Emily Pennington wanted to see it all. But life on the road was fiercer than she ever imagined. After almost half a decade of planning a cross-country expedition to see every one of America’s National Parks, she quit her job, left her home and her boyfriend in Los Angeles, and set off in her van to find herself in January of 2020. Almost right away, a pandemic, a string of natural disasters, and a breakup sent her veering way off her roadmap—and searching for healing in the unforgiving magnificence of our public lands.
Editor’s Note: Transcriptions of episodes of the Outside Podcast are created with a mix of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain some grammatical errors or slight deviations from the audio.
Maren Larsen: From Outside Magazine, this is the Outside Podcast.
I'm Maren Larsen, and I'd like to introduce you to an Outside Contributor who, a few years ago, decided to check off a life's worth of bucket list adventures in just one year. Meet Emily Pennington.
Emily: I just wrote a book called Feral about trying to visit every US National Park in one year, and that year turned out to be 2020.
Maren: Emily also wrote dispatches from that trip for an Outside Magazine column called 63 Parks Traveler. Her journey wasn't a wanderlust-seeking whim, or something she cooked up just for a magazine assignment. It was a dream years in the making.
Emily: The idea for the Giant Parks Adventure started in 2016 when I was going through a breakup, ironically, with the person who introduced me to backpacking and kind of helped me fall in love with the National parks. And I also went through a really grueling job search, and I was feeling totally burnt out at work. And, I just fell in love with America's wild spaces.
Maren: In the aftermath of that relationship, she learned that she could rely on the wilderness to help her heal when things got tough. Around the same time, she also found a book that would help shape the next few years of her life–I’ll bet you can guess which one.
Emily: It was that year that I actually read Wild for the first time, and I just found myself sobbing at so many random passages that weren't even particularly dramatic.
Maren: Cheryl Strayed's 2012 memoir about thru hiking the Pacific Crest Trail in the wake of her mother's death, her divorce, and her battle with addiction had a big impact on a lot of readers, and it still does.
In Emily's case, it helped her get through her own period of turmoil and pointed her down a new path.
Emily: It was like there was this weird lightning bolt of, I guess truth and also permission in this strange way. It was like Cheryl Strayed opened up this part of my brain that made me realize that it's possible to write a likable female heroine or narrator who isn't always necessarily doing the right thing. And so there was something really subversive about that to me that I thought it deserved delving deeper into.
Maren: So, Emily began meticulously planning her own wild journey from her home in Los Angeles, centered around her new love of backpacking and the National Parks. While her life was moving on in other ways–she found a new job, met and eventually moved in with a new boyfriend–her dream stayed, and it started to take shape.
During those years, she researched each park's highlights and peak seasons, saved up her money, plotted out road trips, and outfitted her 2015 Ford Transit Connect cargo van for cross-country travel. Oh, and she pitched Outside a column that would have her writing about her adventures along the way.
So, at the beginning of 2020, she quit her job, jumped in her van, and set off to find herself like so many before her. But, unlike Cheryl Strayed, she didn't plan to do it entirely alone.
Emily: There's the notion that to be a strong outdoorsy wilderness person, you have to be this kind of blissfully aloof protagonist, you know, who's going out into the wild alone, and they're getting amazing creative work done alone. And it's okay because like they have their dog and they're just like staring out at beautiful views, eating soup out of the can.
And honestly, yeah, maybe you're gonna be able to find a poetic narrative for like one essay. But I think there's a really famous Christopher McCandless quote I wanna say, from Into the Wild that's “happiness is only real when shared.”
And so I think that if the person that many people hail as like the patron saint of doing a lone outdoor activities,was able to scrawl that in his final days, I think that it stands to reason that some of the most poignant and meaningful outdoor experiences that one can have are the ones that are shared.
There is a healing quality to going out in nature and being alone with your thoughts, but after a certain amount of time, being alone with your thoughts, too much can turn destructive.
Maren: So, Emily designed her trip in segments that would periodically take her back home: to LA, and to her boyfriend Adam. Adam had also planned to quit his job after a few months and join her on the road for a while.
Emily: I was kind of this classic type-A wanderlust-y adventure who wanted to like go out and hike 12 miles a day and then come home to my partner and my dog and have a house. And, you can have it all and you can do it all.
Maren: Fundamentally, the trip was Emily's dream project, not her partner's. But she was happy to let him tag along.
