The Blog You’ve All Been Waiting For
I need to begin this blog with an apology for the longer than normal time between posts. What had been an almost daily interaction has been longer than I’ve wanted, but as I’ll explain below, some major things changed in the past month.
Units 68 – 88 68 - Upper Delaware Scenic & Recreational River 69 - Steamtown National Historic Site 70 - Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area 71 - Middle Delaware National Scenic River 72 - Weir Farm National Historic Site 73 - Saint Paul's Church National Historic Site 74 - Thomas Edison National Historical Park 75 - Morristown National Historical Park 76 - Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park 77 - Sagamore Hill National Historic Site 78 - Castle Clinton National Monument 79 - Federal Hall National Memorial 80 - Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site 81 - African Burial Ground National Monument 82 - Governors Island National Monument 83 - General Grant National Memorial 84 - Hamilton Grange National Memorial 85 - Statue of Liberty National Monument (includes Ellis Island) 86 - Stonewall National Monument 87 - Gateway National Recreation Area 88 - Fire Island National Seashore
In late October something drastic happened to my trip. Something that changed the way I looked back at the first six months of the journey, and how I’d view the upcoming 31.
It all started one morning in a parking lot in northeastern Pennsylvania.
I had just woken up in Vanny McVanface after a particularly rough night’s sleep. Shivering my arms out from my sleeping bag and covers, I grabbed my phone and noticed not only that I’d woken a couple hours earlier than planned, but that the temperature was unlike anything I’d experienced so far. Just a day earlier it had reached the upper 50s in Springfield, Massachusetts, but my iPhone wasn’t lying:
It was in the mid-30s, and would be getting even colder that coming night.
While for most travelers this might not be a plan-altering few degrees, it held deeper meaning for me. It had been in the high 30s the past few overnights and I’d coped by using a sleeping bag underneath my normal blankets. But this night showed me I was at a point I couldn’t overcome with just fabric.
In the previous weeks I’d done a fair bit of research on heating options, but learned I couldn’t use an electric space heater because they weren’t supposed to be used with 1. Power strips 2. DC to AC inverters 3. or Any plug with a “Reset” button…and my van’s solar-power system uses all three.
So I invested in a Mr. Heater Portable Buddy, something that could run off propane, but that created another set of concerns…
Since my trip is on such a tight budget, I have been “stealth camping” in parking lots and street sides to avoid paying a nightly camping fee. While this strategy has allowed me to go six months into my trip without spending a dime on campgrounds, it’s also forced difficult trade-offs, liking needing to sleep with the van sealed up for security reasons. This has made hot nights nearly unbearable from the lack of air flow, and on cold nights, kept me from sleeping with a heater because of fire concerns. Were I in a Winnebago or Airstream outfitted van, or able to spend the thousands to add more windows to Vanny, these issues would be solved, but overall this battle with sleeping temperatures has shown me I need to be much more careful about staying where the weather is temperate.
Looking at my schedule and the forecast, I realized I needed to get out of the northeast much sooner than I anticipated. The only problem was, my pace wasn’t allowing that. As I examined my daily schedules, I found that I was spending more time preparing for and sharing about each national park, than I had spent time actually experiencing the site.
A normal day found me waking up and working for hours on arranging future park logistics, coordinating schedules with NPS employees in attempts to earn media coverage, or doing those media interviews for 1 – 2 hours in hopes they would earn donations or corporate attention. By the time I would get to a park in the afternoon, I had a few hours to experience it before I would need to find a library and Wi-Fi signal so I could share about it. I would skip meals to try and get a blog out in time, or share photos on all my social channels, or contact media outlets in hopes of getting more social followers so I’d have better luck getting attention of potential sponsors I was continuing to pitch.
It was becoming a cycle that was breaking me.
At the same time, I realized I was fighting an uphill battle with my fundraising goals. As I visited more and more parks, National Park Service Rangers, gift shop employees, and journalists alike would state:
“It’s so great the National Park Service is paying you to do this!”
All my predictions and expectations of this trip were flipped on their heads. It had become a 24/7 job, far more work and stress than any other school or work situation I'd been in before. I'd found myself breaking down in tears on a monthly basis, usually in some unglamourous location like a Panera Bread.
I couldn’t complain though: This was the load I put on myself!
This was what I volunteered to do when I set out with a goal not only to visit all these sites, but to try and fund it with a blog and social media, and to try and create a national parks resource like I hadn’t seen: one that shared all 400+ of the NPS sites in a way that not only made them easily accessible, but encouraged underserved demographics like millennials and the LGBTQ community to experience the national parks.
Trying to be that Superman, however, was keeping me from actually doing my original goal for this trip: Experiencing the parks.
My schedule instead looked more like:
½ day to visit a park site.
