Parks and Recreation

In honor of the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, two friends explore all 59 parks in 59 weeks. (This story was written from the road.)

WORDS Darius Nabors
January 2017
When I was home last year for Christmas, my dad gave me a journal that he’d written back in 1990, when I was 5 years old. The journal is special for two reasons: I never knew it existed, and it was started on my dad’s would-be deathbed following a skin-cancer diagnosis that left him (doctors said) with only six months to live. One entry, dated Nov. 25, 1990, was written shortly after my dad, my brother Cyrus and I returned home after five days camping in Utah’s Arches National Park.

“I am bothered by how little C and D will remember if I die. At five, D will remember virtually nothing of the trip and of me when he becomes an adult. C will remember a few things, I guess. … Maybe indirectly, in a love for the outdoors and in a good feeling about that time in their lives. … Today, when I go home, my job is to clean up the camping stuff, which I brought in from the car last night. I have already washed the sleeping bags, which Cyrus and Darius both peed in.”

In August 2010, I sent my dad an email. “An idea,” the subject line read.

“I want to quit my job to do a 58-week trip and spend one week in each of the 58 National Parks. … Good idea? Bad idea?”

“Good idea,” he replied.

There’s something you should know about my dad: He’s a college professor and, for a time, spent his summers as a park ranger in Olympic National Park. So, all told, he may not have been the best person to ask for unbiased advice about quitting my job to visit all of the parks.

Then again, maybe I was looking for exactly his brand of biased advice.

When people hear about my trip to visit all the national parks, there’s an initial assumption that I’m running away from a bad job or a bad relationship. You know, the classic “My life is horrible, I must escape to nature, commune with the trees and return to society whole and healed” kind of story.

I’m sorry to disappoint, but I’m not running to nature for repairs. I am running to nature because it is objectively beautiful — and because, like Forrest Gump, I like to run.

Before I left, I was leading what was, by most conventional measures, a pretty good life: living in downtown Charlottesville, Virginia; working for my alma mater, the University of Virginia, as a fundraiser for the School of Nursing. I could take my running shoes to work and, at the end of the day, be on a secluded nature trail in five minutes.

Life was good. It just wasn’t enough.

One day, it struck me that my year consisted of 237 work days and 24 (precious) vacation days, which presented a mathematical problem: How could I derive the most fun and joy with family and friends out of those 24 vacation days? No matter how I divided my days, I couldn’t get everything on the list.

I kept envisioning myself as a grandfather sitting on a porch with my future wife and kids. We sit, cups in hand, reminiscing about the good ol’ days. One of my kids asks, “What do you most regret, Dad?” Without skipping a beat, I say, “I wish I would have gone on that trip to visit all of the national parks.”

By the time I turned 30 — in June 2015 — I had been to 17 of our 59 national parks. (Pinnacles became a national park in 2013, moving the number up from 58 to 59.) That left 42 for me to visit, which made the math convenient, since my dad is 42 years older than I am: If I visited one park every year, I’d be my dad’s age by the time I’d seen them all.

Now don’t get me wrong: My dad moves around pretty well for his age. He is outliving his doctors’ prognosis and taking my younger siblings to visit the parks. But you don’t see him running to the tops of mountains, jumping into glacial streams and doing all the silly and reckless things that young adults do.

So that’s what it came down to: I could wait until retirement to visit the parks, or I could go now and scout out places to take my future kids — and I chose the latter. I quit my job with plans to start the trip in June 2015 and convinced my friend Trevor Kemp, a photographer and like-minded adventurer, to quit his job and traipse around the parks with me. So it was that 59in59 (59 national parks in 59 weeks) was born.

To learn as much as I could in a limited amount of time, I watched the Ken Burns documentary The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. I’d hit pause and feverishly scribble notes about park history, places to visit and important people. I put up a 5-by-6-foot map behind my bed and inserted green pushpins to mark all the parks. I used string, stretched between the pins, to map out my route. The map was the first thing I saw in the morning and the last thing I saw at night. It was my reminder of what life should be.

