Guest Post by J.C. (Travel-Safer)

I first met J.C. in a tiny camp store during my visit to Great Sand Dunes National Park. It was one of those serendipitous encounters that led to some great conversations and a follow-up visit to Denver. J.C. is a guru on all things regarding safe travels. His website contains a wealth of information including country profiles, packing tips, and how to stay safe online.

This is his story.

 

Somewhere, Utah. Not far from Escalante.

It was dark. Pitch dark. So dark that watching the road in front of me as I walked was so disorienting that I stopped watching where I was going and looked up at the stars to keep from sitting down and taking a nap.

The three of us were five miles into our starlight walk and had already hiked 17+ miles that afternoon. This was the final test of a week-long survival course with the Boulder Outdoor Survival School (BOSS), and no one had any clue as to what time it was, or how many more miles until we reached the campsite.

The coyotes in the distance reminded us that we were not alone.

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Onward

So why would you subject yourself, much less PAY to put yourself through an experience like this?

  • Well – for one: I’m a MUCH lighter packer because I know what is necessary and eliminate that which I don’t need… Okay, well, I still pack a luxury item or two when I hit the road.
  • Secondly, you’ll know yourself on a much deeper level. You’ll find your limits and what you can actually
  • Maybe the biggest reason is the boost of confidence. After spending a week with minimal clothes, no tent, flashlights, electronics, backpack or lighter, I know that if I’m stranded overnight while hiking a 14er that not only will I survive, but I will know how to make the experience more tolerable.
  • Bonus reason: Having the added benefit of doing it in a supervised environment will keep you from doing the dumb things and put you on the path to success much quicker while minimizing the chance of injury.

Here in Colorado, we like to call this style of activity “Type 2 Fun”. It’s the sort of thing that you curse most of the way through, then start planning the next one as you drive home.

For me; however, there was a broader reason behind this “fun.” As a serial traveler and ever the curious type, I continually seek out ways to make myself a safer and better traveler. Not every option I look for is this extreme or results in losing ten pounds in a week. It can be as easy as keeping my CPR certification up to date, or sampling random martial arts like Krav Maga, Tae Kwon Do, and Systema and, of course, taking a language class here and there.

I’ve heard study abroad program directors remove self-defense classes from their pre-travel courses because “the goal of the course was not to train MMA fighters.” I found this incredibly short-sighted. If you plan on traveling solo, I highly recommend taking a CPR class and enrolling in self-defense at a local gym or martial arts facility. The result is the same: an increased sense of security and self-confidence. When traveling, whether abroad or here at home, the vast majority of crime is a crime of opportunity; meaning that criminals are going to go after the easiest target. Thus, if you look more confident, aware, and put together this may cause a potential attacker to look somewhere else.

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The Utah wilderness in all its glory

I close out this post with a challenge to you: Get outside your comfort zone; take a CPR class, learn a new language, sign up for a self-defense course, or maybe even a survival course in the woods. You’ll be a safer, more self-confident traveler and person.

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Settling In…

Just a reminder, tomorrow is the last day to post your guess to the contest. Winner will be announced on Saturday!

A year ago today I embarked on an epic adventure. It was a journey full of spontaneous surprises and life lessons that have left me questing after more outdoor experiences.

For the first time I have a stationary “home”. I went from a 24 square foot teardrop trailer to a spacious 430 square foot apartment. My first morning in my new place felt odd. I had become so used to rehitching Clarence at first light and getting a head start on the day. It felt glorious, yet peculiar, to sleep in until 8 am.

And then I realized that I would be sleeping in the same location for quite some time.

It made me a little sad; I had such a great time wandering from place to place. I think the feeling of contentment will come gradually, as I furnish my new home and get used to stationary living.

Some things haven’t changed, though.

I still ate breakfast with my SporKnife, my one and only utensil on the road.

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I literally used this twice (or more) a day

I still spent some time noticing green things. Although my lodging square footage has increased, my natural square footage has dwindled to a mid-sized backyard.

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Not quite as grand an the Sequoias or Redwoods, but these trees will do quite nicely.

And I still have that sense of wonder – looking for the beauty in every precise moment and in every small thing.

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I like this space; it’s beautiful in its own way…

Home Stretch

I was struck by a feeling of melancholy yesterday morning as I hiked along a trail, alone with my thoughts.

My trip is almost finished. My trip is almost finished. My trip is almost finished.

This phrase rolled over and over in my mind, beating rhythmically in time with my steps.

