Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Passport to America: A Family Journey of 23 National Parks in 47 Days

Packed and ready to begin our crazy 47-day adventure
As a child, my family and I visited Great Smoky Mountains National Park many times.  But my parents weren’t hikers.  They grew up in the era of Route 66, so they were motorists.  We drove through the Great Smoky Mountains year after year, occasionally stopping at a roadside creek or for a quick picnic on the grass beside the road.  We took the obligatory family picture at the park entrance sign and then headed back to the motel pool.

When we took our only family vacation that involved an airplane, we flew to visit Yellowstone National Park.  We drove straight through it, from the south entrance to the north entrance.  We stopped along the way to photograph wildlife by the road, and we walked the concrete path around Old Faithful.  We watched it erupt.  Once.  Then we got back in the car and continued our quest northward.

So it wasn’t until I visited the Smokies with my husband’s family years later that I realized there was more to do in a national park than drive through it.  Visitors’ centers!  Trails!  Ranger-led activities!  All of these were wonders that I’d never experienced from the back seat of our family’s blue Oldsmobile.

Once my eyes were opened to all that America’s National Parks have to offer, I couldn’t help but share it with my students.  With the help of a grant from the PublicSchools Foundation of Tippecanoe County in 2004, I wrote a unit that allows my 4th and 5th graders to research and share about a national park of their choice.  The unit is a weeks-long study of the chosen park’s history, flora, fauna, available activities, and distinguishing characteristics.  I guide my students through the research process, but they have to extrapolate based on the facts they find.  I make suggestions about which feature of the park should be featured in a student-made diorama as a part of the project, but for parks I’ve never visited, it is difficult to decide what feature is the most important or the most impressive.

When my students come to me for help and ask, “Should I create the Trail Ridge Road, the Coyote Valley Trail, or the Continental Divide for my diorama?” I want to be able to give an informed suggestion.  When my students ask, “What is there to do in the Grand Canyon?” I want to be able to give them answers based on my own first-hand experiences. 

On this trip, we will visit twenty-three national parks in forty-seven days, and afterward I will have more background information to help my students as they research their chosen parks.  In addition to that, I want Kinley and Knox to have a national parks experience that I never had as a child.  I want to help them earn a Junior Ranger badge in each of the parks we visit so that they don’t have to wait until they’re married to learn all that our country’s parks have to offer.

Since "my traveling shoes are high heels," saying that I’m not much of a camper is a gross understatement.  Thus our family will stay in national parks lodges when they are available so that we can immerse ourselves in the parks.  Many of these lodges such as Chisos Mountain Lodge at Big Bend, El Tovar and Phantom Ranch at the GrandCanyon, and Zion National Park Lodge are pieces of history themselves.  Reservations at those must be made up to 15 months in advance, so Josh and I have already made our reservations at nine lodges along our route.

On June 1, 2016, Kinley and I set our alarms to wake up at 7:30 to make our reservation for El Tovar at the Grand Canyon.  I logged on to the lodge's website 20 minutes before the reservations were supposed to go "live" at 8:00.  Josh had spoken to someone in reservations over the phone the night before to check on procedures so that we'd be ready to go and armed with a plan the next morning.  He learned that when reservations for May 2017 went "live" on May 1, 2016, the hotel had received one million calls in three hours.  He told Josh that calling in would be like trying to win a radio contest - we'd get a busy signal over and over, but we should just keep hitting redial.

Reservations for El Tovar can actually be made online, but reservations for Phantom Ranch, the park lodge at the bottom of the canyon, could only be made over the phone.  My plan was to call but to try simultaneously to make the El Tovar reservations online.  So when I logged on at 7:40, I was just checking to be sure I knew the website and the type of room I wanted to book.  I clicked around for 5 minutes or so checking, and then I hit refresh.  At 7:45, the El Tovar reservations site was live!  Fifteen minutes early!

