‘It was really heartbreaking’: 40-year New Year’s Eve national park family tradition spoiled by government shutdown

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Dennis Coffman(DEATH VALLEY, Calif.) -- It was set to be one of the biggest New Year’s Eve gatherings for the Coffmans: a trip with more than 30 family members to Furnace Creek Campground in Death Valley, California to commemorate a 40-year-long tradition.

So, on the appointed night in June when the National Park Service was scheduled to post campground reservations for New Year’s Eve on its website, Robert Coffman and his extended family were ready at their computers at 12:01 a.m. to book enough spaces for those who planned to attend.

“Everyone had first, second and third choices that didn't overlap with anybody else's first choices,” said Robert's daughter, Dena Coffman. “It was a whole operation” with family from Minnesota, Oregon and Northern California all in.

They had even made t-shirts for the occasion.

But when the government partially shut down right before the holidays, all reservations at Furnace Creek Campground were canceled by the National Park Service. According to the department’s website, at the time of the Coffmans' visit, campgrounds were available on a “first come-first serve” basis and refunds would be issued for canceled reservations. The page was later updated to say that Furnace Creek Campground was completely closed.

The restrooms would be closed. Trash wouldn’t be collected. And few park rangers would be on duty.

“The uncertainty of not knowing if they would have some place to camp kind of put people off,” Dena Coffman said of her family's reaction.

Dennis Coffman, who back in 1979 kicked off the original trip with his brother Roger and cousins, Mike and Robert, at Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California, opted not to go on the big family excursion this year.

“It was really difficult for us living up in Southern Oregon to get information on what exactly was going to be going on at the park,” he said, adding that when he and his wife called the reservation desk, they “had no idea what was going on” with reservations made before the shutdown.

“There's no point in driving 800 miles or further to have to turn around and come back,” he said. “We just decided it wasn't going to be worth going if we weren't going to be with the whole family group.”

Ultimately, only seven people ended up going - Robert Coffman, his wife Vicki, daughter Dena and her boyfriend, Dena’s sister and Robert’s sister and her husband. Instead of camping, they stayed at the Ranch at Furnace Creek, where they had protectively booked a few rooms just in case it was too cold.

“It was really heartbreaking,” Robert said.

The cousins fondly remember that first trip years ago to Joshua Tree, a trek that they almost called off at the last minute.

There was snow on the ground, but they “decided to tough it out that first night,” Robert Coffman said.

“Although it was rather cold, it was very beautiful,” he said. The four young men decided it “was so successful” that they would make it a yearly thing, trying to recruit more cousins each trip.

“It ebbed and flowed a little bit over the years,” he said of the turnout. “But nevertheless we were always able to maintain… a presence of such in some ways over the last 40 years.”

Though some family members said, “I’ve had it,” after this year's trip derailment, both Dennis and Robert Coffman were confident the tradition would continue.

“Everybody comes that can. Everybody's invited. Everybody's encouraged,” Dennis Coffman said. “It keeps all the cousins and relatives pretty much as best friends.”

“We'll be able to put something together next year,” Robert Coffman said.

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