My visit to Chaco Canyon in New Mexico stands out in my memory for two reasons.  First there was the horrendous drive to the entrance on a poorly maintained gravel road twenty miles long, about half of it being over one of the worst examples of washboarding I’ve ever experienced.  Chaco is also the only place where I have been ticketed and fined by the Park Service.  My transgression was bicycling out on the main park road after it had closed past sunset.   

     Still, I feel it was a privilege to be able to visit the site, the largest collection of puebloan ruins in the Southwest.  Chaco was the center of a small civilization, called the Anasazi, that was busy building these impressive masonry structures a millennia ago.  The number of tourist who make it out to this remote desert location is relatively small but I am nevertheless surprised and grateful that the Parks Service allows unguided access.  I had fun walking through the ancient doorways and exploring the interior rooms on my own.

     Some effort is needed to imagine this collection of a dozen or more ruins at the center of an ancient nation — the place is so far removed today that the park service built an observatory at the visitor center because of the near absence of light pollution.  The key difference between their time and ours must be climate change.  Although the majority of the many roomed buildings were supposedly built for visitors and not residents, it would be impossible for the surrounding land to support much of a population at all if it were not wetter and more fertile than it is today.  In all likelihood the downfall of the Anasazi occurred when the rains diminished and the crops dried up about eight hundred years ago, causing the Pueblo people to scatter into defensive cliff side settlements such as the ones found at Mesa Verde and Canyon de Chelly.

     The Park Service has a significant number of these archeological sites in the Southwest under their protection.   Other regions of the country have pre-European sites as well, but the Native Americans in those areas built structures that were usually less extensive and durable so their number is fewer.  Taken together as a whole, however, the known history of North America is shallow compared to the rest of world.  This is in large part due to the lack of a written language by the various tribal people.  Although important events like the collapse or abandonment of Chaco obviously happened, not much more than that is known for sure.



     The more recent history of European settlement starts at Jamestown, Virginia. This marshy site of John Smith’s first colony in 1607 is appropriately part of Colonial National Historical Park.  Here was the embryonic beginning of Manifest Destiny, one of the major narratives of American history that is faithfully preserved by the Park Service. 

     The conquest of the wilderness, the settlement of a continent, the expansion West — the story is told at several of the National Historical Parks scattered across the country.  From the original colonies beyond to the Pacific coast the pioneer’s pace was rapid. Daniel Boone and others blazed the Wilderness Road through the Cumberland Gap and into Kentucky in 1775.  The North West Company began fur trading on the western shore of Lake Superior at Grand Portage in 1784. The Natchez Trace was designated a postal road through the Mississippi Valley to New Orleans in 1801.  The Lewis and Clark expedition crossed the continent and then built and wintered at Fort Clatsop near the Pacific Ocean in 1806.  Saratoga wagon trains passed on the Oregon Trail by Scottsbluff for the first time in western Nebraska in 1843.   And the climax occurred at Promontory Summit, Utah when the Golden Spike was driven in and joined together the first transcontinental railroad in 1869.


     Old rustic cabins, grist mills, barns, and homesteads from the frontier days are found in many other national parks as well.  The most popular seems to be Cades Cove on the Tennessee side of the Great Smoky Mountains,  probably because the setting of the nineteenth century farming village is so breathtakingly beautiful.  Unfortunately, the isolation the location had once enjoyed is a distant memory, a paved road jammed with cars and RVs now crawl bumper to bumper from one abandoned building to the next.  Or at least that was my experience one Friday morning in early October.   Trapped and frustrated behind the steering wheel, I contemplated what aspects of life between now and earlier times had really been an improvement.

     The doubtful side to America’s growth is not entirely hidden from view by the Park Service.  In order to tame the wild, many wild beasts were purposefully exterminated to be replaced with domesticated animals, and the wild Native people either killed or domesticated themselves.   This war against man and nature was often one and the same, the most notorious example being the massacre of the American Bison by order of the US Army to bring a final defeat to the plains Indian tribes that depended on them. 

     A scene of that tragedy was featured at the saddest park I visited, Montana’s Big Hole National Battlefield.  The film at the visitor center told the story of the war between the Nez Perce and the US Army.  The conflict started, as it usually did in an Indian War, with a treaty renegotiated because of the desire of white settlers to acquire land, who urgently wanted to settle in the Wallowa Valley in Oregon after a small amount of gold was discovered there.   The tribes affected weren’t able to comply with the government’s demands in time, fighting broke out, and about a third of the Nez Perce fled.   They thought they had successfully eluded the Army cavalry who were chasing them when they set up camp unguarded by the Big Hole River on their way eastward, unaware that another army unit was close behind them.  This unit was able to set up an ambush during the night.  When the ambush was inadvertently discovered before dawn fighting broke out immediately and the soldiers rushed into the camp, firing indiscriminately into the tipis killing women and children.  The Nez Perce warriors then counterattacked and forced their attackers back and into a make-shift siege.  The next day the Nez Perce left and escaped.

