In September of 2011, the four of us were inspired by our National Parks class, taught by Professor Nicolaas Mink, to travel to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In class, we learned that the landscapes of the National Parks we imagined as “pristine nature” and “untouched by man” were in fact social constructions. On our trip to the Smokies, the theoretical understanding of these concepts did not fully manifest itself until we physically drove on the roads, parked in the parking lots, sight-saw at the overlooks, and hiked the trails. In understanding that the line between what was natural and what was constructed blurred, we came to realize that we were ultimately tourists in our National Parks as opposed to nature-lovers; and for all of our understanding, we were perpetuating the system. Our trip to the Smokies ultimately inspired the trip we are currently undertaking. In February of 2012, we received Richer Grant funds from Knox College to trace the National Park-to-Park Highway this summer.
The National Park-to-Park Highway, built in 1920, opened up the National Parks to a larger demographic of middle-class Americans. Access to the parks was originally limited to train travel, affordable only to the higher economic classes. The automobile and construction of roads allowed visits to the national parks to become national symbols of pride. Our objective is to experience the parks via the automobile in the manner Stephen Mather originally intended. Our hope is to uncover the stories that this road and, more generally, the American conception of “the road” have mapped onto the cultural and geographic landscape of the United States. Along the road, we intend to observe the nature of American tourist industries built up around these parks, the livelihoods of the people and societies along the road, and how the road has shaped the “nature” that we see in these parks today. And of course, have some fun.
We start our blog on day 2 of the journey, from the Budget Host Inn a mile out from Badlands National Park. After driving through Illinois and much of Wisconsin we crossed the southern half of Minnesota and stayed in Worthington. Today we reached our first park, set up camp and promptly had a ranger tell us that not one but two storms were headed straight for us and that we better clear out. After some hesitation and a half horizontal tent, we decided to wait out the storm in a motel (not the most auspicious or affordable choice). But as with the travelers in the early 1920’s, mother nature does not always give us what we want, despite what we may have previously been told. More updates to come.