Why I Visted All 419 National Park Sites in the U.S.

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On the 11th anniversary of his father's passing from cancer, the author made it his mission to visit all 400+ units of the U.S. National Park System, attempting to become the sole person to do so in a single journey. Here's what happened along the way.

“Who’s gonna stay with George?” My fellow rafters and I asked each other, knowing full well one member of our group couldn’t complete the strenuous side canyon hike—and we didn’t want him pooping in the boat in our absence.

It’s not a question most expeditions grapple with, yet it was our reality after a Canada goose refused to separate himself from our group. For four days and three nights on the Green River in Dinosaur National Monument, we’d been followed by a bird we’d come to call “George the Goose.”

“Maybe he’s hurt?” We wondered. “We haven’t seen him fly at all.”

“Maybe he thinks we’ll give him food?” (We didn’t.)

“Maybe he’s lonely and just wants a flock?”

Whatever it was, George kept swimming next to our raft (even after getting sucked under rapids), sleeping next to our tents and providing comedic relief as he flapped his way through our side canyon hikes.

It was the kind of adventure I’d dreamed about a few years earlier, on the day I turned 28, aware that in one year’s time, my life would be half-over if I passed away at the same age as my dad: 58.

But what if I didn’t make it that far? What if, like the esophageal cancer that surprised my father, my life was cut short before retirement, before 50, before I’d gotten to accomplish my life’s goals?

It’s a question that weighed heavily on me after my dad’s death, when I was 19. Already, I found myself wondering: “What if tomorrow is too late?”

It’s that question that motivated me to climb into the driver’s seat of my dad’s car a few days after his funeral, and honor his love of driving with my first independent road trip.

It’s what pushed me to do it again at age 20, and then take a road trip every year around April 29, to remember the day he passed and the lessons it taught me.

And at 28, it’s what made me decide to throw my life’s savings at visiting every National Park Service site when I reached 30.

It was the kind of adventure I’d dreamed about a few years earlier, on the day I turned 28, aware that in one year’s time, my life would be half-over if I passed away at the same age as my dad: 58.

So, on April 29, 2016, after 11 years of annually mourning that day, I hit the road in “Vanny McVanface,” the cargo van I’d spent two months making home, with more than 400 National Park Service sites ahead of me. Launching this journey at the Washington Monument, I watched it fade from my rearview mirror as I traded my D.C. home for the open road.

For the next three years, I followed a nonstop schedule, visiting parks and chasing temperate weather, primarily since I was living in a van home with no climate control, and also because I needed to reach sites only open during certain seasons.

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My home. #VanLife

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My adventures first sent me to the Upper Midwest, where I was struck by hidden gems like Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, Pipestone National Monument, and Theodore Roosevelt National Park, and wondered why those parks hadn’t made their way into our cultural consciousness like the Tetons or the Great Smokies.

I was also caught off guard by the pace of road life. One day, I experienced the high of watching thru-hikers on Maine’s Mount Katahdin finish their months-long trek of the Appalachian Trail. The next, I found myself crying over a bread bowl at a café chain as the Wi-Fi shut off and I still had hours of photos to upload, blogs to produce and park logistics to plan if I was going to stay on schedule.

In winter, I reached the tropical parks of the American Caribbean, then traded their sunny glow for the lights of the National Christmas Tree at the White House. There, I visited the hundredth park of my journey (President’s Park) timed perfectly with the celebration of the National Park Service’s 100th anniversary year.

At the beginning of 2017, I followed blooming flowers across the desert Southwest to the Grand Canyon, Zion, Mount Rainier and Glacier National Parks, where traffic jams had me missing the desolate highways near lesser-known sites like Idaho’s City of Rocks National Reserve and New Mexico’s Chaco Culture National Historical Park. Those whose beauty and abundant recreation activities made them as outstanding as their peers with a coveted national park designation.

