Travel

KC couple quit their jobs to visit all 59 national parks as ‘The Switchback Kids’

Cole and Elizabeth Donelson, both 26, left Kansas City in August to spend one year visiting all 59 national parks.
Cole and Elizabeth Donelson, both 26, left Kansas City in August to spend one year visiting all 59 national parks. Courtesy the Donelsons

Cole and Elizabeth Donelson quit their jobs, sold all their furniture, put their wedding gifts and other sentimental keepsakes in storage, and on Aug. 18 set out from Kansas City on the trip of their young lives.

Between now and next August, they plan to visit all 59 U.S. national parks, sharing their adventures on social media and, they hope, inspiring others — especially their peers — to partake of the great outdoors.

Oh the things they’ve seen so far.

The early morning fog in the Great Smoky Mountains. The picture-postcard sunrise at Cadillac Mountain in Maine. Pools of crystal-clear water at Zion National Park in Utah.

At Niagara Falls, Elizabeth grinned and clapped like a birthday girl when she felt the mist on her face.

At the top of Wheeler Peak in Great Basin National Park, they looked down on yellow Aspen trees just beginning to change into their fall colors.

And they probably know the Starbucks menu by heart now.

“We sometimes spend an embarrassing amount of time hanging out at Starbucks because we’re blogging,” Cole said.

A few days ago he wanted to kayak at the Everglades, but Elizabeth was less eager. She’s not a big fan of “unpredictable” wild things like bears — and alligators. But she is a good sport.

So she kayaked with her husband through the mangrove-clogged waters, watching for alligators around every corner, hoping one wouldn’t try to climb aboard.

“I’m kind of a homebody in general,” Elizabeth said. “So this is a big challenge for me.”

Spending Thanksgiving on the road last week away from loved ones challenged them, too.

Thank goodness for Golden Corral, they told people following them at @switchbackkids on Twitter and on Facebook.

“One of the big goals of our trip is not just to have a personal adventure but to share our adventure with everyone we can,” Cole said. “People hear that you’re going off on a year of travel, and they immediately think, ‘I could never do that.’

“Honestly, we were really lucky with how things fell into place. But I challenge people to at least consider that whatever your dream is ... think about it. It might be more possible than you think.”

Cole and Elizabeth found out how “possible” this trip is when they started their research and found online that another couple - another husband-and-wife team from the KC area of all places - had already done it.

Don and Shelly Hafner, who live in Johnson County, set out to visit all 59 parks on April 1, 2014 and finished their trip on June 5, 2015. They chronicled their year-long trip on Twitter, too, using the hashtag @59NationalParks.

Shelly Hafner, an avid photographer, created a portfolio along the way of images of the parks “that we don’t think many people have,” said Don Hafner.

They completed their trip in an RV, which they used to access 41 of the 59 parks; the rest of the parks they reached by plane. They advised Cole and Elizabeth before the younger couple set out.

The Donelsons both grew up in the St. Louis area — he in Wildwood, she in Washington. They met at the University of Missouri, where he was a business and journalism major and she majored in education. They graduated in 2012.

Jobs brought them to Kansas City, and they got married about a year later. Until they both quit to take this trip, Elizabeth was teaching sixth grade in the Park Hill School District and Cole was working at Cerner.

They’re both outdoorsy. One day on a hike they started talking about bucket lists and realized they both wanted someday to visit all the country’s national parks, not realizing at the time that there are 59 of them — “90 percent we had never heard of before,” Cole said.

“Then somehow it evolved into the crazy idea of the visiting all those parks within one year,” Cole wrote on their blog. “This year of full park immersion would be full of backpacking, trail cooking, kayaking, mountain biking, camping 6 nights a week and any other adventures that come our way.

“And finally we decided our best option was to take the most irresponsible and non-conventional step of our lives: press pause on our careers and take on the challenge and adventure of our lives. Carpe diem style.”

They dubbed themselves “The Switchback Kids” and created a website and a Facebook page where people can follow them. Their Instagram page is stuffed with photos.

They spent a year and a half planning the trip, keeping the idea to themselves at first, Elizabeth said.

Cole is the money guy. So his first and biggest concern was whether this dream trip was even possible. “We worked out the numbers and finally decided yes, this is possible,” he said.

They decided they would need about $20,000, “which is pretty ambitious, but we’re still trying to make that happen,” he said. “It might be $20,000 to $25,000 in the end.”

They both worked second jobs to make extra money. He spent weekend nights driving for Uber while Elizabeth refinished furniture and sold crafts and home decor online.

They needed gear. Lots of gear. They bought it “in a fairly cheap way,” he said, by shopping REI online garage sales and Cyber Monday sales.

They scored free stuff by soliciting sponsorships from gear manufacturers. Garmin, for instance, gave them Vivofit activity trackers and Fenix GPS watches.

“Actually we sent out a lot of emails because we didn’t know if people would be interested in what we were doing ... or would just think it was a couple of kids taking a vacation,” he said.

They had to ditch their unreliable used Ford Fiesta for a newer Ford Escape, but even that has given them a few headaches in recent days.

They needed plane tickets, too, to get to the parks in the Virgin Islands, where they were headed on Tuesday, and later Hawaii and American Samoa.

“We were able to use different travel hacks, like signing up for credit cards and getting ... bonus mileage,” Cole said. “We got the Virgin Islands and Hawaii flights for free.”

So far, about a fourth of the way into the trip, they’ve only paid for six hotel stays. They’ve stayed with family and friends around the country about a dozen times, and spent a handful of free nights couch surfing with people they found on CouchSurfing.com.

Even a stranger’s house was more comfortable than the leaky inflatable sleeping pad that has been keeping them awake as they camp.

“But I think that’s part of why we wanted to do this,” Cole said. “We wanted to challenge ourselves and do something that would test our limits, that when we finished we could be proud of what we had accomplished.”

They only eat out one or two times a week when they get tired of fixing meals on a camp stove. They grocery shop and carry perishables like meat in an ice-filled cooler. They eat eggs for breakfast, granola bars if they’re in a hurry; sandwiches for lunch. They’ve made tacos, chili and Ramen noodles with sausage for dinner.

So far the weather hasn’t been much hindrance because they planned around it.

“You don’t want to be in Glacier National Park on the border of Canada when it’s January,” Cole said. “Not just because you’d be cold and miserable, but a lot of the parks close specific areas in the season. Sometimes they close the whole park.”

They already ran into one glitch at Isle Royale National Park on Lake Superior when they didn’t realize that the ferry running to the park stops at the beginning of October, “and we were trying to get in in the middle of October,” Cole said. “So when we saw that, we had to do a whole re-route of our second leg.”

The first stop on their trip was at Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado. From there they looped through the Southwest, back to Kansas City and St. Louis to catch up with family and friends, then headed to parks in the Northeast before the cold set in.

From Maine they worked down the East Coast, through Virginia and South Carolina to Florida. “We basically raced the winter weather down to Florida,” Cole said.

The trip has not only tested their resourcefulness, “but it’s definitely a big relationship test to travel with anyone, even for a short amount of time,” Elizabeth said.

They counted up that in the first six weeks of their trip they spent only six hours apart from each other. One thing they’ve gotten good at: disagreeing.

“You can’t put off an argument,” Elizabeth said. “You can’t just leave the room, or leave the car or leave the tent.”

They will stay in the Virgin Islands for the next nine days — the longest stay of their trip — and Elizabeth is ready.

As much as she enjoys hiking and biking around mountains, she loves warm beaches more.

Perhaps the best part?

No alligators.

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