Emily: I was thrilled to be having basically my best friend and my partner along with me for the journey. I knew that it would change the narrative of how I originally wanted to experience the parks, but I also thought that it would, be a lot more fun to have another set of eyes on the trail and to have someone to bounce ideas off of and joke around with and sing Flight of the Concord Songs with in Death Valley.
Maren: But, of course, 2020 did not play out like Emily, or anyone else, expected. Even in normal years, van life involves either relative isolation if you're traveling alone, or intense oh-my-god-we're-living-on-top-of-each-other togetherness if you're traveling with someone else. But the onset of the global pandemic would make Emily's experience much more extreme.
When COVID started to take hold in March, Emily returned home to LA to wait it out, where she and Adam would find each other's company to be literally inescapable.
Even after the outdoors were deemed relatively safe and the couple took to the road again together, they were mostly limited to only hanging out with each other.
And all of this closeness was punctuated, for Emily, by bouts of just as inescapable loneliness during periods when Adam went home and she was on the road by herself.
Emily: I think at the beginning of the trip we both were full of energy. We were both really excited to be taking a good chunk of time off work. And we were both really thrilled to have the once in a lifetime opportunity to experience so many of the country's national parks.
But I think as the year rolled on and the trip became more grueling and the pandemic felt like it was never ending, having the sense of purpose that comes with planning something and saving for it and devoting your whole life and savings to it for many years, I think that was like this big fire inside my heart that kept me going.
Meanwhile, Adam started to get tired, like most people would. He started to want to spend more time in motels. He started wanting to take naps in the van while I hiked. All of which I was more than willing to accommodate. But it is challenging to bring someone along on a journey that they didn't wholly choose, because if at any point along that journey, your wishes or desires conflict, it can be disastrous for either the trip or the relationship or both.
Maren: In July, just over the planned halfway mark, Emily and Adam decided to part ways. But it wasn't a convenient time to break up. They were already in Alaska, a place they both wanted desperately to see and had spent a good chunk of their savings to get to. And so they somewhat awkwardly decided to forge ahead together, and see if they could enjoy each other's company just a little while longer.
Emily: So we had this big guided backpacking trip in gates of the Arctic, way above the Arctic Circle, that was already booked. And we had this little bush plane that we flew over the Arctic Circle into the Brooks Range, which is this gorgeous, pretty much undeveloped, no roads, no trails, no visitors center, range of mountains in the north of Alaska.
And this little bush plane landed on a gravel riverbank on the banks of the Noatak river. And we dawned these big 50 pound backpacks, watched this little plane take off. And then we're kind of set loose with like a guide and a satellite phone to wander for, I think, four or five days.
We hiked up for a day and a half into this really gorgeous valley and it's surrounded by these huge granite fins called the Arrigetch Peaks.
And so in the middle of nowhere in the remote Alaskan backcountry, I was boulder hopping and hiking off trail and picking really bitter blueberries with a guide and with Adam in tow and just having so many conversations.
Like at one point our guide talked about how she thinks that people in the lower 48 who are constantly hiking on trails and having to book specific numbered backcountry campsites are losing out on one of the quintessential experiences of wilderness, which is meandering.
She thinks that you should have the freedom to like a little kid just kind of romp around and explore.
And I never really thought about it that way. It sounds like so simple a thing, but the notion that other people get to dictate where we go and what the best view is and what areas we explore in most of our Western national parks because of the way that trails and roads are built, was something I'd never thought of and wouldn't have if I didn't go out in a group. I would've been stuck to my own way of thinking and my own experience.
Maren: There, in the middle of the seemingly endless backcountry of Alaska, Emily's trip was going off the trail she had built for it. The narrative she had been playing out in her mind about having it all–adventure and stability, travel and a home, independence and a relationship–started to fall apart. And she found herself, in some ways, right back where the idea for the trip had begun: alone, and looking for healing in the wilderness.
Emily: It's really funny to, to think about how I set off literally pitching the book as, oh, it's very different than all of these other memoirs. Like, Eat, Pray, Love, where the person's coming out of a divorce and then they're soul searching.
But, it ultimately became not only a book of personal soul searching and wandering, but also, a chronicling of a healing journey post massive breakup using the national parks and America's wild spaces as the place from which to build oneself back up.
Maren: We'll hear more from Emily about the less-than-gentle therapy nature had in store for her, after this.
Maren: In the summer of 2020, Emily Pennington was supposed to be enjoying the adventure of a lifetime. Instead, she'd given up her home, split up with her partner, and was navigating a road trip during a pandemic. She had found a way to be out in the world relatively safely, seeing new places in the open air of the outdoors based mostly out of her self-contained van. But in order to stay safe, she had to also stay isolated from other people along the way.
