Happy birthday, National Park Service

The National Park Service marks 100 years this week. One hundred years of preserving our amazing natural resources. One hundred years of educating people on our great outdoors. One hundred years of giving joy to the millions of people from all over the world who visit the parks each year.

It’s a good deal when the one having the birthday gives the gifts, though that’s what the National Parks are. A gift. To celebrate this anniversary, here are pictures from my recent visits.

Bryce CanyonUtah boasts a multitude of striking natural landscapes. Wind carves away earth to reveal the tall, skinny spires of rock called Hoodoos at Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah.

Canyon Lands UtahLooking down on Canyon Lands National Park, Utah, one gets the impression a dinosaur left its footprint.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, TennesseeA mama black bear and her two cubs meandered in front of our car at Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee.

Acadia National Park, MaineAcadia National Park, Maine, offers rugged Atlantic Ocean views and tasty crab rolls in local restaurants.

Shenandoah National Park, VirginiaThe Shenandoah National Park, Virginia, provided beautiful vistas, hiking, and a whole lot of wind. I’m not posing so much as trying to control my hair.

Glacier National Park, MontanaGlacier National Park, Montana, in June? Maybe not the best choice. Snow clogged mountain roads while rains closed valley roads, keeping us indoors much of the time. Cloaked in mist and clouds, the mountains were still beautiful. And we did spot both a bear and a moose.

Death Valley National Park, CaliforniaWater should not have been a problem in Death Valley National Park, California, but a record-breaking rain of 1/4 inch the day before we arrived flooded the valley. This impressed on me better than any ranger talk that Death Valley has no river outlet. Rain sheets off the mountains and accumulates on the floor with nowhere to go.

Badlands National Park, South DakotaStriations in the hills of the Badlands, speak to millennia of geologic history. The first time I visited the Badlands – 40 years ago – I thought this must be what the moon surface looks like. At that time, there was no visible greenery. Since then, invasive plants moved in and patches of green are everywhere.

White Sands National Monument

Though White Sands National Monument, New Mexico, is designated a monument, not a park, it’s one of the most visually stunning places I’ve visited in the past few years. Wind moves the dunes a few inches every day, often covering the roads, which have to be plowed to enable traffic to move. The white sand created a visual/mental disconnect for me since I visited there in February when we still had snow in Iowa. It didn’t help to see other visitors snowboard and sledding down the dunes.

Since the National Park Service was established, it’s grown from the one park – Yellowstone National Park – to include over 450 parks, monuments, parkways, historic sites, and seashores. Whenever and wherever I travel these days, I check to see if there’s a national park or monument along the way. They’re always worth the time.

Are you visiting the National Parks? If you haven’t, I hope these pictures whet your appetite. If you have, which have you enjoyed the most? Please leave a note. Then go have a piece of birthday cake.

Language barrier? Don’t the Irish speak English?

International travel can be a challenge, especially if you don’t speak the local language or do so minimally. One of the advantages to traveling to Ireland is that they speak English, right? Yes and no. My recent visit to Ireland revealed a range of word play that gave new depth to the language I use every day.

Road signs in Ireland provide directions and a lesson in Irish.

Road signs in Ireland provide directions and a lesson in Irish.

Road signs are the first indication you’ve entered another world. The signs were easy enough to understand, but the words describing what a sign means the driver to do might be different. We say “Yield;” the Irish say “Make way.” “Entrance” becomes “Way In.” “Exit” becomes “Way Out.” Spotting these was a delight. All Irish road signs also come with a lesson in Gaelic. Just don’t ask me to pronounce it.

Then, there’s the accent. Early in presentations, each guide asked, “Can you understand me?” Most were easy. However, one man – a farmer who also served as tour guide in the other-worldly, sandstone landscape of The Burren – was more of a challenge.

Can you imagine farming on this landscape? Our tour guide raises cattle on The Burren.

Can you imagine farming on this landscape? Our tour guide (in the CIA cap) raises cattle on The Burren.

