Visting 100 Parks (en route to 413) for the National Park Service 100th Anniversary
*Updated on 1/30/2017*
Parks #95 - 100 of 417 national parks
#95 - Pennsylvania Avenue National Historic Site
#96 - Lyndon Baines Johnson Memorial Grove on the Potomac
#97 - Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial
#98 - Frederick Douglass National Historic Site
#99 - World War 1 Memorial in Pershing Park
#100 – The White House/President’s Park
"What park number is this?" people would ask. "12..." "37..." "68..." I would reply, aware by their reaction that considering I had a total of 413 to visit, they were suddenly less excited. "I can't wait till I have at least 100," I thought. "Then people will see this more legitimately. Then they'll think I'm serious." On this last day of 2016, it's amazing to reflect on those early days. Those single digits and teens before I left the Washington D.C. area. Now, having just completed my 100th park after 8 months of this project, it's all a blur. A mix of phone calls to NPS visitor centers, interviews with journalists, and yellow lines passing along the road.
It’s been bittersweet returning to Washington D.C. for that 100th park. At the same time I reached the milestone I'd wanted since starting this journey in D.C., so too did I realize everything I've given up to pursue it. A strong social circle. Secure employment. The comfort of everything from reliable parking spots to familiar bathrooms. And at the same time I ponder having them again, I'm reminded of the drive that got me here in the first place. The frustration with monotony and careers that hadn't led to where I'd thought.
The fear of becoming complacent in comfort and losing the hunger of my 20s.
The listless feeling of my life passing by one paycheck at a time until I was dying and wondering what I'd accomplished in my life. Those feelings reminded me of my summer break during grad school:
I'd met with an old mentor from my undergraduate program, and lamented that I wasn't sure if I'd chosen the right path with grad school. If I was meant to be studying what I was, where I was. "I can tell you that nearly every grad student has said exactly what you just did," she replied. "Including myself." "And? What do most people do?" I desperately countered. "They finish their grad program."
So here I am. 100 parks done. Nearly 25% complete, yet wondering if I made the right decision. Balancing--like I assume most of us do whether we're working a 9-5 job or living out of a van--both the insecurities and the certainty of what I'm doing. Of any lessons to gain from this quandary, I'm reminded even more of the wise words from my college choir director. "Life isn't black and white, Mikah. Life is gray." That there really is no perfect situation where everything is completely in order and stasis is both blissful and constant. Even Katy Perry, Ryan Gosling or [insert your choice celebrity here] is probably struggling with some personal demon or tough decision that an outside eye can't see. All we can do, each of us, is just continue down the road we think is right. Whether that's down the street to a familiar grocery store, or across the country to some unknown park. Here's to looking down that road, and pressing the pedal.
Parks # 95 - 100
95 - Pennsylvania Avenue National Historic Site
Walking down Pennsylvania Avenue en route to the Botanical Garden's National Parks Exhibit, I was reminded of the many times I’d walked down this “national park road” without even knowing it had that distinction.
Pennsylvania Avenue is a NPS site because of the many historical events that have occurred on it, but for me (as a DC-area resident for 4 years) it was the road I took to visit my sister and nieces, it was the street where I drove a mini-bus to take my boarding school students to the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, and it was the backdrop for one of my favorite annual events, DC Pride: Where, in addition to seeing acts like Betty Who and Charlie Puth perform, I saw drag queen Bianca Del Rio take the stage and exclaim “Can you believe I’m standing here in front of the U.S. Capitol?”
I loved this comment by Bianca, because it signifies so much of what Pennsylvania Avenue has meant. In that moment, it represented a country where myself and my LGBTQIA-Z community could stand on our nation’s grandest political way and feel included in our country.
So too has Pennsylvania Avenue National Historic Site played a significant role in millions of American’s personal stories, and will continue to do so throughout its existence.
96 - Lyndon Baines Johnson Memorial Grove on the Potomac
I have driven by this national park hundreds of times and never knew it existed.
That fate may have something to do with the 50-mph speed limit of the main road that surrounds it (making it hard to make a spontaneous turn into), but drivers should not overlook this quaint escape!
Of particular note were the incredible views of the Potomac River, Washington Monument (where my 400+ parks journey started), and other DC monuments. Per signage at the site, Johnson used to enjoy his time at and the view from this part of the city, and I suggest other residents/visitors of the DC area utilize it as a respite from the overly crowded National Mall! Perfect for a picnic or quiet walk.
*Of interesting side note, according to local DC gay historian Brock Thompson, apparently this park’s little-used reputation meant that it was once a popular cruising ground for when, apropos to the above paragraphs, LGBT Americans couldn’t meet safely in public.
