A Yearlong Adventure Through Our Country’s National Parks


by Debbie Stone




If you’ve ever thought of just leaving your current life behind and spending a year accomplishing something you’ve always yearned to do, you need to read “FERAL: Losing Myself and Finding My Way in America’s National Parks” by Emily Pennington.

The book, which is available now, is an inspiring travelogue and a candid and eloquent memoir, the result of Pennington’s experiences on a yearlong journey visiting all 62 U.S. National Parks. It was the fulfillment of a dream that had simmered in this freelance writer and self-dubbed “Brazen Backpacker” for many years.

The country’s national parks were a big part of Pennington’s life before she made the decision to quit her desk job as an executive assistant in L.A. and take to the road. She had always had a passion for nature and the parks had always provided her with a refuge and solace, especially when she needed a mental health tune-up. Being outdoors in such natural grandeur helped her clear her head, dig deep into her soul and gain perspective on her life. They provided the impetus to build herself back up again.

Plans started to take hold in 2018 when Pennington decided she wanted something bigger in regard to her adventure goals. She says, “I had always envied people I met who were able to save up, take a year off and travel the road,” she says. “I reckoned with a little careful planning I could likely do a more outdoorsy take on this rite of passage, so I saved up all my extra money, bought and built out a minivan with one of my oldest friends, and began planning a wild rumpus in America’s wilderness.”

Pennington’s friends and mom were supportive of the idea, though her mom wondered about her safety, as mothers tend to do. But everyone was used to her wild dreams and her wilderness wanderings. Plus, she had been an aerialist and a fire spinner in her mid-twenties, so her unconventional pursuits were no surprise to anyone.

As to the challenges that the author had to overcome prior to making her adventure a reality, she admits that financing took center stage. “I didn’t have many friends I could ask for relevant advice, so I had to play the guessing game of what my budget might be (she estimated $30,000) and how much extra I might need for emergencies and a nest egg when I returned home,” she explains. Spoiler alert: Pennington stuck to her budget, even when she opted to book two cheap motel rooms a week instead of one during a two-month period of time. She penny-pinched when it came to groceries and eating out, and almost always camped in free sites.

The second challenge was season-specific planning. Obviously, the most efficient way to see every national park would be to travel in a circle around the Lower 48 states and then take a plane to Alaska. Pennington, however, wanted to visit each park as close to its peak season as possible to obtain the best experiences, so she ended up mapping a somewhat crazy route that had her crisscrossing the country multiple times.

The author admits that she had fears before she left on her journey; the two biggest being that random cops or locals would wake her up in the middle of the night and make her move her van and/or that she would get injured while hiking alone and not have a way to communicate and get help. Fortunately, the latter was assuaged by her partner at the time, Adam, who bought her a Garmin inReach Mini for Christmas. The device is a palm-sized satellite communicator to maintain off-the-grid contact.

Pennington experienced numerous challenges during her time on the road, from a shattering break-up with someone she had hoped to marry and becoming dangerously ill to constant changes and adjustments to her best-laid plans and overriding mounting anxiety.

The author’s mental health became a priority and in order to move forward, she had to focus on her self-care and learn to self-soothe in times of crisis. Getting serious about her personal well-being, however, made her a more resilient and compassionate person.

When issues and difficulties arose she somehow managed to keep going. “Honestly,” she admits, “I think I wanted to prove to myself that I had what it takes to grit my teeth through something really difficult, even if it meant losing sleep or making big sacrifices. I wanted to get to know my country in a new and deep way, from the literal ground up, and hear what each place had to offer.”

The journey taught Pennington that even as a goal-focused, free-spirited adventurous person, she craved home and a “safe landing pad.” And that’s ok. She says, “It’s okay to be a mile-crushing granola girl one weekend and sit inside reading and ordering takeout with your partner the next.” She adds, “I also began to allow myself to stop trying to ‘achieve’ in every park, and instead, simply exist and let the landscape wash over me. Sixty-two parks is a lot, and I wouldn’t have gotten through them all without pausing for a break now and then.”


Pennington’s favorite parks were Gates of the Arctic in Alaska, Capital Reef in Utah, and Big Bend in West Texas. The first blew her away with the fall colors of the tundra and the remote, trail-free wilderness. Capital Reef surprised her because it had the same beautiful sandstone rock formations as Zion, but was far less crowded, which was a definite plus. And Big Bend, in her words, was a “stunner,” full of river canyons and incredible views, and large expanses of the Chihuahuan Desert.

On the flip side, she was disappointed in Missouri’s Gateway Arch National Park. “I have something of a vendetta against Gateway Arch,” explains Pennington, “because it’s tiny and in the middle of downtown St. Louis. I believe it was the National Parks subcommittee that recommended it as a National Monument to Congress, which is fair, but then our former president helped push it through as a national park, where it sticks out like a sore thumb with its urbanity.”

As she traveled from park to park, the author saw pervasive signs of climate change. She mentions that it wasn’t only issues like the drought in California and rapidly calving glaciers in Alaska, but significant catastrophic events that presented challenges to her trip. “2020 was the worst wildfire season in the history of the American West,” she notes, “which gutted my plans to backpack in North Cascades, but it was also a strange and late hurricane season, which derailed both my Biscayne and Dry Tortugas trips in mid-November.”

When it comes to offering advice or pearls of wisdom to others wanting to do a similar adventure, Pennington says, “Get ready for a mental transformation the likes of which you’ve never seen. Quitting my job to travel for a year was easily the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It wasn’t a 24/7 vacation; it was more like an initiation.” She adds, “But in hindsight, it was also one of the most rewarding and life-affirming things I’ve ever done because it reminded me of my ability to grind it out through tough times and of my innate strength and deep well of compassion.”

For women traveling solo, Pennington recommends telling at least one person where you’re going and roughly what time you plan to be back – when hiking, as well as camping and traveling. She suggests investing in a portable GPS communication device and bringing a travel-sized first aid kit when you hike or backpack on your own. Lastly, she says, “Don’t sweat it if you have to camp at a brightly-lit truck stop to feel safe, rather than an Instagram-worthy campsite. The mountains will always be there tomorrow.”

In retrospect, when examining what she could have done differently, Pennington muses that ideally, she wouldn’t have accidentally scheduled a year of travel at the same time as a global pandemic. But, she knows she was extremely lucky, as after two months of complete shutdown, the outdoors was the safest place to be. It allowed her the room to breathe and stretch and be more mobile than her friends back in L.A.

Additionally, the author thinks if money was no object, she would have liked to have done the journey over the course of 18-24 months. “I sometimes felt rushed in certain parks, which was the opposite of my goal of slowing down and listening deeply to nature,” she comments.

When asked what Pennington would like readers to take away from her story, she emphasizes that you don’t have to be a pro athlete or “some big, macho dude” to embark on an extensive journey. “You can do it while scared,” she says. “You can do it while anxious. I did. The ancestral secrets that nature will whisper to you are invaluable. They are the ultimate salve for the world-worn and city-sore.”

The author has a few big ideas floating around in her head when it comes to future adventures -like a year-long road trip to the tip of Patagonia to practice her Spanish for one. But for now, she’s thrilled to be home.

Debbie Stone is an established travel writer and columnist, and regular contributor for Big Blend Radio and Big Blend Magazines, who crosses the globe in search of unique destinations and experiences to share with her readers and listeners. She’s an avid explorer who welcomes new opportunities to increase awareness and enthusiasm for places, culture, food, history, nature, outdoor adventure, wellness, and more. Her travels have taken her to nearly 100 countries and all seven continents.

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