Shane Connolly spoke so rapidly and with such a strong dialect that I’m sure I caught little more than half of what he said. Yet he was one of my favorite guides. A wealth of knowledge on history, geology, botany, and agriculture, Shane caught us off guard, surprising and delighting as he sprinkled American history and political and cultural references throughout his talk. The consensus of our group was that Shane knew more about American history and culture than many of us. And we got his message, even through the accent.

Undertakers, Plantations, and Craic

However, the real mind-bending challenge was how words that mean something to me as an American mean something entirely different to the Irish. Two of those words are “undertaker” and “plantation,” which came into play as guides related the centuries-long English/Irish, Catholic/Protestant conflict.

For many years, the English government and Church of England, were intent on removing Catholics from any power. During the “Plantation period,” Catholics were removed from the land they owned and farmed and Protestants were “planted” on that same land as the new owners. These new owners “undertook” to farm the land they’d been given and in so doing became “undertakers.”

The injustices described came uncomfortably close to America’s own treatment of Native Americans and Blacks. My head swam each time the words plantation and undertaker were spoken as I worked to re-direct my brain away from the American South and death.

On a lighter note was the word “Craic,” pronounced “Crack.” In Gaelic, craic means fun or a good time. So our guide might say, “That was craic,” or “Ye’ll have great craic.” We found the use of “ye” instead of “you” charming, while this word craic always caused laughter since seekers of American crack are looking for a whole different kind of fun.



All this play with language caused me as a writer, to think about the authors who write about countries other than their own. Getting a story factually right is challenging under any circumstances. To add in the possibility that words do not mean the same thing at all adds a whole new level of difficulty.

We did encounter one sign that was always, only, in Irish. That was Fáilte. Fáilte means “Welcome.” Even without the translation, we all knew that word because we felt it so clearly from every person we met. No language barrier there.

Have you traveled to another country and encountered words and phrases that caused you to think about language differently? What was your experience?

Murals fuel & memorialize Irish conflict

Murals as a form of political, social, and cultural expression rose in importance during “The Troubles” – a 30-year conflict that began in 1968 and divided Northern Ireland. Though The Troubles more or less ended with the Belfast “Good Friday” agreement of 1998, murals continue to be a powerful method of communication. Often called the Belfast Murals, these graphic messages are also prominent in Derry where conflict was also heated.

Here are a few I saw on my recent visit to Northern Ireland.

A Protestant, King William of Orange and his victory at the Battle of the Boyne are still celebrated by Irish Protestants.

Protestant, King William of Orange and his victory at the Battle of the Boyne are still celebrated by Irish Protestants.

The republican prisoners commemorated in this mural sought prisoner of war status. Rather than wear prison garb, they opted for blankets; their action became known as "the blanket protest." The prisoners also initiated a hunger strike. Some died before the protest ended.

The republican prisoners commemorated in this mural sought prisoner of war status. Rather than wear prison garb, they opted for blankets; their action became known as “the blanket protest.” The prisoners also initiated a hunger strike, with some dying before the protest ended.

This mural commemorates a a young girl killed during The Troubles. The girl's father continues to visit the mural regularly.

A young girl was one of the thousands of civilians killed during The Troubles. The girl’s father  visits the mural regularly.

Some believe the British Army must be held accountable for the deaths they caused during The Troubles.

The campaign continues to hold the British Army accountable for the predominately Catholic deaths they perpetrated during The Troubles.

The fight for a united Ireland continues.

Arguing for a united Ireland.

Murals take on new causes as well as old.

Artists take on new causes as well as old.

An artist works on a new mural.

New murals are created, as artists take up current events and new causes.

The history of Northern Ireland is complicated. Loyalists – Unionists – Republicans – Nationalists – Catholics – Protestants. Even with repeated explanations by our guides, I am confident I don’t have it all straight.

What these murals did for me was convey the tremendous emotion surrounding all of the issues. More than words, these murals told me the issues remain, even though, thankfully, people aren’t still killing each other.

