For some of us, the idea of tent camping at every national park sounds like an amazing retirement plan — the reward for a lifetime of hard work.
But why wait?
St. Louis natives Cole and Elizabeth Donelson asked that question and couldn’t come up with a good answer. So, at age 26, they quit their jobs and celebrated the centennial of the national parks by visiting all (then) 59 in a year. Their dream, their plan, and their follow-through have struck a chord.
Cole had traveled extensively as a child. Elizabeth was filled with wanderlust. Already feeling disillusioned in their IT and teaching jobs just two years after graduating from the University of Missouri, she broached the subject, and he agreed.
As the detail guy, Cole devised the most economical route, then set up a budget for gas, food, camping, and one night a week of more civilized lodgings: roughly $20,000. They toyed with securing sponsorships and received a few discounted excursions and pieces of equipment, Cole said, “but we quickly realized it was a lot of work and wanted to focus on the experience, not monetizing it.”
Instead, they took on extra part-time jobs and saved about $25,000.
They broke the trip into seven legs, from August 2015 to July 2016, coming home for a couple brief breaks.
Moments of Adversity
Of course, no trip is perfect. Their tent was destroyed by wind and rain in Death Valley, and a mouse died in their car engine. But aside from a spat at Teddy Roosevelt National Park that they laugh about now, “the trip brought us closer together than we could have imagined,” Cole said.
And it was filled with breathtaking moments, Elizabeth said, especially at Acadia (Maine), Olympic (Washington), Capitol Reef (Utah), Kenai Fjords (Alaska), and Yosemite (California).
“The national parks are such an amazing treasure,” she said. “They cover nature, history, and culture. We learned that you can’t go wrong with any of them.”
Though they met other travelers who were hitting all the parks in the lower 48, the Donelsons insisted on those in Alaska, Hawaii, and American Samoa. They even snuck in a bit of Canada on their way home from the final leg, stopping in Banff and Jasper National Parks in Alberta.
Two days after returning, Cole started an MBA program at Washington University. Elizabeth worked as a substitute teacher and took part-time gigs.
“But we were addicted to travel and wanted to make it our passion,” she said. They added a trip to Patagonia, which they won on “The Price is Right” during the West Coast leg of the sojourn. Three weeks in Southeast Asia followed in 2017. Last year, they checked off Eastern Europe and Africa. They also have traveled in Central and South America.
“People seem jealous that we have a secret pile of cash, but it’s just not the case,” Cole said. “If you’re flexible and creative, you’ll be amazed at how many travel doors you can unlock.”
Their not-so-secret formula includes racking up frequent flier miles through their credit cards, which eliminates the biggest expense to international travel. They book Airbnbs and hostels and have supplemented their spending cash “through a whole lot of part-time jobs,” Elizabeth said.
Despite abandoning sponsorships, Cole noted that a one-week trip to Belize cost them just $1,100 and that their accommodations for three weeks in Asia averaged $19 a night. They also piggybacked a few weeks in Eastern Europe with Cole’s MBA experience in Uganda.
“The more we branched out, the more confident we grew in finding good deals,” he said. “So many people are intimidated by the process. We’ve just had a lot of practice.”
They share their tips, and their continued sense of wonder and joy, through their website, switchbackkids.com. Their podcasts have been downloaded more than 272,000 times.
They foresee travel being a lifelong passion but never a lifestyle. Their son, Clark, was born in June, so for the short-term their trips have included visits with Cole’s family in Louisville and Elizabeth’s in Washington. They also worked in a getaway to Indiana Dunes, designated a national park since the end of their original trip.
Cole has started a job at Accenture, and Elizabeth is pursuing an online advanced degree in library science. So, Clark’s first major trip looks to be Costa Rica in late winter or early spring, when the Donelsons get a chance to share lessons of the road with a new generation.
“We come back from every trip with the assurance that the world is connected,” Elizabeth said. To which Cole added: “It’s made me a lot more optimistic about humanity.”
Author: Kathleen Nelson is a regular contributor to Terrain Magazine