An Awe-Inspiring National Parks Road Trip, Circa 1956

Making a pilgrimage to the country's most scenic spots is an American tradition. Here's why.

Jack Kerouac famously typed On the Road in three weeks on a continuous reel of paper in 1951. In the next six years, as editors prepped it for publication, another travel manuscript was penned in roadside motels and family guest rooms across America.

This diary exists today in a single, scrawled copy. It survives only because I found it in a recycling bin in Syracuse, N.Y. Like all diaries, it was written for the author, who almost certainly died long ago. It’s a candid account of an ordinary American journey through the national parks.

The diary itself is a daily planner with “1956” and “M.L. Manger Company, Inc. General Insurance” printed in gold on the brown plastic cover. Several pages are missing from the front, including any identification of the owner. The entries are limited to Sunday, June 3 through Friday, August 3. They describe a retired middle class couple who traced a 10,000-mile oval across the country through 26 states and 19 national parks, forests, and monuments.

The National Parks Service will celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2016, but the idea of protecting America’s natural beauty from eager private development goes back to the mid-19th century. At that time, hunger for taming the wild frontier began to be tempered by a romantic appreciation of American wildness itself. Explorers recognized that the pure, untouched nature they witnessed firsthand would grow rarer as industrial progress continued.

That led to the establishment of land not for private development, but for everyone. Places where ordinary people could witness extraordinary natural wonders. That become the modern NPS, consisting of more than 84 million acres.

The only identification to be found in the travel journal is the last name Russak. As he and his wife, Sarah, wind their way through the country, Russak writes for himself, never imagining anyone else will ever see his words. From the last of the Old South’s sharecroppers working in fields and living in shacks in Louisiana, to a friend’s son in California who lost his job because of communist “witch hunting,” Russak often tips his hand to reveal an uncensored slice of average American life. Including his impressions of America’s crown jewels, the national parks.

Grand Canyon National Park

What a cold night! We did not sleep much. I was up 4:30 a.m. Saw the people in the camp grounds (sic) sleeping on cots and sleeping bags. Some on the park tables. All young people, carefree and a desire to see nature in its full beauty! Never dreamed that so many people travel - mostly young couples with kids. Saw the canion (sic) in the rising sun: too cloudy. We followed the south rim to the end and went to the Navajo Bridge that crosses the Colorado River and went through the canion (sic) in Arizona. Saw how the Indians live on the plains. Women with kids riding fast horses and living in communities."

Today, about 5 million people make the journey every year to see that most famous canyon that extends 277 river miles in length, 18 miles in width, and a mile in depth. The combination of amber red rock color, massive erosional forms, and stunning size have made the place justifiably famous.

It subdued the bluster and bombast of Teddy Roosevelt when he visited in 1903, compelling him to establish the Grand Canyon Game Preserve. And despite efforts by land and mining claim holders, Congress designated the Grand Canyon as the 17th national park in 1919.

The South Rim of the canyon is most often visited by tourists, as it’s most accessible. The North Rim is only open from May until October, before it becomes too treacherous a venture.

Zion National Park

"Now in Zion National Park. It was beautiful to see the tremendous high peaks of lime rocks so high they name them religious names - they really look like temples . . . Everything is surrounded by high limestone walls that look like the skyline of New York Harbor.

"We heard a lecture by the Rangers and were entertained by the lodge staff. A beautiful scene when we leave, all the help come out and sing to our departure for about 5 minutes saying good by (sic). It’s cold out but we have a gas heater. I warmed the place. We still hear the music and the danceing (sic) but we go to bed."

Zion is Utah’s first national park. Roughly 12,000 years ago, the park’s first inhabitants hunted wooly mammoth, giant sloths, and camels through the rocks and gorges of that region. Then, Native American and white settlers found it a rare hospitable spot, being at a perfect elevation and proximity to water for growing crops.

Originally, it was called Mukuntuweap National Monument, but in 1918, the director of the newly created National Park Service changed the name to Zion (which is what the Mormon settlers called it), saying that if visitors couldn’t pronounce the name of the park, they wouldn’t visit it. Today, the park is a hiking mecca, boasting beautiful rock formations, over a thousand species of plants, and spectacular fauna. Endangered California condors circle overhead, and mule deer and turkeys roam the forests. Bighorn sheep were also reintroduced in the 1990s, and now thrive in the canyons.