On Memorial Day, we remember those who fought and died for our country. With these visual reminders, every day is Memorial Day in Northern Ireland.

Readers: Have you seen murals used in a similar way in other parts of the world? If you have, please share.

How important is “place” in writing?

My recent trip to Ireland has me thinking again about the importance of place to a writer. Ireland has a rich written history, including literary greats James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, and W.B. Yates. Those names were prominent as we toured the Emerald Isle landscape that inspired their writing.

The distinctive tabletop mountain, Benbulbin, inspired Yates' poetry.

The distinctive tabletop mountain, Benbulbin, inspired Yates’ poetry.

At the 2,000-year-old Drumcliff Church, we visited W.B. Yates’ grave and then, as we drove through the countryside where Yates lived and wrote, we were treated by our guide Eilo to recitations of Yates’ verses.

After choosing subjects for his verse from a number of other countries, Yeats said:

“I convinced myself … that I should never go for the scenery of a poem to any country but my own, and I think that I shall hold to that conviction to the end.”

In view of Benbulbin – Yates’ favorite mountain – I listened to the rush of a waterfall, gazed at sheep pastured in fields ringed with ivy-covered rock walls, and knew exactly why Yates came to the conclusion to center his writing on this place.

Woven into Irish place are centuries of conflict – British vs Irish, Protestant vs Catholic – aspects of Irish place that continue to influence Irish writers today. 

Author David Lawlor and I enjoyed an all-too-brief writer chat.

Author David Lawlor and I enjoyed an all-too-brief writer chat.

A treat during the tour was having lunch with historical fiction writer David Lawlor. We met via social media and I’ve become a big fan of his writing.

In 1921, at just age 20, Lawlor’s grandfather joined scores of IRA men in an attack on the Dublin Custom House. Lawlor’s grandfather survived; others did not.

Each day, Lawlor walks to work past the Custom House, a symbol of British rule in Ireland. The social and political history Lawlor traverses daily inspired his series of novels set in the years surrounding the Irish War for Independence.

Everywhere I travel, I am inspired. In fact, inspiration is one of the reasons I hit the road. But, as I left the emerald landscape of Ireland and returned to the green fields of Iowa, I was affirmed in my own decision to write stories based in Iowa, past and present. I also know that if I ever need more inspiration, it will be waiting for me in the homeland of Yates and Lawlor.

To read more about Lawlor’s grandfather and other ‘bit players of history’ visit Lawlor’s blog History With A Twist.

If you enjoy historical adventure stories, you’ll enjoy Lawlor’s book “Tan” and the subsequent books in the series.

How important is staying plugged in?

“Is it plugged in?” That was the first question tech support always asked back when computers were new and I called to find out why the alien on my desk wouldn’t work.

Dutifully, I’d untangle my feet from the writhing morass of cords under my desk and track the computer from the wall outlet to the back of the computer. With embarrassing frequency, the connection was loose. Plugged in securely, the computer returned to life.

Ireland - Plugging into a new source of energy.

Ireland – Plugging into a new source of energy.

Eventually I caught on to that game and checked the connections before I called tech support. When I smugly assured those helpful wizards that my computer was indeed plugged in, they had this head-slapping advice:

“Then unplug it, wait 30 seconds, and plug it back in.”

Following their advice, the computer almost always blinked rapidly and woke to do my bidding. My word. If life were always so simple. Anne Lamott suggests that it may be. She says:

“Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes .. including you.”

For much of the past many months, I’ve worked diligently to write the first draft of my novel. For most of this time, I’ve been securely plugged in, writing most days and thinking about the characters and story when I wasn’t writing. I have made great progress, though with increasing frequency, my energy lags.

I know it is time to unplug and re-boot. To that end, my sister and I embark this month for a trip to Ireland. We have no Irish ancestry that we know of, but we are both drawn to the green of the Emerald Isle, to the coastal landscapes, to the people and the pubs. The sense of place is important to my writing, and I am fascinated to see the place that has spawned so many great writers and enduring stories.