1.5 days to do the work associated with visiting that park.
As I did the math, I realized I quite literally could not afford to keep this pace. At the rate I was going, this project would take me 5 – 6 years. If I had the backing of an organization, like Jonathan Irish and Stef Payne’s National Geographic-backed journey to 59 National Parks in a year, I might be able to pull it off. But when I calculated the daily operating costs of simply existing (not camping or park excursion costs, but basics like car/health insurance, food, gas), I realized I had to visit more parks. And that meant I couldn’t keep providing the individual park blogs like I wanted to.
So part of this blog is an apology. A confession that I am not able to provide the coverage and resource I hoped when I started this project. The heater situation has actually been a good metaphor for teaching me to cope with this. Because, ideally, a heater would work with electricity or be part of a system that allows it to vent/no risk of carbon monoxide inhalation. But under my circumstances of stealth sleeping in an air-tight van, I can’t use a heater as planned.
In the same way, when I envisioned and designed this trip, I did so assuming that some RV company would want to sponsor my housing situation, an airline would want to cover the non-continental parks, and other companies would come along to provide for the myriad expenses a journey of this nature takes. But like the heater, things didn't work out exactly as I hoped, so I've had to adapt.
All this means that there will still be blogs, there will still be social media, and there will still be media to talk to and invite underrepresented demographics to the parks, it will just look a little different than it has for the first 6 months of this journey (and hopefully be better suited to help your national park travel, given the lessons I’ve learned about what internet articles travelers tend to prefer).
The deeper I get into this journey, the more I realize how absolutely crazy it was of me to think I could do the work of people whose full-time job it is to fundraise, manage PR, or plan logistics, and do it all from a van with no Wi-Fi or temperature control. I’m finally absorbing the words of Park Rangers who would react in shock, “So you’re managing all the logistics and public relations on your own?”
However, all of this should be comforting to anyone reading this blog and wishing they could be doing what I’m doing. Or the myriad people I meet along the way who say “I’m so jealous. I wish I could do that.”
It should be reassuring because what this trip--this “Travel Beyond Convention” as I call the unique way I’ve tried to fund and execute this goal--has shown me is that you, the “everyday person,” gets to experience these national parks in the most amazing and ideal way! That it’s actually better to visit these parks over a weekend, or on a vacation you’ve been planning for months, or as a special trip with friends. That way you can spread out the logistical planning, the paying for the trip, and the sharing of your photographs—rather than trying to rush through it all from bumming a Wi-Fi signal in a McDonald’s parking lot.
You get to live and relive the experience better both through the anticipation and the reminiscing.
That’s not to say that I’m giving up on my Travel Beyond Convention. Because this was, and still is, a goal of mine: to see all the National Park Service sites. And since I can’t be the trust fund baby or lucrative business heir Facebook commenters like to call me, this is the only way I can do it.
So my wish is that this blog post, and my entire trip, provides you one thing:
The glimmer in your eye when you see a picture of a national park you didn’t know about, and start planning your next weekend getaway.
The idea seeds for a summer road trip to the national parks with your college best friends.
Or for those who can’t physically visit these national parks, the chance to feel—from whenever you are—like you have seen them through this project.
That’s what I hope this journey brings you. A peak into some Travel Beyond Convention so that it can brighten your life in some small way. To help you experience a new place, or fantasize about an upcoming vacation, or simply escape the daily grind for a moment of being overtaken by the splendor found in the United States.
Because ultimately, travel isn’t about souvenirs, or fancy hotels, or first-class lounges.
It’s about discovering something inside ourselves that we didn’t know existed until somewhere else showed it to us.
Thank you for letting me be a part of that for you, and for coming along on this journey with me.
68 - Upper Delaware Scenic & Recreational River
After most recently living in Washington DC, I’ve grown used to the idea that if one wants to escape the city for some river tubing, Harpers Ferry is the place to do it. So I was pleasantly surprised to learn that New York City has its own river escape: the Upper Delaware Scenic & Recreational River.
Though my visit was during a fall day where the water/air temperature was so cold that the NPS wouldn’t allow visitors on the water, I was able to hike to the top of a hill that looked onto both New Jersey and the Delaware River--that in the summer is packed with floaters escaping the New York City heat.
69 - Steamtown National Historic Site
Did you ever squeal with joy from seeing a train? My nephew has. And whether you’re a toddler or a locomotion aficionado, Steamtown National Historic Site provides the opportunity to view life when the steam train was king.
Through a series of refurbished—and even sliced in half!—trains, visitors can get an up-close view, and even a ride in, one of these kings that used to rule America.
70 - Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area 71 - Middle Delaware National Scenic River
I’m combining these two sites because one literally runs through the other, making the units almost indistinguishable.
