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

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Some books come into your life and stay with you. For whatever reason, they strike a chord and fit right in. And while this is rare, it does happen. One book that is forever lodged in my heart is Lassoing the Sun: A Year in America's National Parks, by Mark Woods. It's a personal look at natural spaces, at family and friends, at moving and doing, at being in nature. It's a thoughtful record of exploration and listening and thinking, of love, of essence of place. It teaches much, in a personal way - this is my favorite way of learning, through example and inspiration. 

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

Woods, a lifelong National Parks lover, embarks on a year of travel to various national parks. Some are old favorites, others are new discoveries. What he finds, along the way, is extraordinary beauty, solitude and company, and noise of all sorts, from airplanes in NYC to raindrops in Olympic National Park. What he shares with us? A treasure right in our laps, something to be savored and enjoyed - and protected. Lassoing the Sun is also about the treasures we have in our own lives - family and friends - and spending time together. Combine those two - national parks and loved ones - and you find the best of life. 

This memoir is at once personal and global. Our National Parks turn 100 this year - and with global warming, technology, and a disconnect from nature, we must work harder to save them for ourselves, our kids, and our future. Woods, a gifted writer, makes this personal with his stories, full of interesting people we want to meet and places that must be experienced. He makes the reader itch to get outside, to discover as many national parks and outdoor spaces as we can, and find our favorites. Parks welcome everyone - and there are millions of people who work there, visit, and cherish our parks.

Along Woods' journey, we meet people devoted to the parks - rock climbers and walkers, people who listen deeply, people who work with our kids in the junior ranger program, sharing history and the natural sciences. There are national parks where you might not expect them, as well as famous ones. The parks are constantly changing, and scientists, staff, and volunteers are working to repair and improve them. We know that nature finds its own path - we just need to honor and appreciate it. 

Park ranger Shelton Johnson leading a Junior Rangers hike and telling the young park visitors: "I want you to feel like you're home, because this is your home." Yosemite National Park.  Lassoing the Sun: A Year in America's National Parks

Park ranger Shelton Johnson leading a Junior Rangers hike and telling the young park visitors: "I want you to feel like you're home, because this is your home." Yosemite National Park. 

Filmmaker Ken Burns noted about this book, "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." 

In this, the 100th year of our National Parks, I encourage you to read Lassoing the Sun, and then, as NPS says, find your park. 

We were lucky enough to catch up with Woods, and ask about the book, inspiration, and more. Here's what he had to say...

Mark Woods, author of Lassoing the Sun: A Year in America's National Parks

Photo: Bob Self

Please tell us about your book, Lassoing the Sun...
Each year the Society of Professional Journalists awards a $75,000 fellowship to one writer in America, allowing him or her to break away from the daily job and delve into a long-term project. In the summer of 2011, I was the winner of the Eugene C. Pulliam Fellowship. My proposal was built around the 2016 centennial of the National Park Service and the question: What is the future of our national parks?
 
The first 100 years of the park service have been documented wonderfully and thoroughly by Ken Burns and many before him. But what will happen in the next 100? Will future generations care about the parks as much as past generations? Will rising seas and shrinking budgets forever alter the parks? Will technology save them? Destroy them?
 
I had a plan. Twelve months, 12 parks, 12 chapters. Each one delving into a different question regarding the future of the parks. And then, in the second month, everything changed. My mother was diagnosed with cancer and told she had months to live.
 
My mother loved the parks. She wanted me to stick to my plan. And for the most part, I did. This still is a story about the future of the parks. But it's much as story about losing parents and realizing that, at 50, midlife and mortality aren't just abstract ideas. It's a story about spending one year in the parks and finding solace not only in beauty and serenity of these places, but also in their reminders of death and life.

Mom in Saguaro National Park. Lassoing the Sun: A Year in America's National Parks

Mom on a favorite hike. Sagauro National Park
 
It starts with a New Year's Day sunrise atop Maine's Cadillac Mountain and ends with a New Year's Eve sunset atop Hawaii's Haleakala ("House of the Sun"). It was on the rim of this volcanic crater that, according to Hawaiian mythology, the demigod Maui lassoed the sun for his mother, forever extending each day. And so it seemed fitting to finish the year climbing out of the crater to the 10,000-foot-high rim that stands above the clouds, wishing I could lasso the sun and extend the day and year.

