There are well-worn deer trails in my back yard. For some reason it’s important to me that as I look out beyond my deck – although I’m not exactly in the country – it’s not the city either.
One side of my wraparound deck overlooks a large valley dotted with homes on winding lanes and, at this time of year, partially obscured by trees. The view from the back is my favorite though, because it faces the hillside. The solitude of the forest and it’s natural inhabitants does wonders for my peace of mind.
Does and their fawns frequent the trails almost daily, and we occasionally see majestic bucks as well. Wild turkeys use the trails as often as the deer, slowly moving along in their distinctive herky-jerky steps, sometimes en masse, sometimes in single file. Once I saw the biggest coyote I’ve ever seen darting along the path in dogged pursuit of some unseen prey, pausing to listen – or perhaps sniff – and then taking off again at a trot, and disappearing from view. I was mesmerized.
There are other critters that inhabit my back yard as well, with its hillside dotted with ponderosa pines (both standing and hewn) and here and there clumps of juniper hugging the ground: squirrels and chipmunks (which are practically indistinguishable, their evergreen diet apparently stunting their growth), forest shrews, plus an occasional mountain lion. I do my bit to clean up the natural debris that is deposited on the forest floor, contributing the pine needles, small sticks and pine cones to my supply of kindling for the fireplace.
I know how lucky I am. I have lived in both the big city and the country, and this is without a doubt the best compromise for this stage of my life, an empty-nester who travels a lot. The cats and I are very happy here.
But you don’t need a forest in your backyard to enjoy Mother Nature. America has taken the trouble to preserve millions of acres of wilderness, forests, and natural wonders for the enjoyment of all. Why not include some of these treasures in your travel plans this year?
You probably already know that America’s National Parks System is the envy of the world. But did you know that the idea of setting aside wilderness areas for a “nation’s park” began with frontier artist, George Catlin, in the journals of his pioneering 1832 journey to the continent’s interior? Catlin spent the winter at Fort Union, a major Missouri River fur trade post owned by John Jacob Astor. Situated on what is today the North Dakota/Montana border, the fort was a magnet for Plains Indian tribes. He set up shop in the southwest blockhouse, painting the likeness of many prominent and lesser-known Natives that winter. A visit to this fort, complete with living history interpreters, is included on several of our tours, including the upcoming Lewis & Clark Trail.
Many of America’s most spectacular parks are located in the Great American West. The world’s first national park (Yellowstone, 1872) and America’s first national monument (Devil’s Tower, 1906) are included in our programs, along with lesser-known gems like Colorado National Monument, Black Canyon of the Gunnison and the Mammoth Site. Theodore Roosevelt is responsible for many of them (even before the National Park Service was established in 1916) and one was even named for him, near his ranch in western Dakota. It is the only unit in the National Park System named for a person.
But not all great parks are national. South Dakota’s Custer State Park is a wildlife preserve which is home to many animals – some of them previously endangered – and the locale of the annual fall buffalo roundup. Many parks now maintain herds of this magnificent pre-historic beast, but in 1900 there were only 400 of these unique mammals left in the world and their future looked grim. Again, thanks to conservationists and national parks (and more recently, private buffalo ranchers), they are no longer even on the endangered species list, and this natural treasure is here for all to enjoy.
Over the years, I’ve learned to appreciate that the rich cultural heritage of the Great American West go hand-in-hand with the spectacular natural wonders protected within the parks system. And you may have noticed that I make many Facebook posts promoting national parks sites. Alas, they too are on the endangered list right now. If you feel as I do that “in wildness is the preservation of the world” (Henry David Thoreau), please let your feelings be known to your congressional delegation. [End of shameless political plug for a worthwhile cause]
Shebby Lee is a historian, writer and tour operator specializing in the historic and cultural heritage of the Great American West. She is a frequent presenter at numerous history conferences and trade association meetings and is a regular contributor to ABA’s Insider online magazine. Her early training was in the theatre and she served a tour of duty as an entertainer with the USO. She is also an Admiral in the Nebraska Navy.