The Overview

The Overview

As the school year draws to a close, I am constantly reminded that this adventure truly is right around the corner. I would classify that feeling as a healthy mixture terrifyingly exciting and excitingly terrifying. I would be crazy not to be excited, but I would be just as crazy not to be a little terrified.

New Bern has been my home for the past two years, Bates was my home before that, and Madison before that. People in each of these places care about what has become of me and where I am headed next. The scope of this trip has made it difficult to describe in your standard elevator speech, which is why I feel the need to make that explanation readily accessible.

What is Chasing Cairns?

Simply put, Chasing Cairns is an exploration of America via its extensive National Park and public land system. The antecedents for this idea took root long ago. In 2004, my family spent what felt like years driving 10,000 miles around the Great American West. In 2005, I rafted the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. In 2006, I completed a NOLS course in the Wind River Mountains. From 2007-2012, I led sea kayaking trips in The Apostle Islands National Lake Shore of Lake Superior. In 2011, I spent the better part of 7 months living in Barcelona and travelling throughout Europe. In 2013, I led backpacking trips in the Pacific Northwest and a bike tour of the Pacific Coast. In 2014, I led a cycling tour of Europe from Amsterdam to Venice. In their own way, each of these experiences has channeled me towards my present path. They all left me with an overwhelming desire to explore the country that I live in. Now, I see myself at a crossroads in my own life. Having spent two years teaching and administrating at a small private school in eastern North Carolina, I know that it is time for a change. At this point, the vast majority of my life has been spent in a classroom, stuck in the associated routines. How can I expect to know where I want to be or even who I want to be if I do not allow myself to experience difference? 2015-2016 feels like the perfect time for me to take my gap year.

Why do I want to explore America? A simple question with a complex answer. The United States of America is one of the most diverse countries on this planet yet its population rarely takes advantage of its many treasures. In terms of geodiversity, we have mountains, coastlines, swamps, deserts, rain forests, plains, and flat lands. Our people are culturally, racially, politically, and ideologically diverse. As citizens of this nation, do we not have an obligation to better understand our own country and the people that we call “fellow Americans”? I believe that we do.

The Plan

This plan has gone through many iterations, some of which involved extended sections in foreign countries, while others involved long distance trail systems. Now, it can be simply described as a road trip through our National Park system. That description, though, does not come close to covering the multitude of goals that I have while I am travelling. Taking time to travel is also taking time to better understand yourself, which is an invaluable exercise. When we experience a new culture, we learn more about our own. When we sample different food, we discover new ways of thinking about our preferences. When we see a new place, we better understand the world we inhabit. Travel is a form of growth. I see this experience as an immeasurable opportunity for personal growth. Purposeful growth, however, often needs guidance, which is why I have framed this trip around the National Parks. To me, the National Park System represents one of America’s most important gifts to its people and to the world. Choosing to protect our most sublime natural spaces, when they could just as easily be harvested for timber, water, or other natural resources, is a truly remarkable act that we should all take advantage of. Here is how I plan on doing so:

Phase One (August to December 2015)

Phase Two (December to May 2016)

One of the main goals of this adventure is obviously to spend time in all 46 of the National Parks in the lower 48 (Alaska, Hawaii, the Virgin Islands, and Guam will have to wait until later), but there are many protected natural and wilderness areas that are not National Parks. These maps only trace my route using the National Park System as its guide because I did not want to overload the map with data on State Parks, National Forests, Public Land Trusts, etc. They have not been forgotten, nor will I be skipping over them in my travels.While a plan like this seems perfect on paper, there are many logistics that a map cannot communicate: transportation, gear, finance, etc. Regarding the latter, I won’t bore you with budgeting spreadsheets. Instead, I will say that saving money on a teacher’s salary is not necessarily an easy thing, but I have done the best I can and hope that I won’t be working construction until at least the second half of the trip! The other two, transportation and gear are far more exciting to talk about.


Let me begin by saying that I have spent the last two years living without a car, using a Surly Long Haul Trucker as my trusty transport. I have loved it. Winters in eastern North Carolina are a far cry from Wisconsin winters, so I haven’t needed studs or to convert to fatties. Bike commuting has its downsides of course, but, in my opinion, the benefits outweigh the negatives. All of this is to say that initially I struggled with the idea of owning a car… not for long though. When I began to think about the distances I would be covering, the activities I would be pursuing, and the weather I would be running into, a car made way too much sense. I also realized that a car can become a home. I am not talking about buying an RV, instead I started thinking about how best to convert a factory-model consumer car into a tiny home. Eventually, I decided that a Honda Element was the perfect ride for this adventure. A cube on wheels outfitted with a storage system, a mattress, and a roof rack could make just about all of my dreams come true. Below are some simple 3D renderings of my plans for my Honda Element. Creating this system will be quite a process, one which I will share on this blog.


Anyone who knows me knows that I can talk about gear ad nauseum. I won’t do that here. To be brief, I am hoping to bring everything I need to cook, backpack, climb, photograph, sleep, swim, clean, exercise, live, blog, work, etc. My Honda Element will be a self-contained adventure mobile.

As my departure draws closer, you will no doubt see more posts about preparations, logistics, route mapping, etc. Even though I will be solo for the majority of my travels, it will be a shared experience. Partly because I know the value of telling stories and their tendency to inspire, but also because I want to process my experience with the people who care about me, regardless of where they may be.

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