Yosemite National Park

"We came to Yosemite early and we immediately started for the big trees: they are the same as in Sequoia. We then went to the lodge – it’s about 38 miles to the place. The ride goes through high roads, 7000 feet. The valleys are deep with evergreens and other species, very tall. We drove through dense woods that we did not see in Sequoia: tremendous high rocky walls and right by the lodge is the Bridal Falls. we past (sic) other falls streaming down from rocky heights… we took a walk by the fast running streams over beautiful little bridges. Sarah is sitting outside being eaten up by mosquitoes. I am just across in the large assembly waiting for the lecture by the ranger."

In many ways, Yosemite in northern California is one of the grandfathers of the national park system, the other being Yellowstone. It covers over 1,100 square miles, and stretches all the way over the western Sierra Nevadas. But despite its tremendous range, the majority of visitors (likely including the Russaks) only ever see the Yosemite Valley, which accounts for just seven square miles.

Yosemite is remarkable for its granite cliffs, waterfalls, clearstreams, giant sequoia groves, and natural biodiversity. Due to the dedication of explorer Galen Clark and other visionaries, Abraham Lincoln signed the Yosemite Grant in 1864, preventing the valley from being spoiled with modern development. Later, conservationist John Muir successfully petitioned that the surrounding mountains and forests be protected as well, a key step toward today’s US National Park Service.

Yellowstone National Park

"A great day. We left early and traveled over a hundred miles in the Park to Madison, to Norris, to Yellow Stone Lake we saw all the geysers in the hundred miles. We were at the grand canion (sic) and all the outlook points. We saw the mud eruption. We saw the falls of the Yellowstone River. We saw bears, moose in short we really saw Yellowstone. These geysers are a phenomona (sic) that is not understandable; the earth under your feet gets hot, steam shooting all around you: who knows when an eruption may take place and a canion (sic) rises, being pushed up by the great pressure of the steam? Well we came home in moonlight 9:30 p.m. tired and going to bed."

Not surprisingly, Russak didn’t see as much of Yellowstone as he probably thought. Almost 3,500 square miles in size, the park’s footprint extends into three different states, though it exists mostly in Wyoming.

Established by the US Congress and signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1872, Yellowstone is considered by many to be the first national park in the world. The lakes, canyons, rivers and mountain ranges that make up Yellowstone are home to a remarkable amount of plants and animals; it's the largest megafauna location in the continental US, with grizzly bears, wolves, and free-ranging herds of bison and elk roaming at will. In fact, the Yellowstone Park bison herd is the oldest and largest free bison herd in the country.

Shoshone National Forest

"We went through Sylvan Lake and Shoshone National Park through the big horns and the tunnels by the Wyoming Dam. If we did not see anything until now, this combines everything we saw till now! Tremendous canions (sic), fast flowing rivers, painted deserts, enormous height. Sarah got a cramp in her hand trying to hold the car back. She was very nervous and kept saying had I known that I must travel these roads I’d never (have) taken the trip! Wyoming is beautiful and hot."

One of the last stops on Russak’s travels, Shoshone National Forest is an unsung hero of the nation’s wilderness. The area is remarkable for several reasons, not least of which is that it has retained much of the “wildness” it had when white settlers first witnessed it centuries ago. Before that, Native Americans inhabited the area for roughly 10,000 years.

It's a part of the Yellowstone ecosystem, with grizzly bears, tens of thousands of elk, the largest herd of bighorn sheep in the country, and many other species roaming its 2.5 million acres. Shoshone was also the first federally protected forest in the US.

When Russak returned to New Jersey, he spent no time waxing poetic about what he saw and experienced in the preserved wilds of America. But he did say the following in the journal’s last entry:

"We unpact (sic). The house is the usual thing. Before, when we used to go away, when we came home I felt so good . . . but this time - no. My head is whirling; I am not myself!"

In his day, Russak and his wife rolled into these areas in their Plymouth. As his writings demonstrate, they were normal people – normal people with normal problems and normal dreams. Today, these people drive the same roads in mid-range sedans, air conditioners and Kidz Bop albums blasting: the epitome of the average American family vacation.

But then, keys switch off. Shoes meet the grit of the ground, Necks crane skyward and mouths drop slightly open: the same way Native Americans, white mountainmen, and a midcentury New Jersey suburbanite reacted years, decades, and centuries before. And in that transcendent moment, normal Americans stand on heaven's doorstep, and stare.

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