After Mom's Fatal Cancer, Son Finds Solace in National Parks

As he tries to recapture childhood trips, Mark Woods glimpses the future of the national parks.

This week, the National Park Service marks its hundredth birthday. Hailed by filmmaker Ken Burns as “America’s best idea,” there are today 59 national parks spanning every region of the country—from the mountains of Glacier National Park in Montana to the cactus forests of the Saguaro National Park in Arizona. [See eight amazing parks you've never heard of.]

As a child Mark Woods, author of Lassoing the Sun: A Year in America’s National Parks, used to go on camping trips with his parents in the parks. And so, after his mother was diagnosed with cancer, he decided to set off on a yearlong journey through the national parks to reconnect with the past and celebrate the centenary.

Speaking from his home in Jacksonville, Florida, he explains why urban parks are the future; what he found at the One Square Inch of Silence in Olympic National Park; and why the parks today face challenges their founders could not have imagined—from climate change to noise and light pollution to, most dangerously, apathy.

Why did you call the book Lassoing the Sun?

Part of the story of the book is my mom being diagnosed with inoperable cancer five weeks into the year and how I deal with that, as she’s dying, and get on with life after she dies on June 30. I learned that Haleakalā, on Hawaii, became a national park in 1961, the same year my mom and dad became parents for the first time with me.

Then I read that, in Hawaiian mythology, Haleakalā means “House of the Sun.” The mother of the demigod Maui thought the days were too short and wanted more sunlight to make the days last longer. So, one day, Maui climbs up to the edge of the volcano, lassoes the sun, and makes the sun promise to slow down as it passes over Haleakalā. Lassoing the sun for your mother and the cliché "seize the day" are what the story came to mean to me.

You write that your journey was inspired by “an attempt to turn the clock back, or at least pretend it wasn’t moving forward.” How so?

I was 50, and it was my version of a midlife crisis: not getting a sports car, but a series of trips to national parks. One was a buddy road trip. A friend and I went to the Grand Canyon and ran across it rim to rim to rim, to prove to myself I’m not aging, although it may have proved the opposite. [Laughs] Then I did a trip with my wife on our 20th anniversary to Cumberland Island National Seashore in Georgia. The third one, which was probably the most significant, was with the whole family. My mom asked me where I wanted to go. I said, let’s go to Redwood National Park, where I went when I was nine or 10 years old. My daughter was nine or 10 years old at the time herself. On all three trips, I realized with hindsight, I was trying to turn back the clock. This was the prelude to the book.

There are 59 national parks, far too many to visit in a year. How did you choose where to go? Spin a bottle?

That might have worked! [Laughs] But my goal from the beginning was to pick 12 national parks and have each of them represent a different issue for the future, looking ahead from this centennial year. Ken Burns, Ansel Adams, John Muir, and many others have documented the history of the national parks beautifully. But I wanted to look ahead to the future. With each of these places, I wanted to symbolize a different issue for the future, and also have a geographic and symbolic mix.

You had many guides along the way. Tell us about Nikki Cooley and the Grand Canyon River Guides.

They have an annual gathering before the river season starts at this big warehouse near Lees Ferry, which is the starting point of most of the Grand Canyon river trips up in northern Arizona. They’re a fascinating group. When I got there I felt like they have a mentality that I wanted to be better about: not caring about having things but doing things. None of them are wealthy. Their passion is to be on the river.

A Native American Navajo woman, Nikki Cooley, had an interesting perspective about her people’s attachment to that place and the river. She had stories about uranium mining and how it had affected her family and losing loved ones. There’s a battle to ban the mining in and near the Grand Canyon, which was successful, but people from the Grand Canyon Trust say, “This doesn’t mean that it’s over. It means that we have a 20-year reprieve. We will be resuming this battle soon, in another decade.”

Yellowstone was the first national park. When you were there you say you thought about the most basic question: What is a national park? So, what’s the answer?

Good question! I think it’s been evolving in the one hundred years since the National Park Service was created. The Park Service has this interesting, complicated mission to preserve and protect these places for future generations but also for the enjoyment of people here and now. That’s the perpetual question for the National Park Service: What is a national park? It’s the history of America, the natural landscape, wildlife, stories of American people. It’s trying to do all these things, which is a tough but noble mission.