Emily: Some of the more social and cultural exploration that I really hoped would exist alongside the nature and the parks exploration didn't really get to be fully realized.
I really wanted to hit all 50 states, but I honestly, I just did not have the energy to do so. So I think I still have Kansas and Rhode Island, maybe Vermont too.
And I really wanted to go to the Ben and Jerry's factory, but it was closed because of Covid. I really wanted to eat ice cream and it was so sad.
Oftentimes people ask me, why didn't you just reschedule your trip for a safer year? Because the pandemic hit and you had to go into lockdown for two months anyways. And I don't know if anyone's ever quit their job to travel for a year before, but getting another job knowing you're just gonna quit it in six more months is probably not a great thing to do for your resume if you just quit a job to go travel for a year.
And to be totally honest, I couldn't afford to not keep going. I either had to totally quit the trip and go back to a desk job. Or I had to forge forward and make it work no matter what.
So what ended up happening luckily we learned very quickly that the virus didn't like to jump from person to person in very well ventilated areas like the outdoors. And, while my little bohemian dream of wanting to work from different coffee shops in different small mountain towns across the country wasn't fully realized because it wouldn't have been safe even in places where restaurants and shops were open.
But, I got to see this kind of beautiful blossoming of the national parks for a whole new group of people. I think that a lot of us people who work in the outdoor industry saw people who had only gone on little day hikes here and there, wanting to rent RVs or wanting to rent vans, wanting to find lesser known national parks and explore them or find national parks closer to home because maybe they were adhering to statewide stay-at-home orders in the beginning. And honestly, seeing younger generations and seeing people who maybe don't even consider themselves outdoorsy, flock to the national parks in this time of social and mental health crisis was a really beautiful thing to see because it was almost like the country itself was finding a much needed salve in the same thing that I was.
Maren: But the COVID lockdowns weren't the only unexpected detours on Emily's roadmap.
Emily: Pandemic aside, I think it would've been a really difficult year to do a big trip like this. And that was in large part due to the fact that the West Coast had the worst wildfire season on history. 2020 was the year that we all saw those crazy news headlines where San Francisco had literally orange skies. People in Seattle couldn't leave their homes for about a week. I happened to get caught up between Mount Rainier and North Cascades and had to just hunker down with a completely gray sky and no sunshine, in a motel in Tacoma for four days, hoping and just crossing my fingers that the wildfire smoke would abate.
It was also a weirdly late hurricane season, so when I hit Florida, I was stuck inside yet another weird vacation rental in Homestead, Florida.
In Biscayne the waves were too high and it was really treacherous. And I almost didn't get to go to Dry Tortugas because the boats kept getting canceled because the swells of waves in southern Florida were so immense.
The weather was just completely wild that year.
When you are forced to live with the seasons and wake up and actually experience the temperatures and the weather every single day because you're living in a vehicle in the wilderness inside the weather, there's a really deeply personal and emotional connection you have with the radical changes going on around you. And so when you see something like a massive glacier calving in Kenai Fjords National Park, or you hear a Bush pilot in Glacier Bay tell you that there used to be numerous glaciers that touched the ocean, and now there's just one. And he's been flying for 20 or 30 years. You really start to look around and recognize that these wild spaces might seem timeless, but they can be rather ephemeral if we don't take care of them the way that they deserve to be cared for.
Maren: Emily's journey was radically altered by her breakup, the pandemic, and climate change, but despite all the dramatic upheavals, much of her year was actually spent in quiet moments: times when the monotony of living on the road eclipsed all else.
Emily: It's no secret that Instagram van life is very obviously not what it's like most of the time. Yes, you can back up to a beautiful view and take a photo with your bed and a cup of coffee looking out at the sunrise at the Grand Canyon.
But, to be totally honest, most of the legal and comfortable places that you can camp or park are gonna be truck stops. They're gonna be Walmart parking lots. They're gonna be rest areas with 24-7 bathrooms. And yeah, maybe you're gonna camp in BLM land or at that country campsites on occasion.
But there is an interesting monotony to constantly sleeping in parking lots, waking to the hissing of 18 wheeler breaks, not showering for five or six days at a time.
I think that when people envision a yearlong adventure in America's wilderness, they picture someone who's like hiking around, camping in gorgeous locations, really becoming one with the forest.
But honestly, maybe it's just me being a millennial, but I learned in under a month that man, when it gets dark at 5:00 PM and it's 30 degrees in Joshua Tree, which is the desert sometimes the best thing you can do and the safest thing you can do is sit in a zero degree sleeping bag in your van with your phone watching Netflix.