     They arrived a few weeks later at America’s only National Park in 1877, Yellowstone.  The property was under the care of the Army at the time, but hardly fortified.  Along the Park Road I read the sign where the Nez Perce had encountered a tour group on their way across the park.  Before leaving thirteen days later they had captured and released twenty-five tourists, and killed two.  One of the fatalities occured in the doorway at the McCarthy hotel in Mammoth.  The escape from the park was difficult, the Army had positions to intercept them at three points on the eastern side of Yellowstone, but the Nez Perce took what was thought to be an impossible route and eluded them.   

     A month later most of the exhausted tribe was captured south of the Canadian border which they were trying to reach.  Only a small number of the younger tribesmen were able to escape.  By my own standards, the Nez Perce justly fought for the cause of thier freedom, a cause that was worth dying for.  As for the opposing sides of America’s deadliest conflict, I am not so sure.

     Civil war sites and battlefields are found across the Mid-Atlantic and South.  I live in the same Maryland county as the Antietam Battlefield and I took several field trips there while in school.  I never could visualize the mass carnage that once occurred on the peaceful farmland and woods that are there now.  I have also seen several reenactments of battles (not allowed on the national park grounds themselves).  But despite the loud noises and the costumes they do not provide any real insight into what fighting in a war must really be like — the fear, the blood, and death.  In many ways they are like watching a professional wrestling match, except with servings of cornbread.

     A military cemetery is nearby most battlefields, and this is where I have spent some time reflecting on the war.  My thoughts focus on the nameless individual whose remains lie underneath one of the tiny headstones in a tight row, who as a young man probably had no intention of taking his last breath as a soldier, at a place far from home.  Then the rush of circumstances, the excitement of the times, a sense of duty, the fear of being shamed, or perhaps even heartbreak compelled him to join an army.  A few months or a year or two later, probably without seeing his killer’s face, choking in a cloud of smoke, a bullet or artillery shell struck him down and ended his life. 

     What was he fighting for?

     I made a short stop after a trip to Fort Sumter at a small national park unit in the suburbs of Charleston, South Carolina, in honor of Charles Pinckney, one of the drafters of the Constitution.  A remnant of one of his plantations, the visitor center and exhibit of his life are within a house built in 1828 that stands on the same site as the original manor.  He certainly was an important figure at America’s founding and is portrayed as having been a reasonable man.  However, his ownership of several large plantations and a couple hundred slaves antagonized me deeply.  Not only was the practice of human bondage clearly wrong, it allowed a small elite to lord over vast estates of land that would otherwise have been more equally divided.  I find it difficult to understand the motivation of the poor and those without land who fought under the confederate flag, defending a State’s rights to “the particular institution” that so obviously worked against their own interest.  For the majority in the enlisted ranks who lined up on the side of the South it was a lost cause worth losing.  

     On the other side of battle lines were the eventual victorious forces of the North, their commander-in-chief the most famous American political figure of the nineteenth century: Abraham Lincoln. He has been duly honored at several National Parks that mark his birthplace, his home, his boyhood home, and his grave.  One of the greatest memorials and statues on The National Mall is in his honor and his face is one of four chiseled on Mount RushmoreAnother statue of his likeness sits in front of the visitor center at GettysburgBut there was another place I found Lincoln, this time without the iconic veneer, at a foreboding place I had least expected: Alcatraz Island in San Francisco’s Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

     Before the Civil War the rocky island was turned into a military fort with one hundred cannons installed to protect San Francisco Bay.  Soon after the Army began to hold military prisoners there.  And then at the start of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln, for the first time in American history, suspended Habeas Corpus.  In my standardized school books this action was portrayed as a somewhat technical legal issue between the three branches of government, but in practice it meant that Lincoln ordered the military to close down newspapers and jail those who were vocally opposed to the war or resisted the draft into prisons like Alcatraz.  Lincoln’s famous phrase, “let us have faith that right makes might”, turned out to be stovepiped hypocrisy, as the unconditional loyalty to the Union cause was enforced in the Northern states just as it was in the South, by the barrel of the gun.

     There is a line of reasoning, straight as an arrow, from the jailing dissidents and the increasingly brutal campaign of Union troops to subdue the South, to the massacre of tribes and their game in the later Indian Wars, to the internment of Japanese-Americans during the second World War, to the carpet bombing campaigns over Northern Vietnam.  The philosophy of “War is Hell” should have been turned on it’s head to “the Hell with War” long ago — if people were perhaps better than they apparently are.  Thus the Civil War is one of history’s uncomfortable lessons: there will always be an elevated few who feel entitled to exploit the work of others, and that worthy (as well as unworthy) ends will be used by the powerful to justify any available means.



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