Bucket List Reflections

I would encourage anyone reading this to sit down with a pencil and paper and allow yourself to dream — it’s often very surprising what pours out when given a chance.

By Michelle Van Deusen
Explore Ambassador

Our family completed a tour of all the national parks in the lower 48 states this past fall. We, of course, intend to see all of them and have our eyes set on Alaska, Hawaii, the Virgin Islands and American Samoa next. But at the same time, completing the lower 48 is a huge stepping stone toward the larger goal. Our park count now sits at 51 out of 63, and the milestone invited both celebration and reflection.

Our family has always enjoyed traveling. I was raised on monthlong cross-country RV trips, and though my husband was not, he was very drawn to the idea. However, we found ourselves in a bit of a travel rut as adults. We were trying to save money when we were newly married, and then later we got stuck on a repeat mode that is very familiar to many people, especially in the South. We were on a steady diet of Gulf beaches, college football and Disney World. And we were having a blast! When we decided after having our second child that I would transition out of the workplace and stay home, I immediately recognized we needed a new travel plan (mostly a new budget!). Since I had grown up camping, I pitched the idea of a tent, and we started taking our 6-year-old and infant camping. It was a whole new world being the decision makers, as opposed to a kid along for the ride, but my parents were a huge resource for us as we gradually gained some experience of our own. About a year later, we had the opportunity to buy a small used Fleetwood pop-up, and we jumped at the chance.

The Alabama Hills, California (Photo: Michelle Van Deusen)

We were visiting some state parks locally and starting to gain confidence with our little camper when we decided to sit down and watch the documentary The National Parks: America’s Best Idea by Ken Burns. I highly recommend the film as it does a beautiful job telling the story of our national parks. So many times, I was shouting with delight, “I remember going there!” and it was easy and obvious to begin to be stirred to take on the Great American Road Trip with our own family. We agreed that we really should get on the road; we really wanted to make those generational and patriotic connections. But, like most big ideas and dreams, I think it might have stayed in the “someday” category if not for our pastor. In 2015, he presented a message series titled “Dream Again,” and during the first message, he talked about making a bucket list. He even shared some of the items from his own: There were things from every category you can imagine, including travel. I came home that day and started making my first bucket list – and the next thing I knew, “Visit all 59 (at the time) national parks while our children still live with us” was a written goal. It was tangible.

Sawtooth National Forest, Idaho (Photo: Michelle Van Deusen)

At first, a real strategy for the entire country seemed too complicated. We planned our first big trip in the fall of 2015 and did the classic loop I have recommended to many other families as a great way to start seeing the American West: Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks in Wyoming and Badlands National Park in South Dakota, along with the Black Hills of South Dakota (Custer State Park, Mount Rushmore National Monument and Wind Cave National Park). To that loop we also added, at the suggestion of my parents, Oregon Trail stops in both Nebraska and Wyoming and Devils Tower National Monument in Wyoming. We made another couple of trips out West and got to see some amazing places, like Glacier National Park in Montana, along with Yosemite, Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks in California. But it quickly became apparent that to take a big vision from a bucket list and actually accomplish it, a practical strategy needed to be formed. I sat down with a map of the country and the list of parks and grouped them into trips. Without this step, we would still be taking trips and having a blast, but we most likely would not have been able to see the entire lower 48 in seven years of trips with a fairly normal amount of vacation time available to us.

Death Valley National Park, California (Photo: Michelle Van Deusen)

We are often asked about our favorites, and we love those questions. We like to talk about favorite campsites, favorite trails, favorite trips and, of course, favorite parks while we are driving. Each person in our family varies, but an overall consensus makes a Top 12 (because we couldn’t narrow it to 10!) that is fairly close to this:

  1. Glacier National Park (MT)
  2. Grand Teton National Park (WY)
  3. Yellowstone National Park (WY)
  4. Sequoia National Park (CA)
  5. Death Valley National Park (CA)
  6. Zion National Park (UT)
  7. Canyonlands National Park (UT)
  8. Acadia National Park (ME)
  9. Mt. Rainier National Park (WA)
  10. Badlands National Park (SD)
  11. Dry Tortugas National Park (FL)
  12. Isle Royale National Park (MI)
Death Valley National Park, California (Photo: Michelle Van Deusen)

People are inherently collectors, and the bucket list mentality provides a way to be collectors while still having our eyes upward and onward. We have made lists of the state parks in our region and are slowly marking them off. We have made a list of coastal forts in Florida and visited all of them. We have found and then completed a list of the best beach campgrounds in Florida. I will sometimes see a travel article from a site like this one and be inspired to print it and make it into a list. We have multiple lists going at the same time, from the simple and close to home to cross-country pilgrimages.

Bucket lists combined with strategic planning is the intersection where we see dreams come true. I would encourage anyone reading this to sit down with a pencil and paper and allow yourself to dream — it’s often very surprising what pours out when given a chance. We are passionate about the goals we have set, not just because of the goals themselves, but because of what we see and learn along the way — and most of all, how our relationships with each other have flourished. We have seen incredible things on the journey and met some incredible people. And we have made those generational and patriotic connections with our parks that first spoke to us from the Ken Burns film. Nothing completed that generational circle more than when my parents met us at Grand Teton National Park in 2016. Being able to see my parents there with my children brought the documentary home into my own life. So much of what we do, even taking shadow pictures of our family, is modeled from the generational legacy my parents created by taking us to the parks as children. All of my siblings travel and camp as adults with their children, and my parents are still on the road as well — married 50 years now and still having the adventure of a lifetime.

Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona (Photo: Michelle Van Deusen)

Setting aside these lands “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people” is an idea we can all be proud came from our country and then spread around the world. While I would contend that liberty was actually our very best idea, the national parks could easily be the second.

Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona; 1993 (Mike Pettus) (Photo: Michelle Van Deusen)

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