We don’t remember the moment or even the day we decided to visit all 58 national parks, but it called us just the same. We had spent the previous 28 years working and raising kids. Once they were grown and out of the house, we no longer needed to be home for them; it was time to take a break. The deciding factor may have been that we’d seen friends and family members, our age and younger, die before they did all the things they wanted to do.
So, in the spring of 2010, during the worst economy in our lifetime – with no guarantee we would find employment when we finished – we quit our jobs and began the journey.
Our interest in the national parks came from our dear friends, Bob and Sue. Their passion for the parks began before we met them. From the time their kids were babies, they spent most of their vacations visiting the parks. Their stories inspired us. We wish they had joined us on this adventure, but since they didn’t, we sent them updates on our progress with occasional emails, texts, phone calls, and a couple of in-person visits.
In the fall of 2010, we began writing about our trip, but struggled with the tone and format for the book. It was then that I sent the letter from the Ahwahnee Hotel (dated September 14, 2010) to Bob and Sue along with gifts from our hotel room. I said to Karen, “I wish that writing the book were as easy as writing to Bob and Sue.” That’s when the idea came to us. We would write about our trip as a series of letters to Bob and Sue; later we changed the format to emails. (If we were 20 or 30 years younger, we would have written this book as a series of text messages.) In the interest of full disclosure, we didn’t send all these emails to Bob and Sue on the dates indicated. But, they are real people; their names really are Bob and Sue, and the events we’ve written about actually happened.
This is not a guide to the national parks. It's a series of snapshots and impressions based on our experience. We didn’t have time to see everything we wanted to see in every park, and we know we missed a lot of great stuff. We didn’t camp, rock climb, scuba dive, or snorkel, but we did what we love: we hiked, drank beer, and had the time of our lives.
We hope you enjoy reading it and are inspired to create your own memories in the national parks.
Matt and Karen Smith, 2012
From: Matt Smith
Date: April 16, 2010
Dear Bob and Sue,
Planning our parks trip is harder than I thought it would be. Karen refuses to stay anywhere there’s a possibility she’ll wake up in the middle of the night with a mouse on her head. She read a review for a motel in Utah where a woman described waking up to see a mouse on her husband’s head. Now, before I book any room, Karen wants to check the online reviews. On top of the other logistical challenges with planning a 58-park trip, I also have to wait for her to give me the all clear before I can book it.
It’s surprising how many mouse complaints there are online. A lodge in one of the national parks had several mouse mentions in their reviews. The manager posted a response in the lodge’s defense. He made the point that the lodge is in a national park where there’s a greater chance that animals would be in or around the property. And, all the animals in the park are protected, including mice, so the lodge is limited in what they can do to prevent them from being in the rooms. The parks service doesn't allow them to kill the mice.
I said to Karen, “Why are you making such a big deal about this? I’m sure there have been times when mice were in our hotel room at night, maybe even running across our bodies, and you didn’t know it.” This, I’ll admit, was a poor choice of words. She pulled her shoulders close to her ears and shivered as if she’d stuck her tongue in a light socket.
I tried a different approach. “Karen, Sweetie, you’ll have to get used to roughing it a little. There might be rodents in our future.”
I can’t wait to see what she does when we see our first tarantula.
Note to reader: There’s something you should know about Karen: she’s not a fan of rodents. She didn’t like them before, but after her close encounter with a squirrel a few years ago, she wants nothing to do with them.
One spring day, I was away on a business trip; Karen was home with the kids. It was a warm afternoon, and she was sitting with our son Matthew at the computer in my office. The kitchen door that leads to the backyard was open. They were reviewing a homework project when they heard what sounded like fingernails scratching on the hardwood floors in the kitchen followed by a thumping gallop from our cat Sox. An instant later, a squirrel raced into the office with the cat at its heels. In a panic, Karen grabbed Matthew and the cat, and ran out of the office slamming the door behind her.
Her plan was to leave the squirrel in my office and let me deal with it when I got home in a few days; the homework could wait. However, 30 minutes and two glasses of Merlot later, Karen saw the flaw in her plan. She wasn’t worried so much about sticking me with the task of removing a hungry, pissed-off squirrel from my office as she was the possibility of the squirrel shredding everything in there before I got home. Or worse, she feared the house would permanently smell of dead squirrel. There was a decent chance her scream gave it a heart attack.
Luckily, the window in my office was open that afternoon. The only problem, there was a screen in the window. Karen figured if she could remove the screen, the squirrel, if it were still alive, would find its way back to the great outdoors.