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Resting my feet on Isle Royale

Two hours later I was overwhelmed with excitement, celebrating the fact that I’ll soon be done — home at last. I’m definitely experiencing the gamut of emotions regarding the forthcoming conclusion to my year-long trip. It’s bittersweet; my brain and heart don’t know quite how to handle it.

I’m looking forward to a real refrigerator, an indoor bathroom, and not driving so much. I daydream of sleeping in one place for more than three nights. I eagerly anticipate seeing my friends and family again.

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A cute pioneer cabin I wouldn’t mind calling “home”.

But I’ll miss so much, too. I know I’ll pine for the vagabond lifestyle once I’m settled. I’ll miss the adventure of constant motion, the beauty of experiencing nature to the fullest, and the contentedness of personal reflection. I’m already becoming nostalgic for each memory I’ve collected.

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Random sign. Texas I think???

When I first set out on my 47 parks in 47 weeks journey, I considered it would be a fabulous blip within my life. I assumed I would spend time traveling and having fun, and then return to my normal adult existence.

But it’s not like that. I feel that 47 Parks is the beginning of something grand. It is the rekindling of my love of learning and the launching point of my passion for nature. Each national park has affirmed my child-like wonder and drawn out my desire to help others find this as well.

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Great Smoky Mountains National Park

I may only have 2 more parks to see, but this isn’t the end.

I plan on exploring the world, one wild place and natural space at a time.

Forever.

It just might look a little different than this past year, and my pilgrimages will be spread out as I find a healthy balance between travel, work, and rest.

I invite each one of you, dear readers, to continue to take this journey with me. I plan on making some slight changes to my website and Instagram (@theparkpilgrim).

Here’s some things to look forward to, post-wise, this summer:

  • Behind the scenes stories that haven’t quite made the blog yet (some funny, some creepy)
  • Another contest, wherein you have a chance to win jelly beans or photo prints
  • More park awards for Part II
  • What’s next in my life, including what outdoor places I hope to explore in the near future
  • Information regarding a calendar for next year
  • More pictures
  • Clarence’s fate
  • Whatever other stuff I come up with as I sort through 47 weeks of being on the road

Life is good.

It truly is.

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Clarence on the coast of California, right outside Redwood National Park.

Teardrop Soapbox

like having a teardrop trailer. Clarence, my MyPod, is absolutely adorable.

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Glacier

 

That being said, I’m not a big fan of paying big-rig prices for full hookups when all I need is a little heat at night. Most campsites have a flat rate regardless of the type of camper you have. It seems silly for me to pay the same amount as an energy-guzzling RV that could swallow 10 Clarences whole.

I understand that owning an RV park is a complicated business. I also think that people should start becoming more teardrop-aware of this growing minimalist trend of just needing a little electricity to stay warm (or cool) at night.

have run into places that offered cheaper prices for just electric, or who charged based on the amount of electricity used. Kudos to you.

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North Cascades

In the meantime, Clarence and I will continue spreading the word that bigger is not always better. In fact, smaller should mean cheaper.

Everywhere I Looked…

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…there was majesty.

Words are inadequate to describe my experience in Glacier. Even glancing back over the pictures I took, I was reminded how nothing quite beats the multi-sensory engagement of actually being in a stunning natural place.

Everything was alive. Even the glacial lakes themselves seemed to breathe in and out, the water moving benevolently away from the mountains. The sun’s warmth coupled with the sweet breeze made my body relax; my eyes did the work, taking in all the sights.

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McDonald Creek

There were simply so many layers of beauty.

The best part was I had to work for it.

You see, I dislike what I call the “park and click” places where accessing the gorgeous surroundings require little to no effort on behalf of the visitors. Avalanche Trail was an easy, yet rewarding, 4-mile round trip adventure that placed me right at the edge of a phenomenal scene.

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Avalanche Lake

And on the other side of the park, I viewed three waterfalls, reveling in the fact that I had to move my legs to get there. It was magnificent just being in a mountain-clad utopia interacting with the environment in such an authentic way.

I didn’t even have to use my bear spray!

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The view from my car entering the east side of Glacier

Boundless Time

I stepped into the forest.

It felt good to be back.

An odd feeling of coziness enveloped me. I found it comforting to be surrounded by a collection of trees and wild foliage, my footfalls almost hidden by the array of nature sounds percolating about. The smell of campfire smoke from the night before clung to my hoodie, evoking sentiments of general nostalgia as I walked along the trail. An involuntary yawn escaped; a myriad of birds had awakened me this morning a half hour or so before my natural circadian rhythm. I was grateful, though, as getting an early start was the best way to experience Pinnacles, the newest member of the National Park clan (thanks Obama).

