Visiting all 59 national parks in the U.S. and its territories in 52 weeks in an airstream sounds like an impossible adventure to many. But several people have already been on the road doing exactly that because of the centennial anniversary of the National Park Service.
Jonathan Irish, a professional outdoor, adventure, and travel photographer, and Stefanie Payne, his partner who worked as a creative product development leader for NASA, quit their jobs to pursue this quest, and they would be the first ones to tell you they also thought it was impossible.
“Ironically, it’s not as hard as you think to just go but you must have a plan,” Jonathan says. Having savings in your bank account or partners, as is the case with this trip, helps.
They call this adventure the “Greatest American Road Trip.” But the first word that comes to mind when you ask them how they’re feeling is “tired, oh my Gosh.” “It’s a combination of being very happy to be in the parks but also very tired. I don’t even know if we’re conscious of how fast we’re moving,” he adds.
Jonathan and Stefanie are purposefully ending the trip in Hawaii. “We are going to sit on the beach and do nothing for a month,” Jonathan says.
“We’ve had very few fights,” Jonathan says. “Every once in a while we’ll have a spat, of course.” But the thing is – there is no one else on this trip but the two of them. “We’re each other’s main supporter,” Stefanie says, “and we have to get along.” That’s why they are able to squash things really quickly. So it turns out, it’s possible to not be angry at others for a long time.
“We are like snails with our home on our back,” Jonathan says. “This is a full size apartment in New York,” he jokes. They are traveling in Airstream's Pendleton model. He loves having a queen size bed on the road (See some life hacking tips if you can't bring your own bed). “It’s nice to sleep there.” Stefanie loves the fact that she has a whole size fridge and is able to cook. “Cooking makes you feel like you’re at home,” she adds.
“There is no rest for the weary on this trip,” Jonathan says. But you still have find time to relax and regroup. Even though they sleep only about five hours a night, they drive a lot, allowing each other more rest. This is one of Stefanie’s favorite parts about this adventure. “I actually like the time in the car,” she says. “It gives us some time off and to process the content. We listen to a lot of podcasts.”
You would think that being on the road all the time will have its challenges…and you’d be right. “We had a flat tire once, but it was not while we were on the road,” Jonathan says. “It was a fun experience.” This has been the most serious emergency they’ve had. Extensive planning before hitting the road pays off.
“We’ve been thinking about this whole concept of the kindness of strangers,” Jonathan says. During the flat tire emergency, he says, the tire was not easily coming off the wheel and he didn’t know what to do. “We’re in the back country and suddenly this guy comes with his dog and helped us out.” One time they were hiking but the trails and signs were covered in 3 ft. of snow. There was no one around except this one couple who was coming back and pointed them the right way. Another time Stefanie got stung in the eye on the trail and a family “totally came to my rescue.” “People were always helpful,” Jonathan adds. “We must have little halos like angles.”
Contrary to maybe what married couples would thing, the biggest problem on a trip like this is not spending literally every minute together. “There are not enough hours in the day,” Jonathan says. “We really want to explore the parks and make really good content, well-thought out and edited,” he adds, but this doesn’t happen in a flash. “We don’t always get to experience a place in the best weather. I’d have liked to see Shenandoah in the summer or fall but we were there when half the park was closed.” But he saw amazing frozen waterfalls (See the world's most beautiful waterfalls).
They are all special in their own way, both Jonathan and Stefanie say. But one of the most memorable experiences so far was the Rim to Rim hike of the Grand Canyon. “It’s a madhouse at the top with so many people but as soon as you get down to the valley, it’s a special experience, nobody is down there, only the raging Colorado river.”
For Stefanie, it’s the Death Valley National Park, a must-see this spring. “I’ve lived in LA for 5 years and never had a desire to go there." They went during the wildflower “super bloom.” “It’s so diverse, my mind was absolutely blown away,” she adds.
Stefanie won’t forget the first park on this trip – the Everglades (see why you need to visit it too). “We went canoe camping in the backcountry and we had no idea what was in store for us,” she says. “They tell you get a map and a compass and not to rely on a GPS, but the mangrove trees kind of move and we ended up taking the wrong turn several time. It was really difficult but so fun," she adds.
For Jonathan, the most fun experience is being continuously amazed by some of the parks. Take Petrified Forest, for example. It has some of the most mind-blowing colors found in nature. “Hardly anyone goes, but it’s one of those amazing parks,” he says. “You’re holding this 200-million-year-old thing that was once a tree and is now a crystal rock. “We had no idea that is what that park was about.”
The hardest hiking trail for Stefanie was in the Great Basin National Park in Nevada. “It was the first high altitude hike and I was really short of breath,” she says. “It was under snow, 10 miles long and 11,000 ft. in elevation.” Jonathan was challenged by the hike to The Subway in Zion National Park, which can be dangerous. “It’s a crazy hike. It’s only 9 miles but it’s very hard to hike over the rock. It required a lot of scrabbling. So I was struggling.”
“He is my favorite person, so being able to spend significant time together on a really cool adventure, I really try to step aside and remember that when I’m missing friends, family or my job,” Stefanie says. Also, she is a content professional, so having complete creative freedom on this project is like a dream come true. Jonathan adds that he doesn’t take for granted the fact that they get to see every park. “It’s a really special collection of experience and photographs; really amazing.”
“I always feel like we’re behind,” Stefanie says. “I like to finish the work I’m doing and not let opportunities slip by and I’m watching them slip by because I know we can’t do everything.” But this is just the nature of this trip, the say, and they would not have it any other way.
Alcohol, both Jonathan and Stefanie say at the same time. But they also have beef jerky (protein), Advil, salty snacks, survival blanket, and water filter in case they run out of bottled water and there are no stores around. “We don’t need much,” she adds. “We’re not too far off the trail so we have enough to get us by.” (Survival Myths that Could Actually Kill You) They always let friends know when they are going on big, deep hikes and never eat food found in the wilderness (Hiking: Surprising Survival Tips that Can Save Your Life). “We’re not that good to know,” Stefanie admits.
Jonathan says he is not sure people should go on a journey that is so extensive. “I’d say go out and do one or two weeks at a local park or somewhere you’ve never been. What we’re doing is a little crazy but it’s a crazy anniversary,” he adds. “We’re just looking to inspire people to go to any park and celebrate what is our greatest national treasure.” But, after all, “life is too short not to live bravely.” Every once in a while you have to shake things up.