My office was on the first floor, so she was able to remove the screen easily from the outside. Standing in the backyard at a safe distance, she watched the open window, but no squirrel appeared. Venetian blinds were down covering the window opening. Karen thought, “If I just reach in and pull the cord on the blinds I can raise them enough for the little rodent to see his escape route.”
Taking deep breaths while standing on the third rung of our stepladder, Karen thought through exactly what she had to do: raise the blinds with one hand, pull the cord with the other, lock it in place and get the hell out of there. No problem, the squirrel was no doubt cowering in the corner.
As soon as she raised the blinds, the squirrel – according to Karen who was the only witness – saw daylight and flew through the air, landing on her head. Its toes were caught in Karen’s hair as it made a desperate attempt to free itself. Karen said, “It was running in place on top of my head.” She fell off the ladder and ran screaming through the backyard with the squirrel stuck to her head. (I’m sure it was only a few seconds, but time stands still when there’s a squirrel on your head.) It eventually freed its claws, jumped off her head and ran away.
Sue was the first person Karen called after she calmed down enough to speak. They discussed the situation thoroughly and agreed that shampooing several times with Head and Shoulders, rubbing the tiny scratch marks on her scalp with alcohol and drinking the rest of the bottle of Merlot were the proper steps to prevent rabies. I was her second call.
Karen gave me a second-by-second recounting of the event, complete with sound effects and a graphic description of how the squirrel’s toes felt as they dug into her scalp. Then she told me the whole thing was my fault because I wasn’t home to protect the family when it happened. Apparently being away earning a living was not an acceptable excuse. She also said she learned a valuable lesson that day. “Not to leave the back door open?” I guessed. No, the lesson was that all squirrels are evil and out to get her. (She also decided that she doesn’t like “any animal related to squirrels,” whatever that means.)
From: Matt Smith
Subject: OC without the D
Date: April 30, 2010
Dear Bob and Sue,
We’re getting ready for our parks trip, so I made a list of things I need to carry in my backpack. I like being prepared. Karen thinks I over-prepare; she calls this my OCD. I correct her every time, telling her, “I’m OC, without the D.” (I do not have a disorder.)
Karen shouldn’t complain; she benefits from my OC. When we’re traveling and need a flashlight, I have one. When we need a bottle opener, I have two. (I carry two in case I lose one. I hid a third in Karen’s backpack just in case I lose both of mine.) There’s no “D,” and I wish she would stop saying it.
Today Karen saw my list on our dresser. I was trying to keep her from seeing it because she makes fun of my lists. With a straight face, she started to ask me a question about it, but before the question came out, she looked like she was going to cry and covered her face with her hands. She laughed so hard she couldn’t speak and walked out of the room. Ten minutes later she came back. As soon as she saw me: crying face, hands up, walked out of the room.
Why is this funny? We’re going into the wilderness and need to be prepared. If I don’t have a list, I’ll forget something, and then what? What if we need duct tape and don’t have any? What would we do? Probably not survive, that’s what.
If she thinks I’m going to share my stuff with her when we’re out in the wild, she’s mistaken. Maybe if I need her body warmth, I’ll barter.
I want to travel light, so I’m keeping my list to the bare minimum: snacks, emergency space blanket, zip lock bags, analog compass, sunglasses, binoculars, postcard stamps, sunscreen, chap stick with SPF 15 or higher, bug spray, Purell, bottle opener, Advil, liquid bandage, dental floss, finger and/or toenail clippers, reading glasses, peppermint patties, extra house keys, 30′ section of nylon cord (I don’t know why I need this, but it’s on all the lists of things to have in case of an emergency), medical tape, wet wipes, extra flashlight batteries, napkins, water, snacks, GPS, extra batteries for the GPS, scissors, tweezers, tick remover, small roll of duct tape, Imodium A-D, small tripod, camera, backup bottle opener, knife, fire starter, bear spray, Spork (combination spoon/knife/fork), blister patch, snacks, gauze, earplugs, Dramamine and micro puff vest.
All that’s in Karen’s backpack is three wadded up Kleenexes, four and a half candy corns, the bottle opener I hid in there, two Corona Light bottle caps, and a tampon. It’s all a big joke until she needs something and doesn’t have it. Then my OC isn’t that funny. She better hope she doesn’t need my Imodium A-D on our flight to American Samoa. I’m not sure I’ll have any to spare.
Excerpted from "Dear Bob and Sue" by Matt and Karen Smith. Copyright © 0 by Matt and Karen Smith. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.