Next stop: Saguaro NP


 In February, I’m heading to Tucson, Ariz., partly because it is the home of Saguaro National Park, partly because is is the home of my mom.

After my dad died in 1996, my mom moved from Wisconsin to Tucson. He was about to retire, and they were going to travel the country, hitting the national parks they hadn’t visited yet.  As I sat in the living room of my parents’ house listening to the funeral home representative talking about plans for the service, there were brochures for campers sitting on the coffee table. I think about those brochures and plans whenever I start a sentence with “someday …”

In the last 15 years, Mom has traveled to quite a few parks with friends, family and her partner, Abe. But Saguaro is her home park. She volunteers there. It’s a beautiful place, one that I’ve hiked in frequently but never really thought about in terms of the past and future. So while I’m there, I plan to tag along when the park’s research management division continues a saguaro census in “Section 17.”

Section 17 is a square mile piece of the park that was first surveyed in the 1940s, in hopes of figuring out why so many saguaros were dying. Seventy years later, the park and community volunteers are again surveying Section 17, counting and measuring cacti, continuing one of the longest vegetation monitoring programs in the National Park Service.

This is partly why I chose to make Tucson the second stop on my journey: to learn whether this cactus –the symbol of the American West despite being found only in small areas of it — is in danger of fading from the landscape in the next 100 years.

But I’m also going there to because of Mom, and because of all the things I took for granted decades ago. Like when she and Dad piled three kids into a station wagon — without air-conditioning, Nintendo and iPods — and went for a cross-country trek, hitting national parks along the way.

As an adult, I’ve often said that and other trips were among the greatest gifts they gave me. But have I passed along that gift along to my daughter? No. At least not in the same way.

I’m trying to plant some of those national parks seeds now. We went to the Redwoods last year. We’re planning to go to Yellowstone this summer. And at some point, before the bugs and humidity return, I want to take Mia to nearby Cumberland Island.

Getting kids hooked on the outdoors isn’t easy. (That was true long before video games. I have memories of my mom getting me to do hikes by offering bribes of snacks.) And yet my parents did it, often in a big, grand way. And so did many others of their generation.

Are those trips a thing of the past? And if so, what does that mean for the future of the parks?

When I was in at Redwood NP last fall, a ranger told me that she could sum up the biggest threat to the parks in one word.

“Relevancy,” she said.

Since then, I’ve heard this word used repeatedly. When I went to Washington last fall and met with National Park Service director Jonathan Jarvis, he used it. He said that connecting future generations of Americans to the parks is one of the park service’s biggest missions as it nears its centennial.

“We exist only upon the wishes of the people,” he said. “Remaining important to society is critical to our future.”

While some parks certainly have issues with crowds — try visiting Yosemite in the middle of summer — he said that visitation is not a threat. Lack of it is.

“I’ll be very blunt about it,” he said. “Sometimes people may criticize me for this, but I don’t buy into this whole thing about — I actually very much dislike the term — ‘loving your park to death.’ … You can lament over a little bit of bare ground in the park because someone parked there, but that is ecologically irrelevant to the larger issues facing us — climate change, species diversity, protecting the cultural diversity of these sites. We know how to manage people now. We’re pretty good at it. And so what if we get a little bare ground at times? It’s worth it, because you’re creating a lifelong connection, the kind of connection you have, that’s led you to make this kind of request and pursue it.”

Which brings me back to why I’m pursuing it in Tucson.

If I’m able to turn all of this into a book, I want to write about some of the fascinating people whom I’ll be spending time with during this year. I want to write about people whose names you’ll find in the news, like Director Jarvis. But I also want to write about my mother and father.

In hindsight, I know those family trips weren’t simple. I remember Dad, a Baptist minister, breaking into a flurry of cursing every time he tried to pack up our pop-up camper. (Think of the father in “A Christmas Story” battling the furnace.) But I also know they loved taking those trips, experiencing the national parks with their children.

So I want to write about mom and me, and me and my daughter.

Atop the “Friends of Saguaro” website there is a Native American proverb: “We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.”

As I get ready to head to Section 17 and beyond, I’ve been thinking about that a lot.

Mom and the grandchildren

Mom and the grandchildren



  • Woody Huband


    I spent two or three weeks working in Tucson a few years ago. It is now one of my favorite places. I visited all the spectacular parks in the area, but I think the highlight for me was an evening viewing the sky at Kitt Peak National Observatory.

  • joanelle mulrain


    One visits the national parks because we can - because they are there for us, and we must. These jewels of the earth are reminders of the past - of when oceans roared through and excised canyons our of rock, when buffalo roamed under pregnant skies. Our parks are our own personal legacy, a gift to our Earth's children, so each can see, the flower bloom, feel the raindrops on the leaves, and hear the sounds of eagles flying high - they represent the pinnacles of nature. Parks will always remind us of birth and life, and all in-between. It is our moral duty, our natural inclination, our stewardship of the highest order to care for these lands. Every acorn, every pinecone, every sulpher explosion, every bit of ice that melts so we have water below - it is all connected. It is this connectivity that we must respect and uphold for without the canopies, without the running fish, without the seasons to give birth and take life away - we have nothing. The trilogy of food, water and shelter - even now - remains the foundation of human existence. We are woven into the fabric of every National Park in America, and the parks are woven into our families, our history and our humaness.

  • Bill


    Enjoy your time with your Mom. One of the last trips I had the privilege and pleasure of taking with my Mom was to the Grand Canyon in Arizona. We went to visit my brother who was teaching at ASU. It was our first and only trip to AZ - man how different it is from lush, green Florida. The Grand Canyon is AMAZING!! We'll miss you at the River Run.

  • Marsha Oliver


    Mark - I am so inspired by your journey...past and present. Losing a Dad is no walk in the park...I lost mine (too soon) last year at age 82. But I know your father , like mine (a Southern Baptist deacon), is with you every step of the way.

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