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Her Lifelong Love Affair with Our National Parks

A cross-country road trip during her senior year of college sparked one woman’s devoted appreciation of our country’s spectacular national parks.

Jo-Anne Graham at Yosemite National Park

I was a college senior, and my friends were plotting their ten-dollar-a-day Eurorail Pass trips through Europe. The Eiffel Tower. The Sistine Chapel. London Bridge. Great places, all. Yet I kept thinking, Isn’t there a lot of America I still need to see?

I’d lived most of my life in Connecticut. The farthest west I’d ever been was a trip to Denver to visit my sister at school. The first time I saw the snow-capped Rocky Mountains, I pulled over the car to gape. Oh, what wonders God had made!

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I came up with a plan. I bought a used Ford pickup that had a camper cab in back. The previous owner had installed a five-gallon pump sink and a two-burner stove, as well as a small refrigerator. The day after graduation, a friend and I hit the road. Little did I know that a lifelong love affair with our national parks was just beginning.

The variety of what you can see is astounding—from the stark desert beauty of Bryce and Zion, with their multihued rock formations, to the twisting 469-mile-long Blue Ridge Mountain Parkway. (When I recently drove it with a friend, I kept telling her to slow down because of the incomparable views as much as the hairpin turns.)

On that first cross-country trip, my friend and I climbed to the top of Yosemite Falls, where the water plunges 2,425 feet. Then we wrapped our arms around the mammoth ancient trees at Sequoia. Of course we drove through the Rockies, both coming and going, and everything I saw I knew I wanted to see again. Once would not be enough.

I have now visited 26 of the 59 national parks, traveling as far afield as Haleakalā, on the Hawaiian island of Maui, where you can hike a 10,000-foot volcanic crater (especially good for viewing the stars at night). I’ve been to Grand Teton nearly a dozen times. Last summer I took my Labradoodle Abi with me on another trek across the U.S. We drove through Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas. The main drag is filled with old spas where people once came to take the waters.

I figured I’d have a taste for myself and filled up a bottle. “Is this okay to drink?” I asked a fellow who was standing by with a few empty jugs.

“It’s all we ever drink,” he said to me.

One of the most unexpected tours of a national park I ever had was at Acadia, in Maine, during the government shutdown of 2013. I was devastated at having driven all that way for nothing. I’d even brought my bike. Then the park rangers made an unofficial announcement. Yes, the park was closed to all cars…but if we wanted to come in by bicycle, nobody would stop us.

I rode my bike along a windswept road to Cadillac Mountain. It’s usually crammed with rubber-necking tourists in bumper-to-bumper traffic. I had the place almost to myself.

I could single out other memorable trips. The dirtiest national park visit was a rafting trip through the Grand Canyon. I’d been warned that clothes become filthy from the mud-red Colorado River, so I’d brought along a wardrobe bought at the thrift store. Which I didn’t hesitate to throw away at the end of those five unforgettable days.

When I went back to Yosemite, a ranger took us on a stargazing tour. He identified constellations as we stared up at the sky. But he also urged us to just be silent and savor the view. I was reminded of the Psalmist saying, “Be still and know that I am God.”

The magnificence of our national parks reminds us of who we are and Whose we are. I think back to the first time I visited Grand Teton. We were standing at the Oxbow Bend in the Snake River, the mountains in the background. All at once, an osprey fell from the sky and dove into the water. It took my breath away.

I’ll come back, I thought. And I have. Again and again.

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Editor’s Note: Join Guideposts readers on a trip to the national parks. For more info, call 877-902-8687.

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