It took three emails from the Pulliam Foundation to get his attention. They were looking for a mid-career columnist who wanted to take a year off to cover his dream assignment. But what was that?
Mark Woods was a metro columnist for the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville and nearing 50 at the time so he figured he fit the bill. Long story short, he was awarded the fellowship for a story pegged to a yearlong tour of America’s National Parks and a book to come out in the midst of the park’s centennial.
But just as he started out on his grand adventure in 2011, his mother got sick. He took time off to care for her but ultimately continued the journey. The resulting memoir in Lassoing the Sun: A Yea in America’s National Park interweaves his experiences visiting 15 National Parks with childhood memories and his mother’s illness and eventual death.
The result is a masterful book that takes readers along for the ride of self discovery amid the beauty of the National Parks. A great summer read for a family vacation, Lassoing the Sun is a journalistic endeavor with a style along the lines of John McPhee.
In an interview with LiveOutdoors leading up to the book’s release, Woods said he set out to speak with people at each park who really loved it and ask them why we should care about it. And it was through their eyes that he told the story.
“I wanted someone who had the expertise and the love of it,” he said. “It wasn’t always park service employees. Sometimes it was fellow campers and backpackers I bumped into.”
From Acadia in Maine to Redwood in California, Saguaro in Arizona and Dry Tortugas in Florida, Woods criss-crossed the country taking time off when needed to be with his mother. Hitting 15 of the country’s 59 national parks, it truly was a dream assignment.
For Woods, now back at the metro, dealing with the loss of his mother at the time of these trips made the symbolism and metaphors that much more apparent. What had already been a habit for the metro columnist became even more accentuated.
“I think it’s easy to find symbolism and deeper meaning when you’re out in the these natural places that we love to visit, but this made it even more so.”
Continue reading our Q&A with Mark Woods:
LO: As someone who has studied the National Parks, what do you think is the biggest challenge the Park Service has today?
Woods: There are all these myriad issues that get talked about a lot with budgets and climate change. But the thing I was struck with at the end of the year and throughout aren’t those things that you always hear. It isn’t the age old, are we loving our parks too much? It’s are we loving the parks enough? Are we passing on that love down to our children? A lot of the book in many ways is about how my parents gave me a love of these places by bringing me to them when I was young. And even if I didn’t realize it at the moment, going back to them decades later, I loved the national park. Now had I passed that love on to my daughter? I don’t know. Hopefully deep inside her is a love for Yellowstone. In 1916, the Organic Act ensured these places would be preserved forever. But that’s not really the case. It’s always up to each generation to preserve them. And that’s not something we do as a nation but as individuals.
LO: What do you think of the lame brain things you hear about people doing in the National Parks, especially Yellowstone by approaching wildlife with the selfie sticks?
Woods: I do have mixed emotions. The park’s are trying to use technology more to get younger engagement and younger visitors. But on the other hand, one thing I was struck by, repeatedly in places without cell service that I really liked it. I’m as bad as anybody. In those places it was really liberating to know my cell phone doesn’t work and I can just live in the moment and experience what’s around me. You think about how quickly technology is changing. I’m sure in a few years there will be nowhere on earth where you aren’t connected. And I don’t look forward to it.
LO: Okay, I’ll ask you the question you posed yourself. What is your favorite park?
Woods: I asked everybody that during the year out of curiosity and I quickly found that it’ s often not what had the most beautiful vista but it’s a very personal thing. For me I think the redwoods would be very high. Jedidiah state park, within the national park, on the Smith River. It was one of the first parks that I went to as a child, and then going back with my daughter and it was the last place I went with mom. There are a couple places on the Colorado river in Grand Canyon that I’ve always said you could give me the fanciest hotel room in new York or LA and I wouldn’t take trade it for this.
To order Lassoing the Sun click here.
Featured photo: St. Martin’s Press
Body photo: All Images Copyright 2016, Bob Self-031716-Mark Woods photographed at the Fort Caroline National Memorial, a part of the Timucuan Ecological and Historic Preserve in Jacksonville, Florida.