Tall Trees Grove of Redwood National Park

The author hiking among redwoods in the Tall Trees Grove in California's Redwood National Park. (Photo Credit: Mikah Meyer)

2017 also brought some of the hardest parts of this journey: A split with my travel buddy and significant other who’d had their fill of van life after a year. A meltdown of my solar power system moments after realizing my savings wouldn’t last as long as I’d thought. And a halfway point of 18 months on the road that meant another 18 months before I could watch my favorite shows with my D.C. friends or take my nieces to the pool.

And then there was George the Goose.

My feathered friend who appeared during my second stop at Dinosaur National Monument, in August of 2017, after my initial visit in May left me so awestruck I’d driven 10 hours out of my way just to return. With his persistent mission to paddle next to our raft, and his pooping on our tent mats, he’d undeniably become part of our group. I was almost exactly halfway through my 419 park visits when we bid him farewell at the docks of the Green River.

I didn’t think much about George through the remainder of 2017, as I continued to Mount Rushmore National Memorial, traced my way through historic sites chronicling the Civil Rights Movement and sped along the thin highways of the Blue Ridge Parkway.

But while giving a presentation to the Western National Parks Association in Tucson, Arizona, I shared a video of George that resonated with one attendee.

“You know, I keep thinking about George,” she said, as the group dissipated. “You mentioned how your dad’s pastor colleagues all say he would’ve loved to have joined you on this trip. And I just, I just really believe that George the Goose was the spirit of your father that wanted to be part of this trip. To find a way to join it.”

“You know, I keep thinking about George,” she said, as the group dissipated. "You mentioned how your dad’s pastor colleagues all say he would’ve loved to have joined you on this trip. And I just, I just really believe that George the Goose was the spirit of your father that wanted to be part of this trip. To find a way to join it.”

It wasn’t something I’d considered. On the dash of the sedan I’d inherited from my dad, I kept a model VW Beetle, which I’d moved to my van at the start of this journey after taking it along on every other road trip I’d ever done. My dad had mechanical skills I didn’t inherit, and I always said having the model there was like having my dad looking over my car.

But a Goose? That seemed a little too mystical, even for this pastor’s kid.

So, I continued into 2018 and America’s only park in the Southern Hemisphere, then flying from American Samoa to Haleakala National Park. It was there that I bumped into a ranger I’d met earlier in my journey. She was making her way around the country’s national parks working seasonal jobs, and had been at Dinosaur National Monument during my visit eight months prior.

“What happened to George?” I wondered aloud as we waited for the sun to rise over the clouds at Haleakala volcano.

But the mystery only deepened as I learned that after a few days hanging around the monument’s campground, George had, one day, inexplicably disappeared.

An enchanting moment on a journey to some of America’s most magical places: 419 National Park Service sites in every state and territory that tallied over 75,000 driving miles and—when adding in planes, boats and trains—nearly 200,000 miles total.

Miles that led me to address my funding issue in the most unlikely of ways: Using my background as a professional singer for the Washington National Cathedral to sing for my supper at more than 100 churches across the country, and eventually preaching sermons inspired by my adventures, despite years of swearing I’d never become a pastor like my old man.

Miles that found me reaching the loneliest points of my life. Where all I wanted was to be sharing a cold beer with friends rather than spending another night alone in my cold van.

And miles that had me terrified in early 2019 that the government shutdown wouldn’t end soon enough to reach my remaining parks by my April 29, 2019 finale.

On April 29, 2019, the author became the first person to visit all 400+ national park sites in a single journey.

On April 29, 2019, the author became the first person to visit all 400+ national park sites in a single journey. (Photo Courtesy: Mikah Meyer)

All those fears dissolved as I reached my final site, the Lincoln Memorial, and climbed the steps to look back at the Washington Monument, where I’d begun three years earlier. Knowing I had finally completed one of my life’s dreams.

What’s your dream? And how can you chase it now, before it’s too late?

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