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University of Missouri

Parks & Trek

Alumni couple visits all 59 U.S. national parks in one year.

couple at Grand Canyon

Mizzou alumni Cole and Elizabeth Donelson at the Grand Canyon, one of the 59 national parks the couple visited during a year-long adventure.

As baby boomer bucket lists go, visiting all 59 U.S. national parks sounds like a solid long-term goal that outdoorsy types might fit in around a lifetime of career aspirations and family plans.

But in 2016, at least two members of the younger millennial generation decided to cut to the chase, quitting their jobs, packing a tent and refueling the Ford Escape for a 12-month mission to visit all the parks during National Park Service’s centennial. The Donelsons — Cole, BS BA, BJ ’12, and Elizabeth, BS Ed ’12 — narrated their adventure on the switchbackkids.com blog. The journey was scheduled to end Aug. 25 among family and friends in their hometown of St. Louis at the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial (aka The Arch).

The peregrination commenced when Cole and Elizabeth, then living in Kansas City, resigned from jobs in information technology and teaching, respectively. Ever since, they’ve hiked, snowshoed, cross-country skied, canoed and kayaked their way through nature’s passing show in 27 states, tenting roughly four nights per park. They’ve collected rare moments.

During a hike in Yellowstone Park, they came upon a family whose hobby it is to observe wolves from afar and monitor their numbers. “They had a telescope trained on a den, and it was cool to see pups emerge when the mom came back,” Cole says. “I had never seen a wolf in the wild before, and it’s a very unusual thing.”

In Maine, the couple marveled at the mountainous deciduous forest of Acadia National Park, which is set along the ocean. “We were there in fall, and being from Missouri, we weren’t expecting much. But there were trees everywhere, and the colors were so vivid. The interplay of trees bursting with reds, oranges and yellows contrasted with the dark rock and blue water was just wonderful,” Cole says.

The trip has been life-changing, life-affirming, Cole says. The couple has decided to move back home to St. Louis and pursue education for new careers — he in business, she in graphic design. Their priorities are clear: “We know now after living out of the car and still using just a fraction of the things we carried that experiences are far more important than possessions,” Cole says. From now on, pursuing their passions will be the focus of their lives together.