National parks: a vacation value

I just spent a few days in my favorite national park, Shenandoah. It was great to flee cell phones, wi-fi, and email. And even better to escape the "anger" at big government being flashed lately on TV screens and the Internet.Enjoying Virginia's majestic Blue Ridge, it became clear that we Americans have much more to be thankful for than angry about. And though it's unpopular to say it in some circles, we taxpayers have often invested wisely. Approaching summer, at a time when every family is stretching a dollar, our national parks offer vacation values to fit every budget. I suggest you go visit the parks. Take the kids. See. Remember. Relax! Start with the famous parks that celebrate our natural glories like California's Yosemite, or Arizona's Grand Canyon. Or gain some national perspective by ferreting-out less known destinations, like Texas's Alibates Flint Quarries - where ancient peoples crafted stone tools and eked out a good living thousands of years before the first bank bailouts. Near my West Virginia home are national parks of every flavor: the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historic Park, dedicated to America's industrial spirit, and the Appalachian Trail, dedicated to wilderness adventure. Also close by, in Pennsylvania, is the Johnstown Flood National Memorial that tells a gripping story of small town heroes and robber baron villains as real as items making today's headlines. Also nearby, spend time at Gettysburg National Battlefield and recall a time when our own homeland was embroiled in civil strife just as agonizing as that in Iraq or Afghanistan today. Not interested in history's lessons? Then head to the seashore, where for the cost of a movie, you can camp out, watch the sun come up over the beach - then go right back to sleep. Delight the kids with the wild ponies at Maryland's Assateague Island National Seashore, or glimpse migrating peregrine falcons at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. On the West Coast, sample Oregon's Lewis and Clark National Historic Park, actually 12 parks stretched like gems along the Pacific Ocean and Columbia River. Or travel to Florida's Everglades. There consider current events in the Gulf, and realize that we must often fight to preserve our natural heritage just as vigorously as we fight to preserve our other freedoms. If you're visiting Washington, D.C. this summer - whether to celebrate the nation's history or to protest it - don't miss the Capital Area national parks. One crowd pleaser is the Old Post Office Tower, soaring to 315 feet, and from which you can view the entire city. Another favorite is the Jefferson Memorial, monument to the American patron saint of taxpayer irony. Jefferson preached small government then spent lavishly from the national treasury on the Louisiana Purchase. Long before the subprime mortgage crisis, Jefferson died drowning in personal debt after borrowing heavily to finance his home at Monticello. Do we hold this against him? No. Nor should we. His monument celebrates his contributions while acknowledging his humanity. Within a day's drive of Washington is Great Smoky Mountains National Park where the fishing is superb, hikes lead to breathtaking views, and the kids can go horseback riding. Visit this June for the wondrous firefly display, where millions of insects blink off-and-on in perfect synchronous rhythm, like something out of Close Encounters - a mystery to scientists and humbling reminder of how little we truly know. This list is just a start. To find out what's close to you, go to the National Park Service website ( and click on your home state. Many destinations, like the National Trails system, can be visited without a fee. Buy a National Park annual pass for the price of dinner out at a restaurant, and visit every park for free. So wake up, stop worrying, and start packing. Get away from all the noise for a day or week, and gain some perspective on your country. Sure, our government overspends from time to time, but some things are worth what we pay for them. If you're an angry American, remember that spend-happy politicians are responding to voters, and that some of what they throw money at are the things we demanded of them. As for me, I'm willing to pay more for parks and open space, and not willing to give them up. And if you want to be part of a "tea party" this summer, do it with your kids at a national park. Visit the site of the real tea party at the Boston National Historical Park. Go. Get out of the car, walk, and enjoy the view. It's yours. David Lillard is a Blue Ridge Press editor and managing editor of The Observer newspaper in Jefferson County, West Virginia. He lives in Shepherdstown, WV. © 2010

********** Published: June 4, 2010 - Volume 9 - Issue 7