“Back in 5 minutes,” said the note taped on the door.
I checked my watch. I had time to wait. Finally, I was going to see the inside of Caravan Book Store. The small storefront on South Grand Street in downtown Los Angeles has a window full of old and rare books, but my visits were always off—too early or too late.
I perused the crowded shelves filled with treasures, but in the end returned to the front and bought Our Vanishing Wilderness, the first book that had caught my eye when I walked in. Filled with photographs of wild places and the creatures that inhabit them, the book was published in 1969—the year I turned eleven.
Flipping through its pages took me back to the family vacations of my youth.
In the 60s my folks purchased a small camping trailer and we began taking trips to the national forests in Colorado and New Mexico, an easy day’s drive from our home in western Kansas. Once Dad located the perfect campsite, we kids were eager to finish the chores—gathering firewood and hauling water. Free to explore, we climbed boulders, forded snow-cold streams, chased chipmunks.
In the 70s we started venturing farther, starting with a vacation to Arizona and Nevada. We hiked the rim of the Grand Canyon, played on a beach at Lake Mead, were dazzled by the lights of Las Vegas. A few years later we went to California, camped in an orange grove and saw the Pacific Ocean for the first time.
Our last big trip before I left for college was to New Orleans where we savored powdered-sugar dusted beignets, listened to jazz at Preservation Hall, and got our first glimpse of the Mississippi River. My most vivid memory of the trip occurred at some forgotten campsite in northern Louisiana where we spent a night on our way south. The landscape was unfamiliar to us—trees were draped in Spanish moss, long-necked white birds perched on the backs of cows, and water didn’t move. After dark sitting around the campfire, the heavy air was split open with the voice of a lone bullfrog. Soon another joined and then another until the night was filled with an entire choir, singing a hoarse serenade.
Written and photographed in the mid-60s Our Vanishing Wilderness marked the beginning of our country’s awareness of what we were about to lose. Within four years of its publication the Endangered Species Act was law and Earth Day an annual celebration.
Its words remind me to pick up my binoculars, to check on the pair of robins nesting in a piñon tree outside my bathroom window, and to never take for granted the croak of a bullfrog.