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The forest welcomes me

A couple miles in I took a seat at a pleasant overlook, appreciating the landscape (it was beautiful) and looking for condors (no luck). I began to contemplate my personal level of contentment, marveling at the overall feeling of rightness that has marked the second part of my journey. While the early stages of my trip were rife with adventure and splendor, I feel that I have lately come to a fresh place of rest. This is due, in large part, to my whole concept of time. Standing in line for 25 minutes at a post office is no longer annoying, nor do I feel the need to whip out my Smart device to occupy myself. I can just stand there. I don’t feel that gnawing anxiety that often comes when us humans are kept waiting.

Life on the road has made time rather boundless. It may sound slightly hippy-dippy, but the truth is my days are not kept on track by an external schedule, save for the occasional check-out time and ranger program I hope to hit. Hiking in Pinnacles park, the miles float past, wrapped up in my wandering mind and here-and-now observations. I can sit on a cliff-side with no place to go, free to just be.

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My cliff-side view

And I enjoy this time – oh how I cherish it.

Because at the beginning, it was difficult to let go of my idea of having to be somewhere and needing to check my watch on a regular basis. My days are no longer mandated by a rigid schedule, and, in accepting this, I have found ease in the simplicity of life.

It’s beautiful, letting time do its thing, while I focus on squeezing as much joy out of my days as possible.

It’s a much better way.

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Friendship: A Brief Look Back

Nature and I used to be acquaintances. We would interact on an occasional basis, exchanging pleasantries and sticking to surface-level subjects. I’ll admit that I was closed-minded when it came to the great outdoors; I rarely noticed nor cared to explore anything that didn’t suit my immediate purposes.

And then I went to Zion National Park in the fall of 2015.

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Zion National Park (Fall 2015)

Everything changed.

For the first time in my life I was 100% completely and utterly overwhelmed by my outdoor environment. I felt as if the sky was soaking me up with its vivid colors of blue and its lazy clouds that wandered contentedly across the sky. The air felt almost juicy – thick with possibilities and awareness. But it was the mountains that called me. I had been to my fair share of highlands and had a pretty deep appreciation for areas of great elevation. Zion, however, was in a whole other league. John Muir’s much-recited quote about the mountains calling him came to mind as I simply stared at the world around me. My eyes worked hard to take it all in, and my brain worked harder still to keep up with what my senses were discovering. The colors of the rock, the shapes of the fissures, the form of the cliffs – the whole scene left me awe struck. Moving ever so slowly, I turned around, engaged in the landscape. This fantastic place was one big playground that I would spend the next couple of hours exploring. It didn’t matter that it was below freezing – this was an opportunity to connect with nature and I was resolved to seize it.

This is the moment when nature and I became friends.

It required a shift in thinking on my part. I wasn’t looking to receive or get something from being outside. I had come to the realization, standing by the Weeping Wall in Zion, that being outside is about discovery. It’s about enjoying all of the living and nonliving aspects of an ecosystem. It’s about investing time to find the beauty in the great outdoors.

Returning home to my suburban lifestyle was difficult. Traffic was suddenly more annoying and the concrete felt like a disease that ate away at my outdoor world. This is why, in January of 2016, I decided to quit my job and visit all of the national parks in the continental U.S. Surprisingly my friends and family didn’t think I was crazy, yet I questioned my own sanity countless times. Purchasing a teardrop trailer and downsizing my living situation were some of the final steps I took before embarking on my epic road trip. I wanted to find that bond I had experienced in Zion a couple months prior. I wanted to develop that friendship I had forged with nature while standing surrounded by the sandstone cliffs.

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Zion National Park (Fall 2016)

 

I’m at the halfway point in my trip, gearing up for another trek westward. Each park I have visited so far has allowed me to view another fascinating characteristic of nature. In Dry Tortugas I marveled at the spread of blue that blanketed the horizon. In the Smokies, I came face to face with the attractiveness of running water, the backdrop of the Appalachians adding to the magic. In Great Sand Dunes, I fell back into the role of a child, tromping up the piles of sand and playing under the steady heat of the sun. The national parks are unique. They each have something special to offer, yet it can only be found with an unpretentious humility. I know that I can’t afford to make the mistake again of assuming that nature is at my disposal. During Part II of my journey, I want to be more than simply familiar with America’s outdoor landscape. I want to connect, relate, commune, empathize, cooperate, and converse with nature.

I want to be best friends.

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Yellowstone Lake