Author: Howard S. Freedlander, C‘67
A first-time trip to the Southwest National Parks with Penn Alumni Travel scored an A+ for my wife Liz and me. We came away, like so many others, simply awed by the natural wonders that daily greeted us and our group of 24 fellow travelers.
The sights and vantage points were overpowering at times—beginning with the incredible Grand Canyon and ending with the scenic, people-friendly Zion National Park. Liz and I discovered quickly that nothing we saw and experienced had any reference point to anything we knew on the East Coast. Certainly not the flat, waterway-dominated Eastern Shore of Maryland, where we live.
Never having gone on an organized tour, we were very impressed with Orbridge, the Seattle-based tour operator mainly serving alumni groups. I was amused when Derek Lundgren, the tour director, deliberately commented about Penn versus Penn State—and the wide difference between the two, as quickly asserted by me; he got the reaction he wanted. He was superb in communicating clearly and often with our group as we traveled from one site to another on a comfortable bus (or “coach” in tour talk).
My impressions, dutifully chronicled daily, provided a focus for me as I observed our nation’s truly incredible national parks, formed and re-reformed over millions of years. Suffice it to say that the force of nature left an indelible mark, enabling me to understand the need to preserve these natural wonders as best as humans can. Credit must go to Orbridge’s Amy Sheppard, assistant tour director, a constant source of geological, flora and fauna information during our nine days in the parks.
We started our adventure from Las Vegas, NV. Apart from the logistical necessity of using Las Vegas as a starting and end point, I think the artificial, hedonistic quality of this gambling mecca provided a start contrast to the solid realness of the Grand Canyon. See the awful before the awesome? Maybe. Standing at Lake Powell Point at sunset, we could marvel at the mélange of colors on the rock formations. If you let your imagination go wild, you could see natural mansions, chimneys and sculptures.
One of my favorite activities was rafting down the calm, soothing Colorado River, embarking from the Glen Canyon Dam. It seemed unreal to view the red-tinted sandstone walls, ranging in height from 700 to 1,400 feet, wondering about slowly tumbling rock. Construction of the dam in the 1960s was controversial then and still is; while interrupting the normal flow of the Colorado River, it also provides absolutely essential water to Phoenix, AZ and San Diego, CA. The tension between human needs and environmental purity is ever-present, in the West and the East.
Time spent on the Navajo Reservation, visiting the striking Antelope Canyon Slot, the Navajo National Monument and Monument Valley (scene of several John Ford-produced movies featuring the iconic John Wayne), left me wanting to know more about the Navajo culture. Talks by two Navajo Native Americans, a woman and man, prompted me to think about the third-world nature of the living conditions of the reservation. We learned about the tension between the young and the old, the former seeking more economic development on the reservation and the latter determined to preserve the native culture.
In visiting Arches National Park in Utah, I became more aware of the changing environmental terrain as we continued on our Canyonlands tour. Viewing the arches, I realized that years of erosion may demolish the arches we saw, while creating others. I also was struck by the impact of tourism on this part of the United States—I counted three, maybe four tour buses. Yes, we too were “bus” people.
As we learned repeatedly, the Colorado River has played a major role in the area’s geological history, slicing through an uplifted plateau and changing the landscape over millions of years through its power and the sediment it carries. The influence of the Colorado River and its ecological balance, affected by dams, cannot be overstated. Like the Chesapeake Bay in our part of the country, it seems to be the throbbing heartbeat of the West.
My favorite resting place was the Red Cliffs Lodge in Moab, UT. It was just so comfortable and welcoming, offering wonderful views of the cliffs and river.
Our last two stops on our intensive tour were Bryce National Park and Zion National Park. Derek said he saved the best for the last. Perhaps he was right. The fractured cliffs at Bryce were magnificent, offering incomparable views and vantage points for us shutterbugs. The canyon, actually an amphitheater, was wondrous in its carved formations, reminiscent of China’s terra-cotta soldiers.
Nothing we had seen so far prepared us for Zion National Park, not because of its beauty and grandeur but instead because of its accessibility and people-friendly nature. You had to adjust your expectations and appreciate the slowly moving Virgin River, the wet cliffs and its hanging gardens and the serene walkway along the river. There were no “oohs and ahs” in Zion—simply an opportunity to sample and touch a national park.
Did I say anything about the weather? It was wonderful. And when it was hot, it was not excessively so.
Did I say anything about the group members? They were fun and funny, intelligent and inquisitive. And these well-traveled members seemed to have a similar motivation: after seeing the world, it was time to see a fascinating part of the United States.
Also—I can’t help myself—I discovered two Penn alumni, Marjorie Kitchell, class of 1964, and Dr. Art Brown, class of 1966. Marjorie joined the tour as a Case Western Law School alumna, while Art joined it through Temple, which his wife Debby attended. Another tour member, Dr. Ed Miller, did his internship and residency at the Penn Medical Center. And Liz and Robert Barone were the proud parents of a Penn 1998 graduate.
At our farewell dinner in Las Vegas, Marjorie Kitchell spoke eloquently about democracy and the openness of state and federal parks to all people, regardless of their economic status. She talked not only about the American but foreign visitors as well to the parks which we visited, able to enjoy the vistas and grandeur of the Southwest National Parks.
Marjorie’s message was compelling.
[Penn Alumni Travel will be visiting northern National Parks in 2014–Yellowstone, the Grand Tetons, and Mount Rushmore, among others. To view information about this tour or any of our 2014 destinations, click here. All photos in this blog were taken by Howard Freedlander.]