In August, my husband and I traveled for a few days to Portland, Oregon. I had never been to Oregon, so I had to go so I could get closer to my goal of visiting all 50 states. While there, we walked downtown to Powell’s Books, which is the world’s largest independent bookstore. It occupies an entire city block and has several floors; each room is assigned a different color. My husband and I split up, and whenever we went into a new room, we would text each other which color room we were in in case we wanted to try to find each other. Powell’s sells used and new books, as well as rare books.
I meandered through the travel section of the store. I did not find anything in that section, but in the next room over, I found the book, America the Beautiful?: One Woman in a Borrowed Prius on the Road Most Traveled, by Blythe Roberson. I am not sure why this book was not housed in the travel section, since it is all about Blythe’s road trip throughout the United States to see several national and state parks.
As soon as I returned from our trip to Portland, Oregon, I began reading this book. I was immediately entranced with the author’s trip, and I could not wait to learn more about her adventures. Published in 2023, Blythe writes about her great American solo road trip in 2019. Blythe is in her late twenties and describes herself as being from the Millennial generation.
Her goal was to go to as many parks as possible and complete the Junior Ranger program at each one so she could get the badge and/or pin to announce her accomplishment to the world. Each program consisted of a booklet with activities and tasks for the Junior Ranger to work on, usually consisting of going on a hike and attending a presentation from a park ranger. In some of these programs, Blythe learned about the environmental challenges of climate change and how some animals and plants are going extinct.
This book covers several topics such as travel, nature, history, freedom, and feminism. Yes, that is a wide range of topics, but Blythe expertly weaves those topics together and flows from one to the other effortlessly. I really enjoyed her writing style, and her engaging writing encouraged me to keep reading.
One topic she delved into was the whitewashing of Native Americans. Blythe Roberson writes, “National parks exist to preserve natural wonders but also to teach visitors about our nation’s history…But in the parks I had visited so far on my trip, the history that was being taught was almost entirely Eurocentric…There was no mention of the fact that this ‘wilderness’ had been inhabited before the people who depended on it for food, medicine, and culture, were denied access to it so that it could be an untouched paradise for Anglo vacationers” (55–56). She does a great job of acknowledging the fact that the Indigenous people protected the environment for a long time before it was turned into overpopulated places for the tourism industry. She does conclude this chapter by saying, “Instead of worrying whether it’s okay to visit the parks, we should work toward returning control of the parks to Native Americans” (58).
Blythe does touch on politics regarding the National Park Service, and reports, “in December 2017 [U.S. President Donald] Trump signed an order reducing Bears Ears National Monument by 85 percent and Grand Staircase-Escalante by 50 percent…In reducing just these two national monuments, Trump removed protection from almost two million acres, opening the land to oil and gas drilling and other extractive industries” (86). It makes me sick to read about this and other atrocities that Trump did regarding the national parks and monuments. Blythe makes it well-known that she does not support Trump, nor his environment hating actions.
Even though Blythe despised overtourism, she still contributed to the problem. She did admit that she was contributing to the problem though. She would lament about a lack of parking at the parks, the long drive times, and the parks being crowded with people. She was quite annoyed, but she did travel during the summertime, which is typically the busy season for the parks. She did manage to find a few parks that were not very crowded, mostly because they were not very well-known. She does discuss the balance that needs to happen between tourism and the preservation and conservation of the environment. She grapples with the question of when is it okay to preserve nature and when is okay to enjoy nature? Blythe ponders, “The fact that revenue from tourism is at the center of so much of the discussion of preservation in America cheapens my experience of going to nature. There is more worth to a wilderness than as a site for recreation. Animals and plants have a right to exist that is separate from their direct economic benefit to humans, separate even from the pleasure they can provide to a human who travels long distances to look at them” (123).
Overall, I highly recommend this book, and it definitely is one of my favorite travel memoirs! I do wish that the book showed some of her photos from the trip. She wrote about posting her photos to Instagram, but I have not put in the effort to try to find her Instagram account so I can see her pictures. She did write her thoughts on taking photos while traveling: “Someone once said that every trip is really three trips: the trip you take when you’re planning it, the trip itself, and the trip as you remember it…When we take photos, we might be living in all three at once: we might photograph something in a particular way because we saw a photo someone else took in the same way, and maybe that photo is what brought us here in the first place. And we’re also taking a photo to help us remember” (152). She goes on to write, “Photography allows you to feel like you gave a view, a location, a special place its proper due, that you took it all in. When I stood on top of a mountain or gazed at an overflowing creek…stopping to take a photo made me feel like I took the extra moment to truly appreciate it…but I started to get freaked out when I realized I was seeing the views through my phone instead of with my actual eyeballs” (152–153). Blythe continues by discussing how posting photos to Instagram and social media impacts how we perform for ourselves and for others, as well as how it can promote our insecurities.
I also wish Blythe would have included a map of the path she took with the parks marked on it. I would have liked to have seen just how much ground she covered throughout her road trip, and it would have been nice to have a succinct list of the parks she visited and what states they were located in — you know, in case someone wanted to copy her and visit some of the same parks that she did. I recommend this book, and I am so glad that I enjoyed this book that I randomly picked off the shelf during one of my own travels!