During most of May, I will be unplugged, literally and figuratively. No computer. Limited wi-fi access. Any writing I do will be old school, using the notebook and pencil in my pocket.

When we return, I expect to plug in, blink rapidly, and spring back to this life, fully charged with the energy and perspectives travel invariably offers.

I look forward to sharing thoughts on my journey – when I return and plug in again. In the meantime, I wish you moments of unplugged luxury, too.

Walls – Which side are we on?

The tide of refugees and immigrants and the resulting walls and discussions of walls – in Europe and the U.S. – remind me of a sculpture I saw at the University of Arizona in Tucson. “Border Dynamics” is a greater than life-sized metal work created by Guadalupe Serrano and Alberto Morackis of Taller Yonke.

"Border Dynamics"

“Border Dynamics” by Guadalupe Serrano and Alberto Morackis

People on each side of a wall push against it. Yet, who is trying to get by? Who is resisting?

The figure on the left in the foreground appears almost bored, apathetic, in his effort. Is he worn out by the effort? Acting out of obligation rather than belief?

Meanwhile, the figure on the right shows purpose, determination. There may be desperation in his face.

Border Dynamics

“Border Dynamics”

The figures behind these two have different attitudes. One pushes with greater energy, one with less. But neither in the same way as the figures in the foreground.

Maybe the figures on the right are trying to push the wall down, but maybe they are not. Maybe they are trying to hold back the tide of immigrants, those weary travelers barely able to stand against yet one more barrier.

Who has more resolve? People seeking to keep people out? Or people seeking to get in? The range of emotions on both sides of the fence indicate the answer is not clear or united on either side.

My work in progress – a contemporary novel set in Iowa – includes characters on all sides of the immigrant issue. Exploring and presenting these diverse points of view honestly and fairly is a challenge that makes writing this novel particularly interesting. In each scene, I seek to understand the world view of the characters to know how they’ll behave. Often the characters surprise me, acting in ways I don’t expect.

As I write, I run into the wall of my own prejudices and am forced to look back on my life and explore the defining moments that shaped my attitudes and actions. One of the reasons I write what I do is because writing offers an opportunity to understand myself and the world around me. This novel is doing that – in spades. And it’s often uncomfortable.

I circled the “Border Dynamics” sculpture, studying the the figures, trying to imagine each one’s story. I came away with more questions than answers. Like the discussions of immigrants and borders and walls we face today.

Going deep inside – Perspective 3

Carlsbad Caverns - "Curtains"

These “drapery” formations evoke a whale’s mouth.

Recently, I’ve considered perspective from high up in a hot air balloon and up close at Cadillac Ranch. I also had a chance to go deep with a visit to Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico.

I’ve been in caves before, but always in the company of others. I toured the massive spaces of Carlsbad Caverns on my own.

I walked to the Big Room (rather than take the elevator) via the Natural Entrance Trail, a steep descent of 1 1/4 mile that takes approximately an hour. I’d never been so deep under the earth’s surface. What would it smell like? Feel like? Sound like? Would I be afraid to be nearly 800 feet under the earth’s surface?

Carlsbad Caverns - Stelagtites

Stalactites connect to stalagmites and eventually form pillars.

With conscious dawdling, I let other visitors overtake and pass me on the trail, leaving me to soak in the experience alone.

The trail was dimly lit and impressive formations enjoyed greater lighting, but there were points where the space was darker. I found those places, stood still, closed my eyes and waited, exploring sensory input as it reached me.

Underground, no traffic, wind, or animal sounds penetrate. Would I be able to hear anything? I stilled the noise in my head and waited. Eventually, there it was, the sound of a water drop plinking into a pool. Not often, not regularly, but there.

Eyes closed, I soaked in total blackness. No street lights, no car lights, no sun, no moon. Impenetrable black. After a few minutes, still turned toward the darkest place in the cave, I opened my eyes. I could barely make out the black pool where the water drops fell. That was with the faintest trail light bleeding in. I wonder what else there was in the darkest places my eyes could not reach?

"Popcorn" created fairy villages and Oriental shrines.

