When I was 12, my family piled into a Honda Odyssey and headed west for a summer exploring the national parks. That trip changed my life. I tasted the freedom of the open road and experienced the wonders of America's wild places. I was hooked.
Last August, I set out on an expanded version of that adventure, seeking to spend 10 months visiting all the national parks in the contiguous United States. (I made it to 45 of the 47.) I hoped the trip, which I chronicled on a blog, chasingcairns.com, would teach me more about wilderness, America — and myself.
My constant companion on this journey was a 2008 atomic blue Honda Element named Sam. I knew I would learn from every moment and every mile, but only if I paid attention to what was happening around me. So I adopted a series of daily practices (I called them my "roadtripology rules") to force myself to be as deliberate as possible about the trip.
This might seem paradoxical. Aren't road trips supposed to be as spontaneous as possible? Of course. My rules sought to enhance spontaneity by making sure I noticed it when it happened. They made a big difference for my trip, and they should work for other travelers as well.
Here are highlights of the roadtripology rules.
1. Drive the speed limit
I had no room in my shoestring budget for speeding tickets. More important, I wanted to take my time. Speed limits in the national parks are notoriously conservative, often ranging from 10 to 30 mph in popular areas. Drivers racing along at 55 mph gawking at El Capitan or Half Dome endanger wildlife and people alike.
2. Learn where you are
The parks are full of stories. They include the early struggles to protect the sublime wonders of Yellowstone and Yosemite, and the slower recognition that the quieter beauties of the Everglades and Congaree were also worth preserving. They include controversial actions to dispossess rural farmers of their land in Shenandoah and the challenges of making Mesa Verde's Puebloan kivas accessible to tourists in a respectful way.
To find these stories, I tailored my audiobook and podcast selections to focus on the place or region through which I was traveling. In Arches, that meant listening to Edward Abbey's tales in Desert Solitaire about his seasons working in the park. At Gettysburg, Michael Shaara's Killer Angels honored the ultimate sacrifice of so many soldiers. (I also visited dozens of national historic sites on my trip; Gettysburg was one.)
I also never missed an opportunity to explore park visitor centers, talk with rangers and watch introductory films.
3. Use paper maps
In the age of Google Maps, the spirit of adventure can be sidelined by blindly following the seemingly omniscient blue line on the glowing screens in front of us. When I permit myself to follow that blue line, I sometimes lose track of where I am and forget the bigger picture. I was not going to let that happen on this trip.
From Day 1, my trusty National Geographic Road Atlas rode shotgun. Its colorful pages tempted me with side trips at every turn, and never led me astray.
4. Meet someone every day
I tried to connect with someone daily: a handshake here, a hug there and conversation everywhere. These interactions helped me understand the many reasons people visit and care about the national parks.
5. See a sunrise and sunset in every park
I knew I could take years to fully explore the national parks. I didn't have that kind of time. Instead, I vowed to spend at least two days in every park, observing it in as many ways as I could: rain or shine, dawn to dusk. I chose to take my time, knowing that each moment I lingered would deepen my experience. I made time for the unpredictable.
In Saguaro, I watched an unexpected dust storm blow in under the brutal heat of the midday sun. One night at Great Sand Dunes, I surfed dark waves of sand under the brilliant light of the Milky Way. In Glacier, I snowshoed through frosty pines while fresh snow immediately erased my tracks.
6. Engage all your senses
So much of what we find in the national parks seems visual by default: It's what we go to see. We're always on the lookout for something new and sublime. By employing each of my senses, I expanded my understanding of the world around me. I listened to the ever-shifting drone of insects in the Everglades. I savored the unadulterated waters of Lake Superior. I felt the sweat on my palms as I gripped the chains on the precipitous hike up Angels Landing in Zion. I sniffed the stale, earthy air inside Mammoth Cave.
7. Use local roads
Interstates rush straight ahead, a kind of travel I wanted to avoid. Local roads reached the parks just as effectively, and also encouraged me to visit farm stands up and down the East Coast, to chat with a cafe owner in a small town just outside Crater Lake, and to feel tiny and alone amid the endless valleys of Nevada.
8. Go where tourists go ... and where they don't
Every park has its famous highlights: Mather Overlook in Grand Canyon, Cadillac Mountain in Acadia, Big Room in Carlsbad Caverns. Tourists flock to such places, and are right to do so. They are undeniably glorious.
But I wanted also to explore places that don't make it into many guidebooks. These were often where I found myself confronting what felt like the deeper realities of a park. I spent a night shivering all alone at the bottom of Black Canyon, humbled by the raw power of the Gunnison River beside me. In Grand Teton, I sat silent in the Chapel of the Transfiguration, meditating on its picture-window marriage of natural beauty and spirituality. In these moments I felt personally connected with a place.
9. Vary your pace
I spent much of the last year traveling at 55 mph, and grew accustomed to life at that speed. But I also relished any opportunity to slow down.
Early on, I traveled over 500 miles across most of Michigan in just one day. Later, on California's Lost Coast, I hiked just over 5 miles in a day. During an extended rock climb in Arches near the end of my trip, I think I traveled a couple hundred feet in eight hours.
What do I remember from each of those days? I can taste the fresh vegetables I devoured outside Traverse City, Mich., as I listened to Michael Pollan's Botany of Desire. I can hear the yelps of seals, the cries of red-tailed hawks and the crash of waves on rock and sand alike.
10. Get out of the car
Going-to-the-Sun Road, Trail Ridge Road and Skyline Drive have been beckoning motorists to their parks since they were built in the 1930s. They form part of a network of roads that allows millions to visit and appreciate public lands.
But I found that leaving Sam's confines brought me into contact with the natural forces that shape the parks, processes we need to experience if we want to understand them.
11. Most important rule: spontaneity
My plan had always been that the last park on my journey would be Yellowstone, the nation's first. I visited it on my 25th birthday.
That day, I realized that I no longer needed to actively focus on my rules. They were now ingrained in my every decision. I could move spontaneously from experience to experience, living my values with each step.
At Grand Prismatic Spring, I swapped stories of the road with a traveling photographer. Near Old Faithful, I had a close call with a grizzly being chased (by a ranger) right at me. I ate lunch overlooking the multihued Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.
At Mammoth Hot Springs, I followed bison as they wandered through the steaming landscape. In the Lamar Valley, I watched a wolf pack settling down after picking over a deer carcass. Before I went to bed, I lounged in the Boiling River, shifting my body to find the optimal blend of frigid and scalding water.
To me, it felt like the perfect end to my — or any — adventure.