Welcome to newest Blue Ridge Outdoors online series, ‘Off the Beaten Path’, where we showcase the many inspirational folks from across the Blue Ridge who have stepped away from the mainstream path of everyday existence to live a more intentional and adventurous life. From thru-hikers and van-lifers to off-the-grid warriors and tiny house disciples, we’ll be bringing you the true stories behind some of the region’s most interesting and inspiring characters.
First up is former Virginia resident Darius Nabors. Back in June Darius set out with his friend Trevor Kemp on an epic quest to visit all of America’s 59 national parks in 59 weeks. It took a while, but we finally tracked Darius down while he and Trevor were refueling from recent adventures at a coffee shop in Alaska. Here’s what he had to say about #59in59, the interesting places he’s slept while on the road, his wildlife encounters along the way, and everything in between.
BRO: How did the idea of #59in59 come to fruition?
Darius: I grew up in Fort Collins, Colorado, which is about an hour away from Rocky Mountain National Park. My childhood was spent hiking and visiting other nearby parks in Utah, Texas, Wyoming, and Montana. My dad was also a summer park ranger at Olympic National Park in Washington State.
As with most little boys, I liked to collect things, and when I was younger it was basketball cards. In the back of my mind I have always wanted to ‘collect’ every National Park by visiting each. Fast forward to 24-year-old me: I had graduated from college and worked as an elementary school teacher in South Dakota and was just starting to work for the University of Virginia. National Geographic came to visit UVA and advertised a grant called the Young Explorer Grant.
They grant funded people to go on expeditions. In my mind it was obvious, go visit all 58 National Parks [this was prior to Pinnacles being added in 2013]. At the time, I didn’t really have everything organized and didn’t have enough money to make it happen. There is an email to my dad from August, 2010, in which I talk about the trip and the idea.
Fast forward 5 more years. I’m 29, and I’m still living and working in Charlottesville and no closer to visiting all the National Parks. With the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service in August of 2016 I decided that it was time to just make it happen. We can spend our lives planning out our dreams, or we can spend our time living them. I decided to start living them. I recruited my friend Trevor to join me, we did some crowdfunding, and here we are in Alaska with 9 parks under our belt!
BRO: How has the idea evolved since you initially conceived it?
Darius: It’s actually funny, the idea hasn’t really evolved that much since that August 2010 email to my dad. Here is one of the things I emailed my dad:
“I’m also trying to give myself a list of things that I would have to do in every park:
1. One day awake for a sunrise.
2. One day watch the sunset.
3. One hike.
4. One full day of volunteering at the park.
5. One time in a body of water.”
So far we’ve done 1,2,3 and, 5 in each park. 4 has been a bit more difficult to coordinate, although we did help a park ranger change a flat tire once. The main thing that has changed, though, is the technology to make it successful. Instagram didn’t exist. Periscope and Meerkat also hadn’t yet been created. Crowdfunding was in its infancy. Many of the platforms that will make our trip accessible to more people were developed in the last 5 years and they give us the opportunity to reach, interact, and communicate with a much broader audience. I guess it’s good I sat on the idea for 5 years!
BRO: Last time we talked to you were in a coffee shop in the great state of Montana. Where are you now and where are you headed next?
Darius: A coffee shop in Alaska! Coffee shops are the most reliable when it comes to internet and caffeine. Our routine is kind of like this: Go on an adventure and take lots of pictures, return from adventure, reload on food, attempt to lock down a shower, and do some laundry, go to a coffee shop and upload photos/blog, repack our stuff, go on an adventure.
Our next adventure will take us North. We are driving from Fairbanks, Alaska up the Dalton Highway to Gates of the Arctic National Park. Gates is not only one of the most remote parks, it is one of the most remote places in the world. After Gates we will continue 200 more miles up the Dalton highway to Deadhorse and Prudhoe Bay to see where Alaskan oil comes from. The road is not known for being friendly to vehicles, it pops tires and shatters windshields. We are hoping to escape both of those potential problems and return to Fairbanks unscathed. The predicted weather in Deadhorse at this time of year is hovering between 40-33 degrees, I guess that’s summer in the Arctic!
BRO: What parks have you visited so far?
Darius: We’ve been to Cuyahoga Valley in Ohio, Isle Royale in Michigan, Voyageurs in Minnesota, Teddy Roosevelt in North Dakota, Montana’s Glacier National Park, Wrangell St. Elias in Alaska, Lake Clark – Alaska, Katmai – Alaska, the Kenai Fjords, also in Alaska.
BRO: Are you mostly camping in the national parks?
Darius: When we are in the parks we are always camping. Whether it is a backcountry spot, or an actual campground, our nights are spent on inflatable sleeping pads in sleeping bags.
BRO: What about on the road between destinations?
Darius: Between destinations we are camping as well. We look for state parks, Canadian National Parks (on the drive to Alaska) or other units of the National Park Service. In the first 2 months we have slept in beds 4 times. One of those times was next to a dirt runway for planes in Lake Clark National Park where we found some old mattresses that had an orange spray painted sign advertising ‘FREE’. We interpreted to mean FREE BEDS and looked favorably on the runway aspect, as the first plane to take off would serve as a free alarm clock for our 9am flight back to Anchorage.
BRO: How are you liking the mobile lifestyle?
Darius: It’s what you would expect. It’s like living in a studio apartment, but your pickup truck is the studio. We rarely stay in the same campground two nights in a row, so we are packing up our beds basically every night. If you want dinner you have to pull out the kitchen bin and either set up the stove, or start a fire. We are constantly moving things in the back of the truck. Move the cooler out to grab the food bin, put the cooler back.