“Popcorn” forms fairy villages and Oriental shrines.

Temperatures in the cave are a constant 56 degrees year around. At one point, I turned to look back up the trail and felt a breeze against my face. As I considered why they might be ventilating the cave, I happened upon a trail sign. As it turns out I’d come upon the one spot in the cave where a natural draft from the surface finds its way deep underground. I chuckled.

After an hour and a quarter on the trail, when I finally reached the Big Room, I had a passing thought that I’d seen all I needed to see. Could there really be enough to hold my interest? Oh, my, yes. The name ‘Big Room’ understates the treasures of a cavern the size of six football fields – a cavern large enough to house Notre Dame Cathedral.

Carlsbad Caverns - Pillars

Pillars as tall as Notre Dame Cathedral reached the top of the Big Room.

Walking the trails that wound through the Big Room took another hour. Along the way, I saw formations that were whimsical, naughty, majestic. reminiscent of Broadway shows and Biblical stories.

Rather than fear, I felt awe. These caves have been forming for hundreds of thousands of years. Some of the formations are still growing. Long before people existed. Long after people are gone. These caverns were, are, and will be.

Touring Carlsbad Caverns reminded me of the work memoir writers do as we dig deep in the experiences of our lives and try to make sense of it all. Memoir writers who do the hard work go into the dark places and discover unexpected treasures. The experience may make them laugh or cry. It may be irreverent or holy. But in doing so, the writer learns some of the truth of her life. With luck, she then writes a story that conveys that truth to the reader.

From high above – Perspective

It's a whole different perspective from the ground.

It’s a whole different perspective from the ground.

Hot air balloons float over my house in Des Moines with some regularity in the summer. I’ve watched from the ground and wondered what it would be like to go up in one. What would it feel like? What would I hear? What would I see? How would it be differing than looking at the ground from an airplane seat?

The soft arms of a saguaro reach toward us.

The soft arms of a saguaro reach toward us.

Being up in a balloon would provide an entirely different perspective. Of that I was certain. When I visited my sister in Tucson, we agreed it was time. A first-ever opportunity for both of us.

I’ll cut to the chase. The entire experience was magnificent.

Early morning light painted a soft fringe on the saguaro cacti. Were it not for this flight, I’d never have thought to describe a saguaro as “soft.”

Our shadow preceded us as we flew toward Sombrero Peak.

Our shadow preceded us as we flew toward Sombrero Peak.

Floating along at 400 feet, we spotted javelinas, coyotes, deer, and rabbits threading through the cacti, skirting around buildings, traveling close, but not too close, to each other. From this perspective, we saw them all exist in the same territory, aware of each other perhaps, but for the moment in a live-and-let-live mode.

I felt child-like delight watching the shadow of our balloon against the mountains as we drifted along.

Right over the top of Sombrero Peak.

Right over the top of Sombrero Peak.

With blasts of heat from the burner – the only sound disturbing the morning silence – we rose to 2,000+ feet and crested Sombrero Peak in the Tucson Mountains. Our pilot who’d been flying for 30 years had never flown directly over this peak. His delight made me think how wonderful it is to discover new pleasure in something you do all the time.

Light and dark shadows on the mountain range.

Light and dark shadows on the mountain range.

From greater heights, we enjoyed the patterns of fields, a quarry, and the mountain range – designs we could never take in with our feet on the ground.

Recently, I wrote about Cadillac Ranch and the importance of taking a closer look. There’s equal value to getting the “30,000-ft” view.

In life and in writing, it helps to step back (or in this case, ‘up’) every once in a while. To get away from the minutiae. To see how the larger pieces fit together. To gain new perspectives on what I thought I knew.

Thanks for joining me on this flight of fancy. How do you step away from the details and gain bigger picture perspective? Please share.

Can you believe your eyes?

Seeing something with your own eyes is proof. Right? At one time or another, most of us have said: “Seeing is believing.” or “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

Drifts pile 20-30 feet high - ideal for sledding and snowboarding.

Drifts pile 20-30 feet high – ideal for sledding and snowboarding.

We’ve also said the opposite when reality goes against what we know or believe to be true – “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.”

I experienced a disconcerting disconnect between my eyes and brain when I visited White Sands National Monument in New Mexico. Encompassing 275 acres of desert, White Sands is the largest gypsum dunefield in the world.

Coming out of the snowy Midwest as I’d done, my brain was conditioned to to see white as snow. To expect cold. To be wary of ice.

Prefer to sled barefoot? Snowboard in shorts? Try White Sands.

Prefer to sled barefoot? Snowboard in shorts? Try White Sands.

As I drove further into the park, leaving vegetation behind, the 20-30-foot high drifts of white looked like snow. I grabbed a coat as I got out of my car only to remember it was 70 degrees out.

Graders cleared the roads, scraping away drifts of white, leaving packed white surfaces. I touched my brakes lightly lest I skid off the road at the next curve. I accelerated with great caution fearful my wheels would spin out.

White Sands National Monument - Silhouette

Reality is distorted in White Sands.

Visitors to the dunes did nothing to clarify. Barefoot kids in shorts played at winter sports, sledding and snowboarding off the steep dunes.

As a writer, I often draw on my own experiences for emotion and sense. My time at White Sands gave me a whole new well of disorientation from which to draw.

Even though I was in the park for five hours, I never did reconcile the reality of what was there with what my mind believed to be true.

I really could not believe my eyes.

What’s the value of taking a closer look?

“You have got to be kidding,” I whispered when I drove past the Cadillac Ranch west of Amarillo, Texas. The famous line of ten Cadillacs planted front bumpers in the ground and rear bumpers in the air was barely visible in the distance.

A tribute to America's love of driving?

A tribute to America’s love of driving?

I shook my head, unable to believe I’d driven 75 miles out of my way to see this landmark. Another sucker, I thought as I made a U turn at the next I-40 exit, back tracked on the frontage road, left my car on a cold, grey day, and trekked a quarter mile across a barren field to look more closely.

The nearer I came, the more intrigued I grew. The cars began to pop with color and texture, with messages left by previous pilgrims to this shrine. The rusted out cars were so covered with spray paint the surfaces bubbled like lava. It was not unrealistic to question whether the cars could have remained upright sans paint. Graffiti memorialized Mom, love, and messages of dubious intent.

Cadillacs as sculptures.

Cadillacs as sculpture and writing lesson.

From a distance the Cadillac Ranch was a big nothing. Close up, it was a fascinating essay in excess, in silliness, in commentary on America.

As I walked around each car, marveling at what these monoliths say about all of us who came there, I realized Cadillac Ranch stands as a tribute to one of my first writing instructors, Mary Kay Shanley. Mary Kay always exhorted us to take a smaller picture, to take a closer look. She gave huge assignments, all to be completed in no more than 250 words.  

Mary Kay would have us write about the Cadillac Ranch, but tell an entire story by focusing on one car. One axle. One wheel. In 250 words.

From a distance, Cadillac Ranch underwhelms.

Cadillac Ranch from a distance

Her assignments were not exercises in the impossible, though sometimes they felt like that. Her point was that if you focused small, zeroing in on the core points that really mattered, choosing each word with care, you could convey more meaning with greater effect in 250 words than if you used three times as many words without care.

With the right 250 words, you’d feel as though you knew the Cadillac Ranch even if you’d never been there. That lesson is one I’ve always remembered. Thanks to Mary Kay for drumming that concept into my head. Thanks to the Cadillac Ranch for a timely reminder.

If you visit:

If you happen to pass through Amarillo, take a half hour and stop at Cadillac Ranch. It’s better up close – just like good writing. And take a can of spray paint. It’s encouraged.

For a even more pleasure:

Sign up for Mary Kay Shanley’s newsletter, Words & Other Worthy Endeavors. Whether you write or not, you’ll enjoy spending time with Mary Kay. Her website is under construction at the moment, but you can reach her through LinkedIn.