I watched a lot of reruns of sitcoms to honestly just ward off anxiety and pass the time. And I had to learn that was okay. I had to learn that it was not any less valid to be curled up in the back of my van, texting friends or trying to scroll through Instagram with one bar of service, and then get up in the morning at 6:00 AM and start hiking again.
Maren: And yet, by the end of the year, the loneliness and anxiety caused by the pandemic and the storms and the breakup and the monotony were starting to wear on her.
Emily: Ultimately what ended up happening was my body stopped sleeping for about a month or two. I got to a point where things like mockingbirds felt like they were car alarms going off next to my window outside. I was completely ragged.
Maren: She turned to nature, hoping it would provide healing again, like it did after her rough breakup four years earlier. But this time she learned that our wild open spaces are not always nurturing.
Emily: There's a quote that “nature is fierce, but it's never cruel.” Nature is difficult and it will run you over the rapids and it will bear its teeth at you, but it will never be vindictive in the way that humans can be. And, I felt like I saw a good deal of that. Obviously, I don't think that the country's wilderness has beared me any ill will or malice. But, I think there's an alternate side to the kind of beautiful finding, healing in nature, running through meadows, dancing in the moonlight narrative that we so often see.
I think that there is a darker more shadow work oriented side that I really encountered. And by the end of it, once I was in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, literally looking at this kind of steaming maw of black earth and bubbling lava. It really made me parallel the ferocity with which new earth is created with the ferocity I was feeling in my own mind as I was yearning for, the finality of healing that I was hoping the parks might lend.
Maren: In the end, it was Emily's own nature that she would have to examine to find the kind of peace she was looking for.
Emily: I was always one of those people who was very vehemently anti-meds for dealing with anxiety or depression. I was one of those people who thought that, ‘oh, well, you know, that works for my friend,’ or, ‘oh, that works for, for so-and-so.’ But I'm cool enough. I'm strong enough. I'm gonna be the one who can just like hike or meditate or do yoga every morning, and it's gonna be great. I'm gonna be just fine.
And, I decided to humbly lay myself bare, and basically just give up whatever ego was holding me away from thinking of medication as an option.
And I ended up going back into therapy. I had my first meeting with a psychiatrist.
Maren: With the help of medication, Emily started sleeping again, and with clear eyes, she took solace in knowing that the fierceness of nature would always be there when she needed it.
Emily: Katmai National Park is known for its completely amazing grizzly bear viewing.
And basically what you do is you walk around on these little boardwalks over rivers where hundreds of thousands of spawning salmon are jumping up waterfalls and swimming upstream from the ocean back to these little streams where they were born so that they can, spawn, lay their eggs and then they end up dying off.
All you do is you watch these huge, like 700 pound grizzly bears fighting each other for salmon all day long, and they're really close to you. I wanna say at one point there was a pair of massive grizzly bears who were pretty ornery and tackling each other for the best spot at this waterfall to catch fish, about 10 feet away from the main platform at Brooks Falls. So moments like that really, they rock you into the present.
Maren: Through her sometimes grueling, sometimes blissful, sometimes tame, sometimes feral year in America's National Parks, Emily learned when to wander off trail and when to hunker down in a parking lot. She learned when she could turn to nature for help, and when she needed support from others. But mostly, she learned when to slow down.
Emily: I did realize that I was running myself into the ground by pushing so hard all the time. And, when people ask me what I hope people learn from the book, one of the things that I often say is that I hope people realize that even someone like me who always wants to push and always wants to go, go, go, finally realize that you have to slow down if you're gonna have a longevity in outdoor spaces.
And if you're going to keep exploring wild areas, you have to give them the reverence they deserve. And there's nothing wrong with sitting in a hammock by a river and reading all day. if you wanna crush 20 miles a day that's great, but there's no wrong way to visit the national parks. And taking a deep breath and relaxing in them is just as good as hiking 12 miles through a crazy trail.
Maren: Thank you to Emily Pennington for sharing your story with us. You can read her writing about the 63 Parks Traveler project at outsideonline.com. Her book, Feral, is out now.
This episode was written and produced by me, Maren Larsen, and edited by Michael Roberts. Music and mixing by Robbie Carver.
Listener, if you have a story about your own wild adventure that you'd like to tell, record it as a voice memo and email it to us at [email protected] And if you enjoyed this episode, leave us a review wherever you listen, or tell your book club about it.
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