When I was a kid growing up in Michigan I loved spending hours staring at maps and globes and memorizing geography facts. In the sixth grade I came in third place in a geography bee against seventh- and eighth-graders. But even though I loved learning about new places, I never made a connection between knowing places on paper and experiencing them in person.
In 2006 I was a relatively mature but jaded 29-year-old. At that point if you had asked me where I wanted to visit, I would have shrugged and said “Traveling seems stupid. You spend a lot of money and don’t gain anything material.” At that point I had only been to eleven US states and Ontario, and travel was never particularly alluring to me. It involved what seemed like a lot of time, money, driving, and hassle for relatively little reward. It seemed like the acquisition of physical goods and accumulation of wealth was more worthwhile.
That all started to change from 2008-2010 when I was completing my non-traditional (i.e. I was old) BA degrees in geology and biology at Adrian College. Most of my geology courses and some of my biology courses involved a field work component, and those trips were pivotal in my thinking about travel.
In the spring of 2008 I went on an advanced geology field course out to the American southwest. In Arizona we visited Petrified Forest National Park, Grand Canyon National Park, Saguaro National Park, Sunset Crater National Monument and Wupatki National Monument. In New Mexico we saw Carlsbad Caverns National Park, White Sands National Monument and Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument. It was an unprecedentedly huge expedition for me, involving up to 34 hours of continuous and rotating team-driving, a week’s worth of camping, and a whirlwind tour of some of the most fascinating places on earth. We not only saw some gorgeous landscapes, we learned about their geology, biology and history and got to “put faces with names.” We also traveled through Native American reservations, ate at historic Navajo trading posts, listened to Hopi public radio, and got a real sense for traditional life in the southwest.
In autumn of 2008 our mineralogy class took a trip out to Arkansas where we saw the effects of the 300-million-year-old Ouachita Orogeny. We dug for a variety of local minerals like pyrite, quartz, kyanite, wavellite and brookite, got quizzed about their chemical compositions and crystal structures, and camped for several days along the scenic Lake Ouachita. Along the way we ate platefuls of southern barbecue and saw cotton fields expand across the horizon.
In the spring of 2010 I went on another advanced field course in geology to the American west. This time we saw Death Valley National Park in California, Zion National Park and Arches National Park in Utah, and revisited Grand Canyon, Petrified Forest, Sunset Crater, and Wupatki in Arizona. I never would have imagined I would have seen and learned about Death Valley in person, and I really never would have imagined I would have seen the Grand Canyon not once, but twice in one lifetime.
During this time other day trips for botany, entomology, and biostratigraphy courses would build my appreciation for the diversity of organisms both present and past and incorporate them into my greater understanding of earth history. It was really a special time in my education about the world where geology, biology, geography, culture, and travel all came together in one grand vision about what global exploration really had to offer. From that point on I would, with my wife in tow, set about experiencing as many new places as possible.
In the five years since we’ve managed to see 48/50 of the US states, Canada, Mexico, Bermuda, Japan, China, and Spain. We’ve visited 46 of the 47 national parks in the continental US as well as national parks in other countries. We’ve seen some of the most iconic landscapes and wildlife to be found in the United States and learned a lot about them and ourselves along the way.
We’re lucky in that three main things have worked together to help us explore as much as possible. First I’m self-employed, so at certain times of the year when things are slow there’s extra time and money to travel. Second my wife enters a fair number of contests, and some of our trips have been prizes. Third when money or time is tight, we aren’t afraid to get resourceful to make things happen. Some of our best trips have been relatively close and relatively inexpensive, involving car camping and eating exclusively what we bring along. For little more than the cost of gas and food we’ve had some good times.
Looking back it’s funny how radically my views on travel have changed in less than ten years. Now instead of accumulating physical objects and money, my wife I seek to collect experiences and memories. Although we’ve already seen enough for two or three lifetimes and I could die with a sense of satisfaction at any time, the wanderlust that has developed within me shows no sign of abating. There are still places I want to see in the continental US. I also want to explore Alaska, Hawaii, more of the Caribbean, Canada, Mexico, and a number of places around the globe. Of particular interest to me are Scotland, Norway, Botswana, Namibia, Chile, Australia, New Zealand, and Antarctica. I don’t know if I’ll ever get to see all of those places, but it’s certainly exciting to be a kid again with maps and a globe, and knowing that actually visiting those far-flung places is now within the realm of possibility.