It is hard to believe, but this phase of my adventure ended as the Tetons faded into the obscurity of my rear view mirror. On August 25th, 2015, I embarked on a mission to grow my understanding of American wilderness and conservation ethic by exploring the places that we have chosen to protect. To frame my experience, I endeavored to visit every National Park in the lower 48. I did not intend to visit every one of the four hundred and eleven units protected by the National Park Service, but only the forty-seven units whose names end with the title: National Park. They are sometimes referred to as the “Ken Burns parks,” referring to his 2009 documentary. With names like Yellowstone, Yosemite, Rainier, Everglades, Acadia, Grand Canyon, Big Bend, and Rocky Mountain, these parks set the precedent for public land in America and they are all worth exploring.
Over the last two hundred and fifty days, Sam, my faithful Honda Element, and I wandered from the rocky coasts of Nova Scotia to the mosquito-infested wetlands of Florida, from the arid canyons of the Southwest to the rainforests of the Pacific Northwest. Together, we covered just over 32,000 miles (32,083 to be exact). Sam handled bumpy back roads and high-speed highways like a champ. Sam, however, wasn’t much of a talker, so I filled those miles with endless hours of books on tape, podcasts, and music. I did my best to tailor my listening material to my environment, listening to The Killer Angels as I approached Gettysburg and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance as I crossed from Minnesota to North Dakota. When my collection failed to provide any relevant place-based material, I turned to the marvelous fictions of authors like Neil Gaiman, Stieg Larsson, and many others. They always kept my brain busy while my eyes gazed steadily onwards.
Without a permanent home, I spent countless nights in Wal-Mart parking lots, dozens of nights on lonely patches of Bureau of Land Management land, and plenty of time tucked away down obscure forest roads in our nation’s many National Forests. I tested out the truck stop scene and even spent the night at a rest stop or two. My best nights on the road, however, were among the friends that I visited along the way. This trip allowed me to reconnect with about two hundred friends from different phases of my life and introduced me to many, many more. They filled my trip with a warmth and love that I never found in the National Parks. Their experiences added to my own. I am forever indebted to them for the kindness and generosity that they showered upon me during my travels.
I must admit, however, that my travels across America have left me with more questions than answers. How does culture and race affect interest in and usage of public land? How do humans shape wilderness? How are National Forests, National Parks, and Bureau of Land Management land different? How can the National Parks speak to an American experience? What is my definition of wilderness? And that is just the beginning… It seems that I have replaced my relative ignorance with newfound levels of complexity. Clearly, I have work to do.
Throughout my travels, I have had experiences that have touched on each of these questions. I done my best to document those connections here and I hope that you all have found my adventures and insights both exciting and insightful. The process is far from over though. I will undoubtedly continue to share stories from my travels for many months to come.
Soon, the next phase of my journey will begin and with it the realization of a dream that has been a decade in the making. For those of you wondering what that next adventure might be, you will have to wait a little longer… Stay tuned! But before I begin the next chapter of my life, I want to give thanks and appreciation where they are due. To all the hosts who put a roof over my head, the strangers who greeted me with a smile, the friends who answered my phone calls, the blog followers that encouraged me to write about and revisit my experiences, you made this the adventure of a lifetime. I also know that I wouldn’t be here without the support of my family. They gave me the freedom to explore, to take risks, and to live on the margins, which is something I will always be grateful for.
Thank you all for making this trip possible.
As always, I will end with a map