The day I visited, I was fortunate because it had stormed heavily 24 hours earlier: meaning the park’s many waterfalls were flowing at an abnormally large pace.
Check out Voice of America’s video compilation of my sights/sounds:
72 - Weir Farm National Historic Site
As Connecticut’s only NPS site, I’m glad it somehow involved the amazing foliage the state produces. Driving from east to west across the entire state in late October, I was treated to a smorgasbord of reds, yellows, oranges, and greens falling and waving gracefully around me.
Those colors are what helped inspire generations of painters who used Weir Farm’s splendors to build on the career of the farm’s founder, American impressionist J. Alden Weir.
73 - Saint Paul's Church National Historic Site
Initially I thought this site was included simply because it was one of the oldest, intact churches from colonial America.
But then I learned that during the Revolutionary War, this section of New York was considered the neutral zone between British controlled New York City and Colonial controlled upstate. That meant that during the war this church turned into a hospital, along with playing host to some of the earliest gatherings of American government.
Resting just above Manhattan and now surrounded by an industrial park, this site contains graves from the 17th – 20th centuries.
74 - Thomas Edison National Historic Park
“If it wasn’t for Edison’s inventions, this phone—and the electricity that charges it—might not exist.”
As my quote from the below Voice of America video says, Edison’s complex in West Orange, New Jersey, is responsible for producing many of the modern luxuries we take for granted today.
75 - Morristown National Historical Park
If the Northeast parks taught me anything, it’s that they are covered in the history of the Revolutionary War. Morristown adds to that extended story by telling the story of George Washington’s winter camp just far enough from New York City to be safe, but close enough to keep an eye on the British.
Through the house he stayed in--packed with its family owners, their servants, and all of Washington’s cadre--along with the grounds where the soldiers stayed, the NPS paints a picture of the frigid parts of the war.
76 - Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park
Hats off to my tour guide, Ernie Hernandez, who was one of the best I’ve experienced on this trip thus far. The veteran who served multiple tours in Iraq/Afghanistan is now back in his hometown enthusiastically sharing this site that helped create America’s industrial revolution.
Of popular note is the statue of Alexander Hamilton and his involvement in turning these falls into industrial power.
77 - Sagamore Hill National Historic Site
Theodore Roosevelt’s summer house on Long Island is the closest thing I’ve seen to a “Jumanji house.”
With elephant tusks framing room entrances, and nearly every room covered in rugs of full bear skins and heads of various animals, this house was one of the most visually stimulating of all the Presidential homes I’ve visited thus far.
78 - Castle Clinton National Monument Not just a ticket booth for the Statue of Liberty tours (as is popularly thought), this fort is one of the many that kept New York City from being invaded during the War of 1812.
Knowing the way the British used New York City in the Revolutionary War, new Americans set up this port city’s defense so well that they never had to even use the forts in a battle.
79 - Federal Hall National Memorial
As any new government needs laws and leaders, Federal Hall (once New York City’s City Hall) served as the location for the United States’ first Constitutional capitol and the inauguration of its first President.
80 - Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site
Continuing the string of sites dedicated to the conservationist President, this was the fourth Teddy Roosevelt site I've visited, after his National Park, Inauguration site, and Summer Home.
This one, his childhood home, shines light on the formative years that led to the transformation of a wealthy New Yorker to a Rough Rider.
81 - African Burial Ground National Monument
One on the lesser known but more fascinating sites in Manhattan, this park shows the power a committed community can have.
When a federal skyscraper was being built in the 1990s, human remains were discovered in the ground. After scores of research, it was determined this was the location of a slave cemetery back when Lower Manhattan was still outside the borders of the city’s fort.
Today, a small patch a ground and the most-secure Visitor Center I’ve been to (complete with metal detectors and bag scanners) tells the amazing story of this site’s creation and importance.
82 - Governors Island National Monument
If you’re one of the nearly 24 million people living in the greater New York City area, it might take hours to escape the city for a feeling of suburbia. However, what if you could reach that via a free, 10-minute ferry from Lower Manhattan?
That’s what Governors Island offers.
The chance to escape the city and share a quiet picnic or game of frisbee, all while Freedom Tower shines nearby.
83 - General Grant National Memorial
“Who’s buried in Grant’s Tomb?” is the popular joke many of you have likely heard. But as the Park Ranger explained to me, “no one is buried” in Grant’s Tomb, because it’s actually above ground.
Today, the Memorial is not only a beautiful building along the Hudson River, but the guided tour tells the ups and downs of a President who had millions of people attend his funeral procession at a time well before a crowd of a million was easily managed.
84 - Hamilton Grange National Memorial
In my quest to get the NY Times to cover this journey, a wise friend said:
“Everyone is gaga for Hamilton right now. If you could get a cast member to visit Hamilton Grange with you, the Times might cover it!”