My heart raced as I frantically clicked on the room type that we wanted (and could afford), and three minutes later we had our reservation, more than a year in advance.  Since the website was open early, I thought that maybe the phone reservations would be, too.  Kinley and I started calling, me on both our land line and my cell phone, and Kinley on her own phone.  Three lines.  We called that way for an hour - dial, listen to the busy signal, hang up, hit redial - and then Knox woke up and joined us, taking over my cell phone.  For another half an our we continued the pattern - dial, listen, hang up, redial.  Our movements became so mechanized that we all worried that if we actually managed to get through and  heard the ringing sound, we wouldn't even recognize it in time to prevent ourselves from hanging up!  And if by some miracle we did get through without hanging up, would there even be any spots left at Phantom Ranch for the June dates we wanted?  Was it already sold out?

And then, after more than an hour and a half of calling on three lines, I heard Knox say, softly at first but with growing intensity, "Mom, Mom, MOM, MOM!!!!"   With wide eyes he thrust the phone toward me, bouncing excitedly.  The phone was ringing.  When the person on the other end of the line answered, we learned that we weren't too late.  We were gong to get to stay at Phantom Ranch!

As I finished up on the phone and celebrated with the kids, I thought about how different this experience was from the trip I took with my parents. We had made mo hotel reservations in advance.  None.  And when we got out to see Old Faithful, we learned about the Old Faithful Inn.  We naively asked if there was any vacancy for that night.  Of course, they were fully booked.

We were so completely clueless!  I'm sure the hotel's guests had made reservations a year earlier, just the way I have now done for our trip this summer.  So our little family bustled back into our blue Oldsmobile to continue on our route, hoping for a roadside motel with a vacancy.


Speaking of routes, here's ours.  And, obviously, we have reserved places to stay for every night of the trip.  I hope you'll follow along with us this summer!

Route                                                                                                        National Park Lodge (if applicable)
6/12  Lafayette-Memphis                                            
6/13  Memphis-Hot Springs NP                 
6/14  Texarkana-Midland, TX (stay 2 nights)
6/16  Midland-Big Bend NP, TX (stay 2 nights)                                     Chisos Mountains Lodge
6/18  Big Bend NP-Carlsbad Caverns NP 242        
6/19  CCNP-Guadalupe Mtns. NP—Saguaro NP (stay 2 nights)
6/21  Saguaro NP-Petrified Forest NP                    
6/22  PFNP-Grand Canyon NP (stay 2 nights)                                       El Tovar Lodge
6/24  Mules to bottom of Grand Canyon NP                                        Phantom Ranch
6/25  GCNP-Kingman, AZ                                             
6/26  Kingman, AZ-Joshua Tree NP—Disneyland (stay 3 nights)
6/29  Disneyland-Pinnacles NP                  
6/30  Pinnacles NP-Sequoia NP/Kings Canyon NP (stay 3 nights) John Muir Lodge
7/3  Kings Canyon NP—Yosemite NP (stay 3 nights)                         Half Dome Village           
7/6  Yosemite NP—Durham (stay 3 nights)
7/9  Durham—Lake Tahoe                          
7/10  Lake Tahoe—Baker, NV (stay 2 nights)       
7/12  Great Basin NP-Zion NP (stay 2 nights)                                        Zion NP Lodge
7/14  Zion NP-Bryce Canyon NP (stay 2 nights)                                    The Lodge at Bryce Canyon        
7/16  BCNP-Capitol Reef NP/Arches NP/Canyonlands NP (stay 3 nights)
7/19  Canyonlands NP-Monument Valley             
7/20  MV-Mesa Verde NP                                                                            Far View Lodge
7/21  MVNP-Black Can. of the Gunnison NP        
7/22  BCGNP-Great Sand Dunes NP (2 nights)                                     Great Sand Dunes Lodge 
7/24  GSDNP-Rocky Mtn. NP (2 nights)                  
7/26  RMNP-Topeka, KS                                               
7/27  Topeka, KS-*Cahokia Mounds, IL  
7/28  Cahokia Mounds, IL-Lafayette                       

Total national parks: 23
New national parks for Josh:  13
New national parks for Gina:  18
New national parks for the kids:  21
Total days traveling: 47

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