When I was a kid, our family vacations followed the same route between Colorado and Minnesota every summer. Our minivan navigated I-80 as it cut through the corn fields of Nebraska, and after recuperating over Godfather’s Pizza and a good night’s sleep at the Super 8 in Grand Island, we headed to Iowa early the next morning before shooting up north to make it to my grandfather’s house by dinner.
The summer before third grade, my parents announced an unexpected detour. That year we would head north through Wyoming and cross east through South Dakota. We would wander into the Black Hills and out through the Badlands, where I would visit my first bunch of national parks, including Wind Cave, Jewell Cave, and of course, Mount Rushmore.
I was too young to appreciate the true significance of these places at the time, but I do remember the feeling of having arrived somewhere special whenever we stopped to take a family photo at the park entrance sign—complete with the classic arrowhead-shaped logo of the National Parks Service. It was the same logo sewn on the sleeve of each Park Ranger, all of whom captivated me with their pride and excitement to share the land and history that they had sworn to protect.
My hope was that this trip would have turned the page to a new chapter in the years that followed. Unfortunately, it proved to be the last true family vacation of its kind, as my parents got divorced just months later, and within a few years my siblings, parents and I were scattered across the country. Yet I never forgot that initial feeling of excitement and adventure exploring our national parks.
Fast-forward to me as an adult and father to a five-year-old son, whom I had talked myself into believing was on the brink of manhood and ripe for adventure. Needing a place to go for our first family vacation not visiting relatives, I knew it was time to go to where it all started–Yellowstone.
For nearly a week we explored both Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. Though we were rained on, snowed on, and utterly unequipped to withstand the frigid overnight temperatures with our thin sleeping bags and three-person tent, we also experienced natural wonders like Yellowstone Falls and Old Faithful, complete with sightings of bears, bison and bald eagles. But it was that look, an exasperated smile, on my son’s face after an all-too-close encounter with a moose while hiking around Jenny Lake that I knew this was the beginning of something cool.
In the handful of years that have followed, my family has continued our tour of the country by way of our national parks. The result, stashed in my son’s closet, is a bag of patches from all of them. Periodically, he digs them out and throws them around his bed like he is dealing blackjack, and even now with more than 30, each patch still has a story all its own, and he is quick to share them. But with a planned return to Zion to hike The Narrows (at his request), and possibly even Yosemite on deck for this summer, it is the stories yet to be told that I look forward to hearing most.