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“I think all of us – dad, me, my brother–recognized a window of opportunity in which our flexibility as freelancers overlapped with dad’s entrance into the golden years of being both retired and fit,” says David Hanson. “Plus, it felt like dad and I had some things to figure out. Our differences weren’t just that he liked park lodges and I preferred remote bivy sites.”
For the past five years, David’s father, Scott, has visited a cluster of National Parks. And every year, David and his brother take turns accompanying him. Today, we travel with David and his father to in search of two of the greatest gifts our public lands give us: family time and common ground.
The Griswalds: Okay, let’s go. Come on. Where’s Edna?
The Griswalds: She’s in the car.
The Griswalds: Good. Come on, kids. Get your butts in the car. Go.
The Griswalds: Don’t you want to look at the Grand Canyon?
The Griswalds: It’s great.
Fitz: A lot of us have that memory from childhood. The one where we piled into a minivan, station wagon, and hit the road to visit a national park. The one where it feels like you’re a part of the Griswald family. For real, those memories, they’re powerful for a lot of us. I still listen to my grandfather Bob talk about stories from Yosemite in the 1950s. Last year we spring him from an assisted living community with Tep and we took a road trip to J Tree and it was Tep’s first trip there and all of us aware that it could be Bob’s last trip there. There’s something about the power in the parks. Undeniably so. The power to connect us to one another, to bridge the gap between generations, and maybe it’s because while the rest of the world seems to change in leaps and bounds these parks, they pretty much look the same, even when you come back 20 years later. There are very few places where someone can return in 50 years and think, “Yeah, that’s exactly how I remembered it.”
Today we want to celebrate it with a little bit of humor, a bit of passion, a bit of emotion. I hear that everything is bigger in Texas. I personally have never been so what do you think? Should we hit the road? Let’s do it. Then maybe let’s hit New Mexico too. Road trip, baby! Contributor David Hanson brings us the story of two grown brothers and a dad on a mission to hit all three parks. I’m Fitz Cahall and you’re listening to The Dirtbag Diaries.
Scott: I mean, there’s nothing, and I tell you what, the river, it’s the most pitiful looking river. There was a place yesterday down the Rio Grande Village where you could probably walk across and not even get your shoes wet.
David: That’s my dad, calling back home to my mom to report on our morning hike to the Rio Grande River. We’re in Big Bend National Park, the final stop on a road trip through West Texas, visiting three of the National Park Service’s dustier Gems, Carlsbad Caverns, Guadalupe Mountains, and Big Bend. I’ve taken to recording his phone calls to my mom. He employs such detail and opinionated expression that the recordings have become a lazy way for me to keep notes. The way that he talks about the Rio Grande, I want to walk right own to it and softly pat its languid green waters, offering words of encouragement about winter rains and inevitable climate change flooding.
This is not our first father-son parks road trip. Five years ago, while planning a work trip to Salt Lake City, dad decided he might as well see the national parks in southern Utah. To my mom, southern Utah is a red rock wasteland. She stayed home citing a Southerner’s aversion to places without trees. But I could join dad. I’ve worked in national parks and visited dozens for fun, so there was no way I’d like him wander through the magic kingdom of desert playgrounds without proper chaperoning.
Scott: Mom didn’t want to go. I kind of thought she’d change her mind and go and she kind of thought I’d change my mind and wouldn’t go, so we were two months out or something and she said, “Are you really going to go?” and I said, “Yeah, I’ve already got reservations in a couple of the lodges.” Anyway, what really made it work was coincidentally it turned out that weekend you were going to be in Salt Lake City for some bachelor party out in the boonies on some bicycle trip in the canyons there, at Zion’s. That just happened to work out.
David: It’s true. I happened to have another reason to be in Utah. I didn’t just jump off the couch and hop on dad’s park trip. The first half day of that Utah tour epitomized the differences in how dad and I appreciate public lands. He dropped me off at the bottom of a rutted out four by four road off Gooseberry Mesa with my duffle bag. I walked a few miles into the Red Rock desert to meet my buddies for two days of mountain biking and camping in the middle of nowhere. Meanwhile, dad drove the rental van to the comfort of the Zion Lodge and a few day hikes.
