On the Eve of the National Park Service 100th Birthday
Unit #32 / 412 - Herbert Hoover National Historic Site
As I write this, it is the eve of the National Park Service's 100th birthday. I'm sitting in a DICK'S Sporting Goods parking lot on the Illinois side of the Mississippi River, seeing cars whiz by on the interstate, and routinely wiping the late evening humidity from my brow.
And for poetic sake, the mall security just drove by and rubbernecked at my oddly furnished "candle van."
It's a far cry from the glamorous scene I imagine most envision when hearing about my trip, what with Instagram accounts showing people blogging from mountaintop hammocks, and no newspaper headline reading "30-Year-Old Visits 4 Fast Food Restaurants in Search of Wi-Fi to Upload Blog."
Yet it's a valuable part of the process. Having written the majority of my blogs from public libraries, gym lounges, or the floor of Vanny McVanface, I can say that none of the beautiful pictures or (attempting to be beautiful) prose would've ever made it were it not for these less elegant moments.
This is one of my most common flossing locations
In the same way, I've found this trip has changed the way I think of the national parks.
While many a brochure and "Visit The U.S.A." advertisement will show sweeping shots of Yosemite Valley, that's not the Park Service's sole mission. As I'm discovering, the National Park Service isn't a department of vistas, they are an agency whose job it is to tell a nation's story. Sometimes that story involves a mountain-sprung waterfall. Other times, a building or piece of stone.
Yet they're all valuable parts of the system.
It's why, flowing prose set aside and in honor of their 100th birthday, I'm going to list the types of units the NPS manages.
IHS - International Historic Site NB - National Battlefield NBP - National Battlefield Park NBS - National Battlefield Site NHP - National Historical Park NHP & PRES - National Historical Park and Preserve NH RES - National Historical Reserve NHS - National Historic Site NL - National Lakeshore NM - National Monument NM & PRES - National Monument and Preserve NMP - National Military Park N MEM - National Memorial NP - National Park NP & PRES - National Park and Preserve N PRES - National Preserve NR - National River NRA - National Recreation Area NRR - National Recreational River NRRA - National River & Recreation Area N RES - National Reserve NS - National Seashore NSR - National Scenic River NST - National Scenic Trail PKWY - Parkway SRR - Scenic and Recreational River WR - Wild River WSR - Wild and Scenic River
Combined, these various abbreviations make up the national parks, a system of diverse parcels of land and water that tell America's story.
Of those 413 (newly as of today)* sites, 59 are the capital N, capital P National Parks that garner a large share of public knowledge. However, as each park I visit shows, sometimes names can be misleading.
Take for example Acadia National Park. Heralded by many as one of the most beautiful of the National Parks (I'll find out this October), it actually started out as a National Monument. The distinction being that a President can sign into existence a National Monument via the Antiquities Act, but it takes an act of Congress to create a National Park. This politics of parks is why I'm careful to judge a park by its title.
Even today, with the establishment of Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, I wonder how many readers see the headline and imagine a new oblelisk or statue, instead of the 87,500 acres of rugged northern Maine forest.
This quandary is one of the reasons I'm doing this trip. To take a closer look at all 413 sites and share what they have to offer.
And so this is the time of the blog where I eat my own words a little.
Having spent much of the journey thus far in areas new to me, it was easy to be swept up by the diversity of places.
Units like Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore left me thinking "How many people ignore these amazing places because they aren't one of the 59 National Parks? What a loss."
And even units like Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site were novel because they were in an area of the country I'd never been before.
But earlier today, as I visited the Herbert Hoover National Historic Site, I struggled to find that same spark.
To be fair, Herbert Hoover NHS had a steep hill to overcome even before I arrived. With Iowa being the neighbor of my native Nebraska, I'd passed through the state a number of times and the scenery on my drive to the park was less unique than I'd been used to. The site itself, focused mainly on preserving the essence of a small prairie-town, was also very similar to the hamlets I'd experienced on childhood trips to my grandma's farm. Upon walking into Hoover's birth cottage, my first thought was even: "Smells just like Grandma's house."
As I meandered the rest of the park, I was frustrated that it only included entry to four buildings (Hoover's birth cottage, a school house, a blacksmith shop and a Quaker meeting house), and the grave site of Herbert and his wife Lou Henry. The scale of the site left me yearning for more information.
Fortunately, the Visitor Center provided a video and exhibit explaining a bit of Hoover's life. They allowed me to learn how his childhood in West Branch, Iowa, led to the leadership qualities of a compassionate President that is unfortunately remembered for depression era terms like "Hoover blankets" (still used to describe homeless people sleeping under bridges or on park benches covered by newspaper).
So while Herbert Hoover NHS left me less dazzled than Sleeping Bear or Pictured Rocks, I needed to remind myself of the NPS' mission. That while purple mountains majesty might be one part of my country's story, so too are the white cottages that fostered those who ran the nation.
And whether soaring vistas or specially preserved school houses are your way of experiencing America, there's a national park to tell that story.
Herbert Hoover Highlight (You Can Do)!
Visit Hoover's Childhood
Start at the Visitor Center with an orientation video, then tour the preserved small town of West Branch, Iowa, where a tastefully designed green space allows both Hoover's birth cottage and grave site to be viewed from the other.
Upcoming Units (COMMENT with recommendations, please! What should I do at each park? Local interesting detours? Food stops?)
Illinois to Indiana to Michigan to Ohio to New York
-Pullman National Monument
-Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore
-River Raisin National Battlefield Park
-Perry's Victory & International Peace Memorial
-James A. Garfield National Historic Site
-Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site
The journey thus far: