An A to Zed of the USA by a European Nomad – M, N & O

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I know this shouldn’t really count, but y’all need to know how many times I have been out with friends at dusk and dawn in Maine, Colorado, Vermont, Washington… in remote moose-friendly sites and I STILL haven’t seen one. State biologists estimate the Maine moose population to be around 75,000. Do they go into hiding when this Brit arrives? If anyone can promise me a guaranteed moose-sighting, I will be on the next plane. I have seen reindeer in Lapland, but I have to see one of these iconic majestic beasts before I die.

National Parks

It is way up there on my bucket list, the plan to visit all of America’s national parks. Since 1872 the United States National Park System has grown from a single, public reservation called Yellowstone National Park to embrace over 450 natural, historical, recreational, and cultural areas. This includes battlefields like Gettysburg or one of the newest sites, and one I have of course visited because it is in Manhattan, is the Stonewall National Monument in New York, which memorializes the struggles that the lgbtqia community has faced over the years, along with one of its major victories. 

In 2016, we celebrated the centenary of the NPS. If I had to pick one thing that I feel Americans can legitimately be proud of and shout about from the rooftops, it is the NPS. The fundamental purpose of the NPS “is to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” This mission is unlike that of any other federal agency: They serve as keepers of the nation’s cultural memory. 

I watched the amazing Ken Burns series about the founding of the NBS and both Mather and John Muir have become heroes of mine. Muir is self-described as, He once described himself more humorously, and perhaps most accurately, as, a “poetico-trampo-geologist-botanist and ornithologist-naturalist etc. etc. !!!!” How’s that for a title? Perhaps his greatest legacy is not even wilderness preservation or national parks as such, but his teaching us the essential characteristic of the science of ecology, the inter-relatedness of all living things. He summed it up nicely: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”

So far I have visited: Acadia, Everglades, Joshua Tree, North Cascades, Redwood, Rocky Mountain and Shenandoah. Many more to go! With all the current environmental concerns we have, I agree with author Raymond Barnett, who argues, “If the looming catastrophe of climate change is to be resolved, Muir’s two legacies – Earth Wisdom and the environmental movement – must both play key roles.”


Oregon Trail

I discovered the Oregon Trail perchance this summer! While cat-sitting in Denver I hiked many miles along the Southern Platte River enjoying water holes and fabulous bird life and the very outdoor population of Denverites cycling along these well-kept urban river trials. Then when I moved up to Fort Collins for a week I was able to borrow my friend’s old Subaru for a spontaneous mini road trip to discover some states I hadn’t yet visited. My destinations were somewhat time-restricted and a little random. First stop, Casper, WY. I arrived early in the day due to almost car-less highways (what a difference to my east-coast road trips!) Looming black clouds over the distant hills made me opt for a river hike that afternoon and lo and behold I discovered I was back on the Platte, its Northern banks, and this trail led me to Casper’s summer fete full of cowboy hats, beer, banjos and family. I met far fewer cyclists and far more fisherman on this hike, and made it back to my Air b n b just before the clouds exploded but with a desire to hike those menacing hills I had seen in the distance.

N Platte River, Casper, WY

At Red Buttes, the North Platte River narrows, swings to the south and runs between thick, sandstone beds of a deep, brick red. Here, I later read that westbound travelers on the Oregon Trail left the Platte and struck out southwest for the Sweetwater River and the Continental Divide. But before the Europeans arrived, this dramatic location was already a crossroads for cultures. The Buttes stood as a western boundary of Lakota Sioux power and an eastern boundary of Shoshone power.

The next day, I pointed my car eastward to the Black Hills through more torrential rain, which fortuitously let up to allow me a dry if cloudy visit of the famous Mount Rushmore in South Dakota. Scouring my maps over a beer that night in a tiny local diner, I felt like Scotts Bluff rang some bells, so this national monument could be my next stop. Driving through southern Nebraska gave me my first taste of endless prairie landscapes, and how happy those pioneers must have been to see some hills in Wyoming and eventually the Rockies in Colorado. Of course I climbed and didn’t drive up the towering 800 feet rocky outcrop above the North Platte River (wow, I am back on the river again!) In stark contrast to the flatness around, Scotts Bluff has served as a lookout and landmark for peoples from Native Americans to emigrants on the Oregon, California and Mormon Trails to modern travelers. As a European I confess my knowledge of western expansion was limited to Laura Ingalls Wilder and what I had read about the Lewis and Clark Expedition. So, I guess what surprised me most in the small but super informative museum was to learn about the Mormons progress (expulsion) west and the “Mormon Trail”. And now that I had landed for the third time unintentionally three on the Platte River, I want to intentionally explore it at the Oregon Trail more.

Platte Etymology – French (“flat river”) and Otoe (“flat water”)

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