I got my fix of the wilderness endorphins and the rest of the week dad and I moved through the front country of Bryce, Canyonlands, Capital Reef, and Arches at a semi-retired pace, delicately navigating the common ground we sot to find.
The Utah trip worked out and a long-term plan went into motion. Dad began clustering parks together for annual tours. My brother got into it. He’s a freelance photographer and a lot like me. We were born on the same day, three years apart, and we both enjoy getting deep into the back country. We decided to alternate years traveling with dad. I think all of us, dad, me, my brother, recognize the window of opportunity in which our flexibility as freelancers overlap with dad’s entrance into the golden years of being both retired and fit. Plus, it felt like dad and I had some things to figure out. Our differences weren’t just that he liked park lodges and I preferred remote bivvy sites. My dad is a steadfast Atlanta, Georgia Republican. Not a ranting Fox News type or of the feverishly religious variety. Just an old school fiscal conservative with a calm but Catholic approach to social issues, and I didn’t fall too far from the tree, at least at first.
Scott: You were six, I guess, and we were watching the TV and wishing Reagan were running for reelection and you’d be going “Go Bush!” That was in 84 when I ran the headquarters, when you met Barbara Bush.
David: Oh yeah.
Scott: Your picture with Barbara Bush.
David: On Peach Street.
Scott: Yeah. You were ten. I got a picture of you in the floor, Republican National Convention, and I can probably blackmail you to publish it.
David: At six years old I rode a live elephant in an Atlanta parking lot at a Reagan/Bush rally and stuffed mailboxes with fliers for Republican congressional candidates. The photo of me standing hip high to Barbara Bush remains on my parents’ wall, next to the one with me and Nancy Reagan. Now I live in Hood River, Oregon. My brother’s in Seattle. We are registered Democrats and much of our work traffics in conservation and social justice issues. We dress in the Patagonia plaid, flip flop casual attire typical of our demographic. For a while in my early 30s, as I settled into life on the West Coast, a sense of guilt nipped at me. I knew I was better suited for the casual West Coast vibe and that I thrived in proximity to wild places, but I worried that I’d abandoned my parents and the culture that raised me.
We couldn’t be that different and there are still things to learn from dad. In the wide open of the national parks, away from the place-based expectations of our disparate hometowns, maybe I could mine dad for some secrets and subtleties of what this father-son relationship means and what really matters.
Scott: It was funny. I was at the Dallas Airport. We were at the Newgate coming to El Paso. There was this guy sitting across from me and he was American Airlines. He was playing with his phone for a while. He starts to walk away and he sees my hat, which is sitting on top of the suitcase. He says “Oh my gracious, look at that! That’s awesome.” He said, “I’m doing the same thing!” He said, “We’re trying to see all 58 national parks.” I said, “I’m trying to see as many as possible.” He’s so excited. He couldn’t believe it. He pulled out his phone and took a picture of my hat. We’re standing there talking and after about five minutes of our conversation this guy comes. He was sitting about four, five seats down. He comes up, says “I hate to interrupt y’all, but I just can’t avoid your conversation. I’m so excited about what y’all are doing.” He was with NBC News.
David: That’s dad on the phone to my mom. Our West Texas tour begins in El Paso and he’s just flown in from Atlanta. He loves to collect things. On that first trip in Utah dad realized that each national park has its own distinctive pin and he was hooked. He bought a wide brim sunhat and began planting his pins around the edge. We’re five years into the project now. Dad’s hat has over 20 pins from parks he’s visited, most with Michael or me.
Scott: Zions, Bryce Canyon, Capital Reefs, Canyonlands, Arches, Death Valley, Grand Canyon, Sequoia, King’s Canyon, Olympic, Rainier, Redwoods, Everglades.
David: The hat weighs roughly three pounds and I’m beginning to worry about the fortitude of his neck. My brother and I laugh about it, like we might a fanny pack or a guy in the French Quarter wearing a French Quarter t shirt, but it’s kind of cool and dad’s super proud of it.
Scott: This is desolate landscape out here. There’s not a tree over six feet high or bush four feet high. Okay. Bye.
