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Cheers to the Switchback Kids

Cheers to the Switchback Kids

In July 2014 we received an email from a young man named Cole Donelson.   He said that he and his wife Elizabeth were planning a year long trip to all 59 of the National Parks.  He expressed a bit of surprise that someone was already on such a journey–especially someone from their hometown of Kansas City.  He asked us if we would like to meet them to share a few ideas.  We agreed, but were a bit skeptical.  We had already been traveling the National Parks for three months.  We learned quickly how challenging the travel was and how expensive such a trip is.  We were also aware of a dozen or so people that had attempted to do such a trip and had flamed out along the way.  We first met Cole and Elizabeth at a coffee shop in Parkville, Missouri.

We enjoyed their company and admired their passion immediately. They asked us great questions and, quite frankly, gave us too much credit for what we were doing.  We were only three months in.  Were weren’t 100% certain we would be able to complete our own journey.  Our pocketbook was emptying much more rapidly than we anticipated.  We were shocked when they told us they planned to see all of the Parks on a budget of $20,000.   We thanked the Switchback Kids and wished them well.  When we got back to our car Shelly and I looked at each other and said “no chance”.  We believed that they didn’t have sufficient budget to meet the challenge.

Twelve months later we invited the  Kids to a cookout at our RV park.  We had completed our 59 National Park journey.  They were making final preparations for theirs.  They had put together a blog, numerous social media outlets and had a solid plan. We became much more optimistic about their chances.  Cole viewed this get together has a “passing of the torch”.  That was exactly what it turned out to be.  Missourians to Missourians I might add.

Cole and Elizabeth began their journey in August 2015.  We anxiously anticipated their next blog as they traveled.  Their blogs were excellent as were their videos.  Their approach to the Parks was much different than ours.  They endeavored to absorb each Park as much as they could.  We attempted to document our trip via photography as way to express the majesty of the Parks.  They called their approach the “Switchback Way”.

Switchback Pic1

(Photo Credit to Cole and Elizabeth Donelson)

The Switchback Kids had some amazing backcountry adventures.  They spent a quiet three days in Lake Clark National Park, Alaska.  They slept in their car along the AlCan Highway.  They made due with less throughout their trip.  With that said, they also soaked up a resort on Saint Thomas, USVI, couch surfed around the country and made a winning appearance on The Price is Right.

Their budget approach was a message to Millennials (an others) that the Parks were affordable with careful planning.  What they did with money was so remarkable that Yahoo Finance featured them.  Cole also addressed  another point to me about what he hoped to accomplish with his Millennial peers:

“As for inspiring our fellow Millennials, it was so interesting to see how our mission evolved throughout the trip.  We started out by wanting to show other people the beautiful views and awesome adventures available in the National Parks.  By the time our trip ended, we were sharing less about that and more about the issues surrounding the Parks, especially about the issues they face if our generation doesn’t fall in love with these places.  I think our mission was accomplished , but we just didn’t know what it was at first”.

I also asked Cole what was the most surprising thing that happened on their journey.  His answer mirrored what we experienced:

“The thing that surprised us the most throughout our year was the number of people that are on similar (yet so different) journeys.  We were a bit humbled at first because we thought that what were doing was so unique.  Talking to other people of all different ages and backgrounds who have left normalcy behind to pursue a dream was one of our favorite parts of the trip”.

They came to same the inevitable conclusion that we did.  A trip to the National Parks is more about the people you meet and share the experience with than it is about the Parks themselves.

As far as we can tell via Google and social media, the first two couples to visit all 59 National Parks in about a year were Cole and Elizabeth and us.  Four Missourians.  Sure there are others that have completed a 59 National Park journey since then or are out doing it right now.  One accepted funding from an  ill-advised Kickstarter Campaign.  Read Cole’s thoughts on crowd funding  a vacation here.  Others have been sponsored by the likes of CBS News and National Geographic.  In our humble opinion the Missouri Way (AKA funding the trip ourselves), like the Switchback Way, was the best way.  We authored our own trip, followed no script, had no media deadlines and used our own resources.  So did Cole and Elizabeth.  Cheers to the Switchback Kids.

Cole and Elizabeth finished up their journey at Denali National Park last month.  What a great place to finish!  They have returned to “normal’ life but likely their journey has just begun.  After all they are “kids” which is exactly how Shelly refers to them.  Our lives have been so enriched by knowing them.  Congratulations Cole and Elizabeth on a journey well done.

Don Hafner

Leawood, Kansas

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