Our national parks are calling: A review of Before They’re Gone

Before They're Gone by Michael Lanza Did you know that April 21 to 29 is U.S. National Parks Week? Admission to all national parks is free during this time. I won’t have the opportunity this week to visit any national parks myself (in part because Delaware, where I live, is the only state in the country that doesn’t have its own national park) but today I have the next best thing: A review of a book that takes its readers on a compelling tour of a good portion of the United States’ most beautiful places – and warns us that we neglect their care, and that of the Earth itself, at our own peril.

Before They’re Gone: A Family’s Year-Long Quest to Explore America’s Most Endangered National Parks offers an inspiring tour of some of the most glorious and popular – but also fragile – national parks in the United States. Veteran outdoorsman and writer Michael Lanza decided to spend a year between 2010 and 2011 traveling these parks in the company of his wife Penny, his nine-year-old son Nate, and his seven-year-old daughter Alex. The reader is right there as the family climbs, skis, hikes, camps, kayaks, and canoes across the most spectacular vistas the United States has to offer including the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Glacier Bay, Joshua Tree, Yellowstone, and the Everglades. We experience heart-stopping moments involving bears and precipices, and are as relieved as Lanza is to learn that the animal snuffling outside their tents is only a deer.

I’ve never read a memoir or a travelogue quite like this one. Lanza devotes equal time to his experiences in the wild – always with his wife and children, and often with family friends as well – and to detailed and well-researched explanations of what global climate change is expected to do to the places he visits. It’s an effective use of bait-and-switch. On the one hand, his descriptions like this one make me want to head for the nearest camping gear store to pick up some backpacks: “Black crust, dryas, and spruce trees growing. Stellar sea lions braying at one another in a cacophony that bears a striking resemblance to the playground at my children’s elementary school…Nate and Alex collecting shells on the beach on their long circuitous voyage to becoming whole adults with a world perspective partly formed by picking up shells on a wilderness beach below thundering glaciers.”

Glacier Bay from Before They're Gone credit Michael Lanza

But before we get too comfortable enjoying these scenes as armchair travelers Lanza gets busy interviewing scientists, naturalists, and park rangers, who paint a stark picture of what will become of even the seemingly immutable mountains. Every landscape that Lanza and his family visit is threatened – Yosemite and Yellowstone by loss of snow, the pine trees in the Rocky Mountains by beetles, Glacier Bay and Mount Ranier by disappearing glaciers, the Joshua trees by drought and rising temperatures, the spoonbills and mangroves of the Everglades by rising seas and violent hurricanes – the list goes on and on. Lanza spares us none of it, making sure that we understand clearly the cost of climbing carbon emissions.

This is also a book about parenting. We see Lanza’s pride in his offsprings’ physical ability – over and over again he his surprised by just how far they can walk, how much they can carry, and what challenging terrain they can climb – as well as his occasional fear that even he, as experienced as he is, has gotten the entire family in over its head. But mostly he demonstrates repeatedly just what his kids (and at one point, his 73-year-old mother) are capable of tackling – miles of hiking, paddling, and climbing – pointing out that “as a culture, we set low expectations of children physically and of their relationship with the natural world.” Lanza argues effectively that taking children out into nature offers them experiences that nothing else can, fostering their imaginations, and helping them discover “something intangible but necessary in the complexity and stimulation of a natural environment.”

Stories about Nate and Alex also lead to some moments of genuine humor, such as when Lanza comes face to face with his son’s eagerness to use the pepper spray they are carrying in case of a bear attack or when a flight attendant welcomes the children to Southern California (where the family will be visiting Joshua Tree National Park) by telling them how lucky they are to visit Disneyland.

Mount Ranier from Before They're Gone credit Michael Lanza

But in many ways, this is a profoundly sad book. Lanza’s elegiac descriptions do not assume that Nate and Alex will be able to have similar experiences with their own children, although he clearly longs for them to do so. Here’s his reflection at the end of a description of the family’s hike in the Grand Canyon: “I want Nate and Alex to each lie in a shady spot beside Lonetree Canyon someday, snuggling with their own young kids, and recall being here with Penny and me – to feel the years and generations connect like railroad ties across the familial continent. I want to believe that enough water will exist on this plateau three decades from now to grant them that opportunity. But there seems little hope for that.” Similar scenes are enacted, and beautifully described, at each site that Lanza and his family visit.

If I have one complaint about this book, it is that by the end of it I felt a similar sense of despair, perhaps in part because I gobbled it down in one sitting. It’s hard to know just what to do with the tremendous amount of bad news Lanza’s meticulous research provides. My heart has felt heavy for days as I question just what kind of planet we are creating for our children and why we seem to have so little collective will to do the right thing by them and it. But I’m also grateful to Lanza for having the courage to look this situation in the face and to share his individual experience so that we can all see just what the cost of inaction is. Certainly he makes a compelling argument for getting out into the wilderness with our children and also for doing whatever we can to save that wilderness.

Ultimately I believe that Lanza’s travels and his book are both acts of optimism that we as parents can emulate. As he writes about the deeply imperiled Everglades “this vast, flat marsh reminds us of something fundamental to our humanity: Without hope, we have nothing. Just as a parent does what is needed for his or her children, we have no better alternative to preserving our world. Giving up hope is giving up on tomorrow.” Lanza realizes that the only way we can truly realize what we are losing is to see it for ourselves. I’m deeply appreciative that his book takes the time to help us do so.

Before They're Gone by Michael Lanza blog tour Tomorrow I’ll have an interview with Lanza, where he shares his tips for getting out in nature with kids. Purchase Before They’re Gone or read exerpts from the book and check out Lanza’s gear recommendations, tips, and many adventures at his blog TheBigOutside.

Photos courtesy of Michael Lanza

Join the Conversation