Rice University
Rice Magazine| The Magazine of Rice University | No. 1 | 2008

A Place in the Sun

By Merin Porter

SunRon Parry’s favorite destination has a name: It’s called “the middle of nowhere.” Nothing makes the full-time Rice chemistry professor and part-time environmental activist happier than wandering through uncharted wilderness areas. “I don’t really think of it as taking a vacation,” he said. “It’s more like ‘revisiting reality.’”

Parry has been exploring those places “least overrun with human artifacts” since the 1960s, but his passion for wilderness areas really began in his early teens. “I grew up in Los Angeles, and we had a big yard with lots of plants and foliage,” he said. “I became fascinated by the interplay between science and the natural world.”

As he grew older, the self-proclaimed desert rat explored England during his postdoctoral fellowship and spent some time in Costa Rica, but he developed a particular affinity for the rugged terrain and arid environment of the American Southwest. He spends plenty of time in Arizona and Nevada, but, like a true adventurer, he also loves the lure of unexplored territory. He takes the bait as often as possible, usually during a semester or midterm break.

ParryIn choosing where to go, Parry finds a sufficiently intriguing “vacant area on the map” and heads out. These days, he avoids heavy equipment and backpacks and prefers to use his car as a base camp.

Parry has become deft at packing his gear, which usually includes a sleeping bag, food and water, a tent, first aid materials, clothing, a hat, sunscreen, wildlife guidebooks, maps and “something interesting to read.” He got lost once in a little-known section of the Grand Canyon and found his way out — dangerously dehydrated — a day and half later, so he carries a global positioning system now, too. Parry’s trips usually last for nine or 10 days, mostly because it takes him “about three days to slow down.” He also travels alone for the most part.

“The key is to pay attention,” he said, “and that’s usually easier to do when you’re by yourself.”

Parry may walk 10 miles in a day, but he’s not walking to log distance. Rather, he walks to satisfy his curiosity as he watches the unspoiled world unfold in its daily dance around him. Sometimes, the world surprises him, as it did during a recent trip to 120,000 acres of Arizona wilderness.

Parry was resting next to a spring when he spotted something astonishing. The hillside next to him was covered in Native American artwork — drawings of horses, birds and other animals, of humans and deities and cultural symbols. The petroglyphs hadn’t been charted in any guidebook, and that was fine with him: Less publicity means fewer opportunities for vandalism and exploitation.

While discoveries like these are exciting, they aren’t the only reasons Parry traverses the unknown.

“What I get from these trips is mostly intangible,” Parry said. “It provides perspective, and it allows me to disconnect the electronic umbilical cord. That’s satisfying in its own right.”