On the road, the people Trevor and I meet look at our scruffy beards, my ponytail (yes, a double man bun) and unwashed clothes and, with raised eyebrows, say, “You must be on quite the trip!” We chuckle and reply, “We are visiting all 59 national parks in 59 weeks to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service.” Their eyebrows drop and they become interested, ignoring the fact that we haven’t showered in a couple days and taking a step closer to ask questions, most commonly: “What’s your favorite park?”

I grin. “You know, asking about our favorite park is like asking a parent to name their favorite child. How about I tell you about some of my favorite experiences?”

There was the time we were on the bus out to Wonder Lake in Alaska’s Denali National Park, and the driver was announcing, bored, the surrounding wildlife: “Bear — right side. Bull moose on the left.” It was like he was saying, “Of course there is a bear on the right side. We are in Denali. Were you expecting something different?” He’d been driving for 20 years; pointing out animals was as mundane to him as checking email.

Then something happened. We pulled around a turn and the bus driver yelled, in a high-pitched voice, “Lynx! Lynx! There’s one crossing the road!”

It was awesome. Not just the bobcat-like lynx sighting, but seeing him get that excited we knew we were part of something special. I asked how often he sees them. “Only one this year,” he said.

One of the most serendipitous things, though, happened in Death Valley National Park in California. We drove up to Dante’s View to watch the sunset. With my running shoes on, I threw on a jacket, tossed my camera strap over my shoulder and bounded down the trail to get a view of the disappearing sun. As I sat watching the horizon, a bearded man and his wife walked by. We exchanged pleasantries about the scenery, and I told them about 59in59.

“Where are you from?” I asked.

“Mariposa, right outside of Yosemite,” they said. “Have you been?”

“I was there in October and loved it!”

The wife, motioning toward her husband, said, “Lee plays [Sierra Club founder] John Muir at the park. He’s been working there for 35 years.”

“Lee?” I said. “Lee Stetson? Were you in the Ken Burns special!?”

He chuckled, like John Muir would, and said, “I was!”

“That series was an inspiration for this trip,” I said. “So thank you!”

Of course, not everything about the trip is inspirational. We sleep in tents most nights, and when it rains, the tents get soggy and smelly. We eat a lot of peanut butter and jelly. We eat a lot of ramen.

But we have happily traded the conveniences and comforts for beautiful Channel Islands sunrises, epic hikes up Mauna Loa and a once-in-a-decade viewing of a Death Valley “super bloom,” where the desert’s fickle conditions align and wildflowers cover the terrain.
In all honesty, I don’t remember visiting Arches National Park with my dad. But it’s clear by now that I’ve inherited his love of the outdoors.

And, for what it’s worth, I’ve also stopped peeing in my sleeping bag.

59 IN 59

1. Cuyahoga Valley
2. Isle Royale
3. Voyageurs
4. Theodore Roosevelt
5. Glacier
6. Wrangell-St. Elias
7. Lake Clark
8. Katmai                        
9. Kenai Fjords
10. Gates of the Arctic
11. Denali
12. Kobuk Valley
13. Glacier Bay
14. North Cascades
15. Mount Rainier
16. Olympic
17. Crater Lake
18. Lassen Volcanic
19. Yellowstone
20. Grand Teton
21. Yosemite
22. Grand Canyon
23. Petrified Forest
24. Saguaro

25. Hawai‘i Volcanoes
26. Haleakala
27. American Samoa
28. Channel Islands
29. Joshua Tree
30. Pinnacles
31. Redwood
32. Kings Canyon
33. Sequoia
34. Death Valley
35. Great Basin
36. Carlsbad Caverns
37. Guadalupe Mountains
38. Big Bend
39. Zion
40. Bryce Canyon
41. Capitol Reef
42. Canyonlands
43. Arches
44. Great Sand Dunes
45. Mesa Verde
46. Black Canyon of the Gunnison
47. Rocky Mountain
48. Badlands
49. Wind Cave
50. Hot Springs
51. Biscayne
52. Everglades
53. Dry Tortugas
54. Virgin Islands
55. Congaree
56. Great Smoky Mountains
57. Mammoth Cave
58. Shenandoah
59. Acadia


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