New Year's Day sunrise, Maine. Lassoing the Sun: A Year in America's National Parks
New Year's Day sunrise, Maine

New Year's Eve. Haleakala sunset, Haleakala National Park. From ​Lassoing the Sun: A Year in America's National Parks

New Year's Eve. Haleakala sunset, Haleakala National Park​ 

What inspired you to write this book?
My daughter might have sparked the idea for the fellowship that led to the book. She loves Disney. She knows I do not. One day she asked me, "What's your Disney?" I thought about this for a while and eventually decided my idea of the "happiest place on earth" wasn't a theme park, it was a national park. So when I learned about the fellowship, I already had the national parks on my brain.

Taking a break at the Colorado River. Grand Canyon National Park. Lassoing the Sun: A Year in America's National Parks

Taking a break at the Colorado River. Grand Canyon National Park
 
I imagine the writing of your year of visiting national parks turned out differently than you'd imagined. What is the power of nature (and family, and place) in helping people to grow, heal, change?
Definitely. And I know that's not just for me. During the year, I went for hikes in Saguaro National Park with a man whose son, an aide to Gabby Giffords, was killed in the Tucson shootings. I traveled to Pennsylvania and the Flight 93 National Memorial with the sister of one of the passengers who died on that 9/11 flight. I learned from them and others about how the parks can provide solace.

Lori Gaudagno at the spot of the Flight 93 National Memorial Wall with the name of her brother, Richard. Flight 93 National Memorial. Lassoing the Sun: A Year in America's National Parks

Lori Gaudagno at the spot of the Flight 93 National Memorial Wall with the name of her brother, Richard. 
 
I'll ask the question everyone asked you during your year of exploration - what is your favorite park - but twist it, to say, what makes a park one of your favorites?
I asked that same question of many of the people I met during the year. And I quickly learned that the answer isn't just the place with the most beautiful view. Favorite parks often earn that status for very personal reasons – you went there as a child, you went back with your own children, etc.
 
I know that's true for me. It's hard to pick just one favorite, but I'd say one of my favorites is Redwood National and State Parks, because I went there when I was about 9 and went back with my daughter when she was about that age – on a trip that turned out to be my last with my mother. Beyond that, I'm drawn to the Grand Canyon. It's a place I keep going back to, as often as possible.

A bison strolls through Madison Campground. Yellowstone National Park. Lassoing the Sun: A Year in America's National Parks

A bison strolls through Madison Campground. Yellowstone National Park

 
What can readers do, to help preserve our national parks?
Visit a park. And take family or friends with you.

After the lectures, speeches, and powerpoints: Music, beer, and stars. Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. Lassoing the Sun: A Year in America's National Parks

After the lectures, speeches, and powerpoints: Music, beer, and stars. Glen Canyon National Recreation Area

Mark and Chris, Saguaro National Park. Lassoing the Sun: A Year in America's National Parks

Mark and his friend Chris, Saguaro National Park
 
What's up next for you?
I'm back at my regular job, columnist for the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville, Fla. Right now I'm in the middle of a series that involves walking across Jacksonville (the largest city by land mass in the lower 48) and seeing what I discover along the way. But I'm constantly dreaming of my next trip to a national park.

Mike Jester, facility manager for Everglades and Dry Tortugas National Parks, at Dry Tortugas. Lassoing the Sun: A Year in America's National Parks

Mike Jester, facility manager for Everglades and Dry Tortugas National Parks, at Dry Tortugas 

Is there anything else you'd like to share?
Thanks for being willing to consider doing something about "Lassoing the Sun." Even though it's my personal story, I'd like to think it's a story a lot of people can relate to. As I said in the dedication, it's "to loved ones who are gone, and beloved places that remain."

A view of Manhattan from Jamaica Bay. Gateway National Recreation Area. Lassoing the Sun: A Year in America's National Parks

A view of Manhattan from Jamaica Bay. Gateway National Recreation Area

Third Beach. Olympic National Park. Lassoing the Sun: A Year in America's National Parks

Third Beach. Olympic National Park

Moonrise at Chisos Basin. Lassoing the Sun: A Year in America's National Parks

Moonrise at Chisos Basin

 

Learn more:
http://www.markwoods.us/
https://www.nps.gov
http://www.nationalparks.org/explore-parks
http://www.pbs.org/nationalparks/

Get on social media! #FindYourPark

 

All photos courtesy and copyright Mark Woods

 

 

 

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