97 - Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial
Speaking of good views of DC, words can’t express the sensation of standing atop Arlington National Cemetery and experiencing the view Robert E. Lee once had from the front of his Arlington House.
Because of the location of this house and the fascinating role Robert E. Lee played in pre-, post-, and action of the Civil War, the Arlington House should not be overlooked on any visitor’s trip to Arlington National Cemetery. As my friend, Becky, a Virginia/DC-area native, and I agreed, we had often been to Arlington Cemetery but not to the Arlington House.
Make sure to add it to the list that includes the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and President John F. Kennedy’s Gravesite when you make your visit!
98 - Frederick Douglass National Historic Site
This site has been right under my nose as a DC resident, yet, because it is located in the “least safe” of DC’s four quadrants, had always been outside my radar. However, that reputation should not keep visitors from experiencing this site rich in history, beautiful hilltop views of the Capitol, and plentiful parking right next to the Visitor Center!
From atop that hill overlooking the Anacostia River and downtown DC, one is invited into the former home of Frederick Douglass, a Maryland-born slave who died in Maryland as a free, house-owning man with a larger home and equivalent view to that of Robert E. Lee.
Visiting both Frederick Douglass’ and Robert E. Lee’s homes within a matter of hours was an especially powerful combination that I recommend for any DC national parks visitor.
99 - World War 1 Memorial in Pershing Park
I almost overlooked this national park because it is not listed in the official Passport To Your National Parks® I’ve been using to collect my cancellation stamps and prove my world record 400+ visits to the National Park Travelers Club. However, after confirming with NPTC Secretary Craig Bailey that it is indeed one of the (currently) 417 official National Park Service sites, I fit it in just before my 100th park visit.
Once I got there, it almost seemed poetic that this site was overlooked, because I had passed it by unnoticed for years! Situated across the street from The White House/President’s Park in a public park that many a businessperson or Willard Hotel guest uses as a meeting point or lunch spot, there are a handful of memorials that pay tribute to the first time our country named a “World War.”
100 – The White House/President’s Park
At the beginning of my trip I assumed I’d make The White House/President’s Park my penultimate national park visited on this tour of all 400+. My thought was it’d make a perfect moment to shake the President’s hand just before walking across the National Mall to the final stop on my journey: The Lincoln Memorial.
However, two months after my journey’s April 29, 2016, launch, something changed:
In June 2016, President Obama designated the Stonewall National Monument as America’s 412th National Park Service site.
As the National Park Service noted on January 13, 2017, the last week of his Presidency, many of Obama’s NPS designations have diversified the stories the Park Service tells, including 10 sites directly tied to this ideal. Being an openly gay man who is using this world record project to try and “expand the narrative of what it means to be gay in America” while also highlighting the diversity of the entire NPS system, the inclusion of Stonewall in those 10 sites emotionally impacted me more than I thought.
When Obama was inaugurated for the second time in 2013, I was standing on the National Mall when he said:
“We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths –- that all of us are created equal –- is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth. “
Upon hearing the inclusion of Stonewall, I began to tear up, for it was one of the first times I heard my government’s leaders public acknowledge that the gay part of me is not only tolerated by my country, but acknowledged as good.
In much the same way, I was emotional when Obama designated Stonewall National Monument because it meant that the LGBT community wasn’t just tolerated, but celebrated in American history.
My interview for LogoTV with Stonewall Project Manager Allan Dailey
Due to all of the above, I changed my idea of saving The White House for 2nd-to-last, and decided (weeks before even finishing park number 93) that I would make it my 100th national park. That at the end of this 100th Anniversary National Park Service year, I would visit 100 parks and make The White House that 100th site as a thank you to President Obama for his diversification of the system/inclusion of the LGBT community.
Taking it a step further, I made it a goal to meet President Obama and deliver my thanks in person!
Thus began a month of doing everything from asking all my DC political friends if they had connections in the White House to having the world’s largest newspaper, The Guardian, write about my goal of meeting President Obama for my 100th park.
After a month of campaigning, sadly, I never got the chance to meet Obama and deliver my thanks in person. So if you’re reading this and have the ear of President #44, please feel free to deliver my appreciation!
And if you’re reading this and you have a connection to either Oprah or Michelle Obama, please tell them that in lieu of meeting Barack Obama in 2016, my 2017 goal is to fulfill Oprah and Michelle’s goal of “going glamping in a national park” by having them join me at a National Park Service site where, as a group of three representing gender, racial, and sexual-orientation minorities, we can discuss ways to continue creating a National Park Service that shares the stories of all Americans.
Clip of Michelle and Oprah discussing their National Park glamping!