24 Jun A Giant Country
Our cross-country drive was long and exhausting but filled with many amazing moments. My friend Tim and I went through places neither of us have ever seen as we drove from California to Tennessee through the southwest along the U.S. Mexican Border area. Our route took us from Oakland to Los Angeles, then on to Tucson, El Paso, Austin, New Orleans and Nashville before reaching our final destination—The Great Smoky Mountains National Park! Along the way we stayed with friends and had the chance to stop at several National Parks and experience firsthand how big this country really is. Along the way we were surprised at how nice people could be and how great distances often make many places feel so different, so much so that you feel like you’re in a completely different country. The first park we arrived at was Joshua Tree National Park. This was the furthest east I have traveled from California since I was a boy and my first time in a desert park. We were commanded out of my pick-up truck and into the hot sun for a short bolder climbing session when we spotted the amazing rocks and curious desert trees that thrive there. Sporadic breezes would work their way across the desert floor suddenly moving the somewhat static plants; then everything would be still again except for the occasional lizard scurrying as we walked past its hide out. The second park we encountered was Saguaro National Park. There we walked out into one of the most inhospitable environments I’ve ever encountered. I was so intrigued by how strange all the plants looked and the constant buzzing of some insect that I could not see. Every plant seemed to say “DON’T TOUCH ME”, as most plants were covered in thorns and looked like they would hurt you if you touched them. The environment felt like an alien planet that soft skinned human beings should not be traversing! One eye opening experience occurred while we were driving through the borderlands of the El Paso region and we came upon a U.S. Border Patrol Checkpoint. I had heard about these check points existing in the interior portions of the country and I had briefed my road trip buddy that we may encounter one. However despite this knowledge, we were sort of in disbelief given that we had never left the country and were just driving down a freeway inside the states. As traffic slowed down and we approached the checkpoint I reassured my friend that we simply had to state “American” when asked about our citizenship status. He is an Italian American and I am Mexican American if I am being specific. This moment caused me to reflect on what it would be like to live in a region where your nationality is constantly in question. Although we had nothing to worry about I thought about my friends that live in fear of deportation and who are prevented from moving freely throughout the country. I was reminded of how privileged I am to be a citizen, but can I be content with that privilege alone? I wondered how it is that the same government that restricts freedoms and flow of certain people, can simultaneously invite the public to enjoy their parks because they are for the enjoyment of the people. I was reminded that I must be compelled to make our society a more open and accepting place that lives up to it creed of being the home of the free and the brave. I hope someday we will be able to shake the fear that Americans have towards the other and that our freedoms will be shared with all those that make this a better place. After El Paso we drove through hours of desert (and more desert) until we got closer to Austin and the desert gave way to a chaparral landscape. Next we began encountering oak savannas and finally we moved into rolling hills of oak forest. This landscape in the southeastern part of Texas reminded me of oak woodlands of northern California and made me feel much more at ease than driving through the desert. It was in Austin that I felt real humidity for the first time and it hit me like a wall of hot sticky moisture. It was also in Austin that the mosquitoes attacked me and they haven’t really let up since.
Finally on May the first day we made it to New Orleans! We walked the streets of the French Quarter and ate the best po boys sandwiches ever! Despite being really wiped out from the heat and humidity we made sure to go to Jean Lafitte National Historical Park where we walked along a boardwalk of the Barataria Preserve, which took us through the Bayou and let us experience the swamp ecosystem. Just below our feet in the swampy waters alligators lied in wait for a tasty treat; at first they appeared to be floating logs in the water until they moved,you’d focus in, and then you catch their eyes scanning the surface of the water!
In a moment of reflection, after leaving jean Lafitte Barataria preserve, my road trip buddy Tim said to me in a calm manner with all the sincerity in the world “the national parks are nice”. Back home we take advantage of our amazing regional park system and though it’s great, something about the criteria and the way in which a national park system is managed sets it apart from other parks. The way in which parks are presented to the visitor through their way finding signage that leads you to amazing trails and vistas, park museums/ visitor centers that educate the public, and the unique plant and animal communities really communicate how special these places are. I’m looking forward to living in a place that is so special that we have made it a National Park.