Not all national parks are in sublime locations. In Gateway National Recreation Area, near New York City, there are discarded syringes and overflying planes. You loved it, though, didn’t you?

That was a challenging park! [Laughs] When I landed, there was a record-setting heat wave. At Floyd Bennett Field, where I was going to camp for the week, there were also the worst mosquitoes I experienced all year and planes from JFK Airport flying what seemed like about 10 feet over my tent. The first night, I’m thinking, why am I here? I could be sitting in Glacier National Park or Zion. But I wanted to include an urban national park because that’s part of the National Park Service's mission for the next century.

The first century was about bringing people to the parks. The second century will be about bringing the parks to the people. They realized not everybody is going to pile in a station wagon and head to Yellowstone as Americans once did. They want them to experience a national park in their backyard and what that can mean for the city and people.

As the week went on and I met both longtime New York natives, who were rangers, and local folks who were camping there, I started to see the beauty at Gateway and how much those 27,000 acres mean to New Yorkers. It’s never going to be Yellowstone or Yosemite. But there’s a lot of beauty there that it took me a few days to start seeing. It’s a park I think about often, wondering what it’s going to be like in five to 10 years, and one I want to go back to. Not in the same way I want to go back to the Grand Canyon. But it’s a curiosity.

One of the problems the national parks are dealing with today is noise and light pollution. Introduce us to Gordon Hempton and his One Square Inch of Silence.

He is an interesting character! [Laughs] He has created a place he calls the One Square Inch of Silence in Olympic National Park, near Seattle. Some people want to save a certain kind of tree or animal. Gordon’s mission in life is to preserve natural sound. He calls himself an acoustic ecologist. He has amazing high-end equipment, travels the world getting recordings of natural sound and has even won Emmys for his recordings. He says that some of the best sound he’s recorded anywhere is right there in his backyard, in Olympic National Park.

The One Square Inch of Silence is not a national parks thing. When I went into the visitors center and asked about it, they said, rather pointedly, much of the national park is quiet. Throughout the history of the national parks there have been people who, in some ways, have been on the same path as the National Park Service but, in other ways, have butted heads with them. Gordon is a classic example of that. He picked a spot in the rain forest and set a rock on a stump there. His goal is to try to create a zone of natural sound. He says there are not many places left on Earth where you can go and not hear a man-made sound for 15 minutes. But this is one of them.

The Dry Tortugas National Park is mostly wet. Why do you call it “the canary in the coal mine”?

Climate change is affecting all the parks, in different ways. So I wanted to have one park that symbolized what that means. I thought about going to Glacier to see how the glaciers are melting. But I wanted to do something a little different. I also wanted to include a park in the state where I live.

Dry Tortugas, in Florida, is full of both natural resources and history. You have this giant fort on a little island, 70 miles off Key West, but with the water rising, that fort is in jeopardy. In Florida, we talk about the Everglades as ground zero for climate change. But one of the rangers at Dry Tortuga said this place is even more so. The highest point of Dry Tortugas is 10 feet! You have a hundred square miles of water and less than a hundred acres of land, and little islands that are major spots for birders. What’s going to happen to that place? The birds? The fort? Will people be visiting it in another hundred years?

It’s the centenary of the creation of the National Park Service this year. What do you think will be the biggest challenges for the next hundred years?

One of my epiphanies during the year was that I thought of the mission of the Organic Act of 1916 to preserve these places forever. I realized that it has been, and will be, up to each generation to make that happen, not only as a nation, but as individuals. I don’t think the greatest threat is rising seas, lack of money, or changing technologies. It’s making sure our children love our parks enough to keep them alive, as much as my parents passed that love down to me. That, to me, is the concern. And it is the National Park Service’s concern for the future. Even though park visitation numbers are still sky-high, we Americans tend be a bit apathetic about our national parks and take them for granted.

Before we go, I have to ask: What was your favorite park? And why?

I asked that of most people I met and quickly realized it’s not the most beautiful or iconic place. It’s often a personal thing. If I could pick two, it would be the Grand Canyon and also Redwood National Park, because that was one of the first I went to when I was nine or 10, then took my daughter to at the same age. I didn’t realize it at that time but it was also the last park I went to with my mom. Those two parks have something else in common: They both make you feel small, in a good way. It’s humbling but it also makes you stop worrying about the mundane things—and just worry about what’s important.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Simon Worrall curates Book Talk. Follow him on Twitter.

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