't someone named Pew.

But if there were any doubts, Lili called shortly before the new year and asked when I was arriving. She said she had a great opportunity, a chance to get on a boat that was going twenty-some miles off the coast. She was going to go for a dive. She added that she was going to wear a dry suit, as if this somehow made the idea — diving into water that even in the middle of summer was icy — seem like no big deal.

She was looking forward not only to what she'd see while in the water, but what she'd see on the boat ride back: the view that Samuel de Champlain saw. Sixteen years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, the French explorer saw these rocky summits and named it île des Mónts Deserts.

She wondered if I'd be there in time to join her.

"No," I said, not sure whether to be disappointed or thankful. "I won't get there until that night."

I didn't even bother to tell her about my New Year's Day tradition. A polar plunge. In Florida. When friends in Wisconsin heard about this, they mocked the idea of anything in Florida being called a polar plunge. If you don't have to cut a hole in some ice, one of them said, it doesn't count.

* * *

ONE EVENING, BEFORE going back to the campground and losing cell service, I called home. Mia was busy with homework. One of her fourth-grade projects had been to chart the phases of the moon for a month.

So each night she did what, to her, made perfect sense. She went online.

"Let's go outside and look at the real thing," I had said one night when there was a nearly full moon.

Not only didn't she want to do that, but she didn't see the purpose. She had the answer. It was right there on the computer screen. Why would she go outside?

When she got on the phone this night, I told her that once I got to the campground I wouldn't have any access to the Internet; in fact I wouldn't even have a cell signal. To her, this sounded like a nightmare.

"It's actually really nice," I said.

I said good night and headed to my campsite. In a matter of a few days, I was starting to feel comfortable there — and starting to feel very fortunate to live in a time when we not only have cell phones but also have places where we lose cell phone service.

While starting a campfire, I thought about how it's only a matter of time — likely a shorter time than any of us imagine — before there will be nowhere on earth where we won't have phone service, Wi-Fi, or whatever else is around the corner. I don't look forward to that day.

In theory, I always could leave my phone behind or just turn it off. And maybe I would do that for a while. But if there had been a signal here, I'm sure that eventually I would have looked at e-mails, listened to voice mails, and at least mentally headed to another place.

Instead, I did something I've never been good at.

I stayed right there, in that moment, with the campfire crackling and the trees rustling overhead.

When the fire died out, I turned on my headlamp and headed to the east edge of the campground, following a short trail that led to the deserted Park Loop Road, then to some rocks on the rugged coastline and something that made me freeze.

The stars.

The trees perched along the rugged coastline were visible not because they were illuminated by anything, but because they were silhouetted by skies so dark that they had turned milky.

In 1916, when people were flipping those first toggle light switches, they would have laughed at the idea of light pollution. But in the last century, we've reached a point where most of us forget what it feels like to stand under a sky like this.

A National Geographic cover in 2008 featured a photo of a cluster of skyscrapers and the headline: "The end of night. Why we need darkness." It pointed to scientific studies that show how the proliferation of man-made light has affected many forms of life, including ours.


Excerpted from Lassoing the Sun by Mark Woods. Copyright © 2016 Mark Woods. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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