While, unfortunately, the Times didn’t join my visit, I was able to visit Hamilton Grange with the current actor playing George Washington on Broadway’s Hamilton.
The brother of a good friend from my grad program, Nick Christopher had begun playing the role just a few days before our visit. After posing with a painting of George Washington that Washington gave Hamilton, Nick went off to perform in that night’s show just 3 hours later. That performance was the one attended by Mike Pence and covered extensively by nearly every media outlet in America.
Nick also made it possible for me to get a standing-room ticket for a performance later that week, so I could see the way Hamilton Grange National Memorial—and the knowledge Nick gained there—impacted and inspired his performance.
85 - Statue of Liberty National Monument (includes Ellis Island)
Few NPS sites I’ve visited have had as many international visitors as the Statue of Liberty did. But those diverse languages, and the museum in Liberty’s pedestal, speak to the immense international impact this Monument has.
I connected in many ways with Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, the private French citizen who campaigned to gift this statue to the U.S. He too had an idea that many people found crazy, but scraped and stretched until he was able to make it happen. During the difficult times of this trip, I’m reminded of his story and the lasting impact one person can have by persevering with a project they believe in.
It was in the low 40s with high wind the day we were there, so forgive the rosy cheeks!
On Ellis Island the Park Ranger "interviewed" me for citizenship with a stock registry of someone from Bremen, Germany...which, coincidentally, is where my family came from!
86 - Stonewall National Monument Just two months after I started my trip in April 2016, President Obama named the Stonewall Inn as a National Monument. As someone who is openly gay and was at his 2013 inauguration when he paid tribute in the same breath to Seneca Falls, marking women’s rights history, Selma, for African American civil rights and Stonewall for lesbian and gay liberation, I became tearful in that moment, and ecstatic when he included this American history as part of the National Park System, compleating that trifecta of parks.
This New York City local news coverage tells of my visit to the new site. And LogoTV allowed me to share about the site with their large LGBT audience by interviewing Superintendent Allan Daily. We talked about how the park is sharing the LGBT rights story with people who would never interact with it were it not for this national park.
87 - Gateway National Recreation Area The only National Park Service site within the greater New York area that allows camping, Gateway National Recreation Area is an interesting collection of beaches, airplane hangars, and animal reserves that provide a respite from the urbanization of the area.
For the NYC resident or intrepid traveler seeking a park site telling diverse stories, with lesser used trails/areas, this is your site.
88 - Fire Island National Seashore
A funny story happened on the way to the Fire Island:
I couldn’t get there.
The reason was because Long Island Parkways limit the height of vehicles to 7’ 10”. My Vanny McVanface, with its height of 9’ 1”, physically wasnt't allowed to reach this NPS site.
Fortunately, early after my trip’s launch, Chevy reached out to me offering the use of one of their cars, should I ever need it. While I initially imagined saving its use for some mountainous park where I didn’t want to take Vanny up and down hills, it was apparent this was the site I was destined to call upon Chevy.
So with my Volt, I not only drove in Manhattan traffic for the first time (and survived!), but I made it to Fire Island National Seashore.
After visiting the lighthouse…and getting my Volt stuck in the sand when I thought I could drive on the beach…I returned to my friend’s place in Brooklyn and agreed with him that I must return to this site someday. Least of those reasons being to experience the park on a day it isn’t 40-degrees and windy, but mostly because it’s a haven for the LGBT community.
As the Judy Garland Memorial Path reminds visitors, Fire Island contains two communities in Fire Island Pines that display two sides of the gay community: one queer and campy and one more tony and saline. According to my local friend with a house on the seashore, one year the campy queens took a boat to the more uptight part of town and took over their bars and restaurants. Now it’s an annual event, celebrated by both communities, where the revelry begins in one part of the Pines and honors this history by transitioning to the other side as the celebration continues.
AKA—and since I’m writing this on the day Rogue One: A Star Wars Story comes out: I’ll be back.
Upcoming Units (COMMENT with recommendations. What should I do at each park? Local interesting detours? Food stops?)
Puerto Rico to US Virgin Islands to Washington DC to the South (Locations TBD pending weather)
-San Juan National Historic Site
-Buck Island Reef National Monument
-Christiansted National Historical Park
-Salt River Bay National Historical Park & Ecological Preserve
-Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument
-Virgin Islands National Park -Carter G. Woodson Home National Historic Site
-Frederick Douglass National Historic Site
-Mary McLeod Bethune Council House National Historic Site
-Pennsylvania Avenue National Historic Site
-The White House
-World War 1 Memorial in Pershing Park
-Belmont-Paul Women's Equality National Monument
-National Capital Parks