David: Now we’re driving down a bleak stretch of Highway 62 towards Guadalupe National Park. El Paso dwindles to a thin strip of mechanic shops and taquerias as we head east into the all-consuming beige of the Chihuahuan Desert. We’ve got five days, three parks, 900 miles of open road, and a lot of space to fill. Eventually El Capitan appears like the hazy prow of a ghost ship on the horizon. This is Guadalupe Mountains’ El Capitan. Behind it Guadalupe Peak rises to the highest point in Texas.
We hike up a dry wash of bleached white limestone rocks and boulders along the trail to Devil’s Hall. I notice myself watching dad more than on previous trips. He recently dealt successfully with prostate cancer. He’s still agile and extremely fit for a 70 year old, but his balance seems off. He has that upper body lurch stepping down from rocks. Even though dad doesn’t call this national parks project a “bucket list” it’s gained a bit of heft and purpose this year. Like most things built slowly over time, you eventually look up and realize you’re onto something pretty cool.
Our daily hikes are tame compared to charging up summits or back country overnights. In planning our days I try to combine can’t-miss park highlights with less traveled trails. Dad’s usually amped to push himself a little further than he’d normally go, but we always make it back to the lodge in time for happy hour.
After some rough terrain and the dry creek bed we finally reach the Devil’s Hall, a narrow slice through layered grey limestone. It was laid down as a reef 250 million years ago, when West Texas held an inland sea. We sit down in cool shade and look for fossils.
Scott: Hey mom. We just got back from our second half of the Carlsbad trip. I tell you mom, I don’t know if you’d have done it. I don’t know if you could have done that elevation as quickly as that. Then tonight, we just got back because … We went back tonight because at about 7:45 the bats come out and they estimate about 300,000 bats come out within about a 30 minute time frame, right at dusk. You’re sitting there and boy I tell you, right at 7:45 when it got dusk, just when that ranger said, bats started coming out. That’s an experience to watch all of that come out. They go to the rivers and they feed on moths. Carlsbad was cool and, again, very different from any other park that we’ve been to. I will call you tomorrow night and let you know how this hike goes. Okay. Love you. Bye.
David: The next day dad and I walk 800 vertical feet down into Carlsbad Caverns. I had considered taking dad on a tour to the more rugged, less manipulated Slaughter Canyon cave, which is more like real spelunking, with headlamps and crawling and no hand rails, but I’ve learned to temper my own urge towards the extreme option and stuck to more accessible terrain. Plus we’ll get our sweat on, since Carlsbad’s elevator’s broken and we’ll have to hoof it back out.
Stalactites hang from the ceiling like ice cream chandeliers. Water drips on the porcelain-smooth stalagmites growing at a pace that mocks our human sense of time. We walk around house-sized chunks of limestone, fell from above, and remind us that this is not an amusement park but a dynamic, shifting part of the earth’s crust. It’s a toe-cramming descent on a paved, lit trail that ends at perhaps the world’s most surprising concession stand. A glowing green orb of t shirts, candy bars, and one lone retail clerk. We take a mile-long loop through the Big Room, a massive chamber at the bottom of the tourist trail. The air’s dank with a chill that feels more tactile than airy, like thin, wet cloth left on your skin. Without lights, this darkness would be mind-bending in a bad way.
We eat a snack in the halo of the concession stand. I ask the young 20-something woman behind the counter if I can take her photo. She declines and I don’t blame her. No one looks flattering in this netherworld and shyness must be part of the job description. Dad, on the other hand, just wants to know if there’s a secret elevator for staff. She can’t possibly walk down and back out every day. My camera and I remain on the bench while he asks. He reports back that she does, in fact, walk down and back up. As we pass her on our way out I hear another visitor ask her the exact same question, like a steady drip from the ceiling.
For the final days of our trip we’re back atop the crust in Big Bend National Park, where dad’s both appalled at the Rio Grande’s volume and mystified by it’s patient ability to cut thousands of feet into the cliff walls. We climb the short, steep switchbacks of loose limestone rock, then descend the cliff-hugging trail into Santa Elena Canyon. Over a thousand feet of old reef rock tower over our heads. The trail ends on a lump of sand shaded by a small rock overhang. The river barely moved past us.
