12 national parks in 12 months – a son’s love note to his mother

Editor’s Note: As the National Park Service turns 100 in 2016, CNN is celebrating the parks’ incredible natural wonders and historical sites in every U.S. state, the District of Columbia and U.S. territories.

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Mark Woods is the author of "Lassoing the Sun: A Year in America's National Parks"

Woods visited one park per month after winning the Eugene C. Pulliam Fellowship

CNN  — 

In 2012, Mark Woods started the year watching the sunrise atop Cadillac Mountain in Maine’s Acadia National Park and ended it taking in a sunset atop a volcano at Haleakala National Park in Hawaii.

In between those trips to two of America’s most spectacular national parks, Woods visited one park per month, the result of his winning the Eugene C. Pulliam Fellowship, a $75,000 award given annually to one writer in the country.

During that year, Woods’ mother – who volunteered regularly at Saguaro National Park in Arizona – learned she had terminal bile duct cancer and still encouraged Woods to continue.

What was meant to be a book about the experience became a journey of awareness of the tremendous legacy his parents, Rex and Nancy Woods, had given him by connecting him to the national parks, the magic of the parks themselves and the gifts he hopes to give to his own daughter.

The result is “Lassoing the Sun: A Year in America’s National Parks,” Woods’ memoir of his journey, released this summer during the National Park Service centennial.

The book’s name comes from the mythology of Haleakala – the story of a son lassoing the sun for his mother, slowing its journey and forever lengthening the day. It’s a son’s love note to his mother and to the nature she helped preserve.

CNN asked Woods to share some of his national park experiences.

100 years, 100 national park experiences

CNN: What’s your earliest memory of visiting a national park?

Rex and Nancy Woods camping as a young couple.

When I was about nine years old, we camped in Redwood National and State Parks. I can’t remember what I got for Christmas that year, but I can vividly recall the details of that trip – going for hikes through the impossibly tall trees, exploring tide pools at the beach, skipping stones, taking pictures of elk, looking at the stars while walking back to our campsite after a ranger talk, sleeping in my pup tent, waking up to the smell of those woods.

I didn’t realize how much that smell was a part of my memory until I returned there 40 years later with my 9-year-old daughter.

How was nature part of your childhood?

It’s hard to imagine my childhood without the outdoors. My parents limited us to one hour of television a day, with an exception for “60 Minutes” and Green Bay Packers games, and pushed us to get outside. Nature was a part of daily life.

Mark Woods with his mother, Nancy Woods.

And every summer my parents would pile my two sisters and me into a station wagon – one that didn’t have a radio or air-conditioning – and head for some big vacation, involving blue highways and the brown National Park Service signs of Yosemite, Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon.

How did the national parks and nature impact you?

As is the case with many things in childhood, I had no idea at the time just how impactful these experiences would be to me.

I was one of the smallest kids in my class. I had asthma. I lacked confidence. But being out in nature gave me both an exhilarating jolt and a sense of peace. It still does.

One thing I realized during the year is that my attachment to these places is inextricably intertwined with memories of experiences with family and friends. And I know I’m not alone.

Ask someone what their favorite national park is and they often will end up describing a trip they made with loved ones. That’s why I dedicated the book to “loved ones who are gone, and the beloved places that remain.”

CNN: National Park Service turns 100

How did you incorporate nature into your adult life?

For many years, I didn’t. I was outside nearly every day, doing some sort of exercise. But when it came to making plans for some big national park trip, it always seemed to be a matter of “someday.”

Thanks to my mom, though, the parks continued to be a part of our lives. When my dad died in 1996, she decided she wanted all of us to raft through the Grand Canyon. When she moved to Tucson, our regular activity was going for hikes in Saguaro National Park.

And as she approached 70, she did separate national park trips with each of her children over the course of several years – in my case, a rafting trip through Canyonlands National Park in 2006.

The year I turned 50, in 2011, I had my version of a midlife crisis.

It involved planning three national park trips: a 20th anniversary trip with my wife to Cumberland Island National Seashore in Georgia; a trip to the Grand Canyon with a buddy to run from the South Rim to North Rim and back; and, most significantly, the family trip to Redwood National and State Parks.

How did the parks connect you to your mother during her illness?

Mom loved the parks. She had visited about 100 national park sites. She volunteered every week at Saguaro National Park.

When she was told she was dying, she told me she wanted me to continue with my plans. And for the most part, I did. When she was still alive, I went to the places she loved to find solace. When she was gone, I took comfort knowing I could return to these places to find her.

What did you want your daughter to get from the national parks?

I want her to get the same mix of exhilaration and calm that I get in these places.

Beyond that, I want her and her generation to make sure these places are around in another 100 years.

One of my epiphanies during the year was something that probably should have been obvious: The Organic Act of 1916, which created the National Park Service, didn’t preserve our national parks forever.

It always has been, and always will be, up to each generation to make that happen – not only as a nation, but as individuals.

My mom and dad did their part. They passed a love of these places down to me.

But have I passed that love down to my daughter? I hope so.

National parks: ‘America’s best idea’

Given modern technology, was it hard to get her to pay attention during your trips?

Once we were in the parks, it wasn’t hard.

When we were in Yellowstone, she and her cousins quickly were doing some of the things we did in the dark ages before the Internet and smartphones, exploring the campground, making up games and becoming Junior Rangers.

It was a reminder of the power of nature. Of course, it’s worth noting that there wasn’t a cell signal.

In places where there is cell service and Wi-Fi, the adults are every bit as bad as the kids, maybe worse, about being glued to their phones. I feel fortunate to be alive at this point in history, at a time when it’s possible to instantly connect from so much of the Earth.

And yet there still are places where we have no choice but to disconnect.

How did your family relate to one another differently in nature?

One of my favorite moments of the year happened in Yellowstone. My daughter was upset about something. I was preparing to comfort her when she calmed down on her own and said, “Remember that book Nana read to us in the redwoods?”

My mom had read Byrd Baylor’s “Everybody Needs a Rock” to her four grandchildren the previous summer, when we visited Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park in California.

I had forgotten about this. My daughter clearly had not, because she opened her hand and showed me a rock. My mom died a couple of weeks later. And to me, that moment with the rock took on even more meaning.

All of us – not just kids – need places where we can find a rock or tree or river.

Mark Woods is the metro columnist for the Florida Times-Union, the daily newspaper in Jacksonville, Florida.