Move the backpack to get the tent, put the backpack back. It’s like Tetris with your personal possessions. We also have become wi-fi fiends. By this I mean that we will pull in and get gas and immediately ascertain if there is free wi-fi. If there is then we are using every moment to sap out moments to post photos, text friends and stay in touch with family. On one hand we probably look like we are incapable of living without our handheld devices, on the other hand we have internet so infrequently that there is this constant need to do and post more for others to enjoy.
BRO: Has it been liberating living on the road?
Darius: There are parts that are liberating. Everything you have and need is in the truck behind you. We are constantly looking for ways to simply our life. Can we take out fewer things from the truck? Can we prepare food in a way that reduces the amount of dishes that we have to clean? (Yes: put a tortilla in your bowl before you eat out of it!) Often times our agenda for the day is to get to the top of a mountain for a good view.
Our struggles are the sun being in the wrong position for us to take a video of jumping into a glacial lake without glare. It’s certainly liberating and freeing. That being said, those beds on the side of the runway were one of the most comfortable places I have slept in my entire life. The little conveniences are so enjoyable when you aren’t used to them every day. Hot water, showers, laundry, these are things that are very difficult for us.
BRO: Do you have a favorite park so far?
Darius: Each park is so different, but they all have valuable things to provide. I could give favorites for more specific items, like favorite waterfalls, favorite hike, favorite place to swim, etc.
BRO: Tell us about some of you wildlife encounters?
Darius: There are three that come to mind. The first I will tell about is in Katmai National Park in Alaska. We were in the visitor center watching a video about the history of the park, and as we were sitting there, a momma and grizzly cub came right next to the window of the visitor center. They were between 5-10 feet away from us.
It’s incredible to be so close to such a big predator. You expect something that is going to be vicious, and instead they are just curious. The momma bear went up to the flag pole and started playing around with the rope holding up the flag. The cub was also entertaining to watch because he would observe his mom before jumping into any activity. She would start swimming across the river and he would wait on shore watching until she was far enough away that he realized he had to follow.
Our second encounter was perhaps one of my favorite wildlife encounters in my life. We were hiking in the backcountry of Glacier up over a pass to get to our campground for the night. As a group of 5, we approached a cut in the rock where we had to climb up with both hands and feet when a marmot came screaming down the hill.
When I say screaming, I mean both the speed at which he was running and the noise that he was making. There was an ear piercing REEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE that lasted 2-3 seconds. Alan, who was at the front of our group came face to face with the marmot as the marmot climbed higher up on a rock. Alan backed up, held up his hiking poles to keep it at a distance, the marmot REEEEEEEEEEd again, and then ran away. We were all a little nervous at this point. Had the marmot made a sacrificial attack to save the other marmots? Or was this the attack call to bring out other marmots? We continued our hike and encounctered other marmots but were not similarly charged.
Finally, in Lake Clark Trevor and I stepped near some bees and both got stung. Quite unpleasant. Considering that neither of us had been stung in 10-15 years, it was an interesting and painful thing to feel again.
BRO: Most impressive natural feature?
Darius: The Valley of 10,000 Smokes, no contest. In 1912, Novarupta experienced the largest volcanic eruption in the 20th century. Mount Saint Helens unloaded 0.1 cubic miles of pumice and ash. Krakatoa unloaded 2 cubic miles of material and Novarupta exploded 3 cubic miles of material. This means that Novarupta was 30 times larger than Mount Saint Helens and 150% of the size of Krakatoa. Next to the volcano sit 700 feet of ash.
The Statute of Liberty is 305-feet tall, so it would have covered it twice over. The Eiffel Tower is 986-feet tall, so you would have just barely seen the top after being covered in ash. You have this valley that was verdant and green and full of wildlife. The volcano erupts and it is covered in ash, everything dies. Everything. The salmon run didn’t happen for 5 years as the cloud of ash created 3 days of darkness and inundated the water and land. More than 100 years later you go from classic Alaska scenery of spruce trees, alders and fireweed to a dead valley.
The appropriately named River Lethe has cut a path through the ash the looks as if it will be the future Grand Canyon and the river water can be far deeper than you’d expect as ash is far lighter than sand and the river has cut through the land like a knife through butter. It’s such a strange sight to go from a forest to the moon in a matter of 4 miles. There are foot prints present throughout the land and you have no way of knowing how long they have been there, 1 day, 1 week, a month? The land looks dead and the yellow, orange, red and purple rocks create a magnificent view.
If you look closely, you can see the valley start to return there is moss and lichen starting to take hold where the mountains are slowly sloughing off dirt and soil. In other places, smaller plants and trees have started to take hold and spread out into the Valley. I hope that they return soon, because when the wind comes over the pass, it rips through the valley and is a force to be reckoned with when you have a full backpack on your back.
BRO: What’s next after this journey?
Darius: Only time will tell! Directly after the journey I will be looking for at least a couple of nights in a warm bed, tea heated up in a microwave and some lasagna cooked in an oven. After taking a hot shower I’ll decide if it is time to cut the mustache, or if I’d prefer to keep traveling and encouraging others to do the same! I hear that tigers are difficult to see in the wild, or was it a snow leopard? Maybe 59in59 will go international!
BRO: Will you head back to Charlottesville?
Darius: Hopefully, there is so much good in Charlottesville. I know I’ll come back for a The Ghost American Pale Ale at Three Notch’d. After some stops at restaurants, a jog on the Rivanna and a reunion with friends, I’ll have to decide what kind of life I would like to lead!