There’s another reason I’m feeling compelled to understand my dad and how this father-son thing works. I’m almost 40, so I’ve waited longer than most, but I’m about to have a kid of my own. I can’t help but reflect on my path and worry about what it must be like to pour your heart and soul into raising children, then watch them move to the other end of the country as soon as they’ve outgrown their terrible teenage years. It seems to require a superhuman level of selflessness. Sure, plenty of kids stay close to their parents, but in our fluid world it’s easy and accepted to drift away and create entirely separate lives. How is dad so chill about it? I had to ask him if it broke his heart that we ended up so far away and so unlike him.
Christina. I talk about this with Christina. Mike and I talk about it too, just feeling somewhat guilty about leaving the South and leaving y’all. I can’t imagine having a kid and raising them in a place that’s very specific like the South and very regional and has its …
David: Distinctness and it develops a certain kind of person. I consider myself Southern, but now I can’t imagine raising a kid and having them leave. I don’t know if it looks like we left it behind. We kind of ditched it. I don’t know how that …
Scott: No, you know, we raised you to think for yourself. We raised you to have wings and to live the life that you wanted to live. Just because you decide to do that in the West doesn’t mean that we can’t clip the wings now. You did exactly what we wanted you to do. Go to a good school, think, learn how to think, learn how to make it on your own in whatever you wanted to do, wherever you wanted to do it. That’s what we wanted you to do and I think that’s what … We’ve got some friends down in Atlanta whose kid goes to Memphis and he feels like he’s gone to the moon. They don’t understand how we can let you do it.
We say, “We can’t tell him no now after this is what we raised him to do. We didn’t know they were going to be photographers or writers or where they were going to live, but we lived them to live their life to the fullest and to be happy. That’s what they’re doing. We can’t argue that. We’re very happy for both of them. The best part is they’re not on the payroll.”
David: We leave the shade of the overhang and return back along the river toward the canyon trail. A young couple passes us and the man notices dad’s hat, the sunlight glinting off the metal pins. The man asked how the whole thing started. Dad takes off the hat and proudly tells the story of meeting his boys all over the country. He says next year it’ll be with the other son. Maybe a tour of the Dakota parks. Maybe Alaska. He’s dying to go to Alaska, and I’ll be jealous if I have to miss that one. Dad doesn’t expect to get to every national park. He’ll never see the Kenai Fjords or Gates of the Arctic, and he’s not going to dive Key Biscayne. He knows that I won’t always be able to join him either. When I have a kid my time with dad gets trimmed, but it’s part of the order of things. He knows that far better than I do.
Fitz: Support for Milepost comes from REI. To celebrate the hundred year anniversary of America’s best idea REI launched a national park app. The app features trail maps, guides, and crowd sourced favorite hikes and photos from the trail, and it’s all completely free. Learn more at rei.com/nationalparks. REI. A life outdoors is a life well lived.
Additional support comes from Patagonia and Fireside Provisions. Also from Kuat Racks, a motley crew of avid cyclists, outdoor enthusiasts, and fine ale connoisseurs who pool their talents to bring you the best bike racks on the market and awesome customer service. Check out their lineup on kuatracks.com.
Hey, you want to be on the show? We need short submissions. If you’ve got a story type it up, email it to us by September 16th. You can find our complete submission guidelines on our website, dirtbagdiaries.com. Click the button that says “Write For Us.” We’re stoked to hear your stories.
A huge thank you to David Hanson and his dad for sharing their journey with us. You can find more of David’s writing, photography, and film at davidhanson3.com. That’s 3, like the number 3. Davidhanson3.com. Music today from Amy Stolzenbach, Ken Christiansen, Little Glass Men, and Fog Lake. The tracks are courtesy of free music archive and with permission of the artist themselves. Jacob Bain and Nis Kotto composed our theme song. As always, you can find links to the artist at our website. This episode was produced by Jen Altschul and me, Fitz Cahall. Becca Cahall is our Executive Producer. You’ve been listening to The Dirtbag Diaries. Thanks for tuning in.
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