Thursday, May 31, 2012

Gloomy about USA? Visit a national park -- May 31, 2012 column


Roughly three in four Americans think the country is headed in the wrong direction.

That means President Barack Obama faces re-election trouble. Or maybe not. A coin toss is as good as any poll at this point for predicting who’ll win in November, says political scientist Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia.

So let’s stop trying to handicap whether Mitt Romney or Obama is ahead in the horse race and consider how the rest of us are doing. Americans have been grumpy a long time, and it’s not healthy to live perpetually under a cloud.

Here’s an idea: The next time the state of the Union makes you feel blue, turn off the TV, unplug from the web and head for a national park. Oh, and it won’t kill you to leave your smart phone in the trunk.

I’ve tried this antidote myself recently, walking Civil War battlefields, historic sites and a national seashore. Each trip taught me something about our rich and quirky history. America has faced challenges before and triumphed over them. We’re stronger than we think we are.

I know, I know. Congress is dysfunctional, the economy fragile, the presidential campaign toxic, and the public discourse relentlessly depressing.

And yet, violent crime is down, marriage is up and at least one federal agency actually works. The rate of visitor satisfaction at national parks over the last several years is an astounding 97 percent.

There’s one thing even Obama and Romney, his Republican rival, can agree on. The national parks are beloved.

In 2008, candidate Obama promised to boost funding for national parks and national forests, and he signed a law in 2009 that did so, modestly. PolitiFact rated it “a promise kept.”

Romney talks fondly about boyhood vacations in which his family piled into the Rambler (his father ran American Motors which made the car) and toured national parks.

“We went from national park to national park,” Romney has said. “And they were teaching me to fall in love with America.”

Over Memorial Day weekend, I climbed the 248 iron spiral stairs at the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse on North Carolina’s Outer Banks. It’s the equivalent of climbing a 12-story building, and I asked some people on their way down the narrow staircase if it was worth it.

“Oh, yeah!” they agreed, all broad smiles. And they were right. At the top, a wild, happy wind blew away cares and the coastal views were endless.

Built in 1870, the nation’s tallest lighthouse would have been lost to the sea had Congress not spent $10 million to move it half a mile inland in 1999. Engineers lifted the entire structure with hydraulic jacks, placed it on steel mats and slid it on rails, inch by inch.

The plan was fraught with controversy. Local people feared the engineers would fail, leaving a pile of bricks where a major tourist attraction once stood. But the amazing plan succeeded, and the beacon draws 3 million visitors a year.

The Hatteras lighthouse is safe from the encroaching ocean for another hundred years, if we’re lucky.

In Fredericksburg, Va., earlier in May, National Park Service historian John Hennessy led a walking tour that traced President Lincoln’s route around town in 1862. Lincoln met with his generals to plan what was to be a major assault on Richmond. As it happened, the attack was called off.

Lincoln’s visit was not unlike Obama’s recent trip to Afghanistan, Hennessy said, in that few in the Army and press knew about the visit. In Lincoln’s case, the occupied city refused to be impressed.

Fredericksburg’s Unionist newspaper, The Christian Banner, reported that, “There were no demonstrations of joy” among the citizenry – but neither had residents shown joy when Confederate President Jefferson Davis had visited the previous winter.

“The citizens of Fredericksburg seem to have little partialities for presidents,” the paper observed.

Some would say Americans haven’t changed much in 150 years.

So, before the campaign grows even more hateful and off-putting, take a clue from the men running for president. Visit a national park this summer and remind yourself why this country is special.

America’s national parks are waiting.

(c) 2012 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


1 comment:

  1. Your column this week, Ms. Mercer, is like a breath of fresh air. You are so right. We all should get away from the day-to-day political drumbeat and visit a national park of our choice. Fortress Monroe in Hampton Roads is a new attraction in the national [ark list and well-worth visiting. We really enjoyed your uplifting comments - nice going to be sure.