Lassoing the Sun: An Ode to National Parks and People

The saguaro are a metaphor for life and death
The saguaro are a metaphor for life and death

By the end of the first two pages of Lassoing the Sun: A Year in America’s National Parks, by Mark Woods, I was hooked. This is not just a memoir of Woods’s year traveling through national parks, one park per month, so he could write about the experience, it’s a memoir that hits upon the universal need for connection to place, to people and to self.

Just released this month by Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press, Woods’s memoir is a fitting love story of sorts and a perfect read for the 100th birthday of the U.S. National Park System.

Lassoing the Sun is a memoir about connections to land and love
Lassoing the Sun is a memoir about connections to land and love

Although Woods primarily focuses on twelve national parks through the intimate lens of his sensibilities, he does capture the scope found in the variety of the system and the issues those who care for the parks face.

The book also touches upon the metaphors one can find where ever one looks in the park systems bounty-like the saguaros, the cactus that gave Saguaro National Park its name.

These cactus that can live to be 200 years old, as Woods points out, are an example of living and dying at the same time. Within the skeleton of a cactus in the process of slowly dying, you can sometimes find a younger one in the process of slowly growing.

This metaphor of the saguaro is particularly poignant because Woods’s year of national park travel dovetailed with the unexpected timing of his mother’s dying from cancer. Woods’s mother was an instrumental force in his love for the parks that  started when he was a boy.

Reading Woods’s memoir isn’t just about connecting with Woods’s perspectives and experiences, it’s encountering people like Lili Pew who bikes, hikes or cross-country skis in Acadia National Park in Maine almost every day. Or Ross Zimmerman whose son Gabe was killed in the shooting that targeted Gabby Giffords when she was a congresswoman. Gabe was Giffords’s community outreach coordinator. His death was not the end of Gabe’s story as Woods’ discovered at Saguaro National Park in Arizona when Woods hiked with Gabe’s father and learned about Gabe’s relationship with a stretch of a trail where he had proposed to his girlfriend.

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New Year's Day sunrise: Cadillac Mountain, Acadia National Park in Maine
New Year’s Day sunrise: Cadillac Mountain, Acadia National Park in Maine

There’s also the New York City cab driver, a Russian immigrant who was basically living at the small campground at Gateway National Recreational Area. The 26,000 acre park has three units along the stretch of New York- New Jersey Harbor. The Floyd Bennett Field has the campground just 15 minutes from Manhattan. This is where the cab driver discovered a cheap place to stay while he sorted out his personal life. He’d moved out of an apartment where he lived with an ex-girlfriend when he met a new one. Camping in a place where planes flew overhead, and others were being lovingly restored by a group of plane buffs in an old hanger was perfect.

Mark Woods: photo by Bob Self
Mark Woods: photo by Bob Self

The discovery of people’s intimate connection to a particular park is part of what Woods was after when he set off on his own journey that rekindled memories of the family vacations of his childhood. Through recounting the conversations of the people that he meets who are connected to each park, Woods covers topics from ecological concerns to philosophical debates to politics. Underlying it all, however, is the sheer joy, wonder, and poignancy found in connecting to the outdoors whether one is encountering a bison at Yosemite or searching out the North Star from the vantage point of The Dry Tortugas in Florida.

As I read, I remembered my own park experiences—like my childhood visit to Mammoth Cave in Kentucky when you could still take a boat ride deep in the cave where there were fish without eyes. And my giddiness with sharing the beauty of the national parks with my children, particularly on horseback at Bryce Canyon in Utah, Glacier in Montana and Yellowstone because these rides are the only rides we’ve taken as a special occasion of summer.

I could also relate to Woods’s desire for his 10-year-old daughter to connect to the land like he does, but how his efforts are often met with mixed results. A preteen’s desire to connect through electronics sometimes trumps the thrill of being in a national park.

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My preteen son decided he was no longer interested in being a Junior Ranger, but I felt the loss. My teenaged daughter had to be coerced into walking down the Bright Angel Trail at the Grand Canyon National Park  just to the point we could see the petroglyphs below the rim—the ones we heard about at the nighttime ranger talk.

My son at the Grand Canyon doing an observation drawing for his first Junior Ranger experience
My son at the Grand Canyon doing an observation drawing for his first Junior Ranger experience

Reading Woods’s memoir made me remember why it was so important that my husband and I took our children to such wondrous places when they were small so they could gasp in awe at every turn in a national park road like when we drove through Zion right before dusk. Those are the days I hope they remember so they will take their own children to a national park.

And as Woods discovered, as he celebrated his mother with each park he visited, visiting a national park is not just about connecting with the land, it’s about connecting to people along the journey and remembering it later.

I hope my kids remember those horseback rides and how much fun it was to become a Junior Ranger.

Post and Grand Canyon photo courtesy of Jamie Rhein.  Other photos courtesy of St. Martin’s Press.

I was given a review copy, and am so pleased. This is a wonderful book.