Women Who Travel Podcast What It's Like to Visit Every U.S. National Park
Women Who Travel

Women Who Travel Podcast: What It's Like to Visit Every U.S. National Park

Lale sits down with Condé Nast Traveler contributor and author Emily Pennington to chat about her memoir ‘Feral: Losing Myself and Finding My Way in America’s National Parks.’

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Everyone should aim to spend at least a little time in some of America’s 63 National Parks, home to places like Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, and Acadia, Maine. But few people have gotten to see as much of them as guest Emily Pennington, a regular Condé Nast Traveler contributor and author of Feral: Losing Myself and Finding My Way in America’s National Parks. Emily chats with Lale about surrendering herself to the wilderness, witnessing the Northern Lights first hand, and the profound impact Alaska had on her. Plus we hear from listeners about their own National Park adventures.

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Lale Arikoglu: Hi. I'm Lale Arikoglu, and great to have you along for another journey with Women Who Travel. If you're lucky, you've gotten to experience some of the natural beauty found across America's 63 national parks, home to places like Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, and Acadia, Maine.

But few people have got to see as much of them as today's guest, Emily Pennington, a regular Conde Nast Traveler contributor and author who set herself a task at the start of 2020 that was, well, quite daunting.

Emily Pennington: I had this kind of big, unruly project that I gifted myself [laughs] of visiting every single U.S. national park in a year. And as you can imagine, the American landscape is as diverse as humanity and Americans themselves.

LA: In her memoir, Feral, Losing Myself and Finding My Way in America's National Parks, which came out this past February, Emily describes how her painstakingly planned odyssey was hit with a curve ball when COVID hit. Suddenly, she found herself grounded, and then needing to be open to spontaneity, changing her route constantly as things fell through.

EP: Basically, what happened was parks that I was going to spend a week in or weeks that I was going to have kind of a week off to mess around in Utah and just rest or write or do something not in a national park, you know, like go rock climbing, there were all these things that I wanted to do that were side trips that basically got axed immediately. And then things like Alaska had to get planned and replanned and canceled and replanned about three or four different times.

LA: A keen solo traveler, Emily did chunks of the trip alone, but she was also joined by her partner of two years, Adam, for portions of time.

EP: When you're thrown together in a tiny, you know, metal box on the road with someone for months at a time without, you know, getting to go work in a coffee shop or go to a store by yourself and kind of get some space from the other person.

COVID was really difficult for most people that I know who are in romantic relationships. I think that one of the most challenging things about long term relationships is the fact that humans are not a point on a map. You know, we're these kind of messy, ever shifting bundles of plans and dreams and emotions and traumas.

And I think that when you undertake a big rite of passage like being on the road for a yearlong trip, I think that you're basically inviting a high amount of change to take place in a short amount of time.

LA: For me, hiking has always been an opportunity to clear my head and get lost in my thoughts for a while. It's kind of meditative at times, but it's also obviously, first and foremost, a physical experience. For Emily, it became a more and more challenging one as she pushed her body to the limit across the wilderness.

EP: There's something really humbling about hiking for several days in a row not on trail. I think in the best possible way, it kind of conjures up the title of the book, which is Feral. I think it makes you have to crawl hand over foot on boulders and focus where your feet are going a lot more so you don't snap an ankle. There's not this, like, nice manmade path for you.

And so we hiked up into the Arrigetch Peaks, and they're these huge granite fins that look like something out of Lord of the Rings. It looks like you're carrying the ring to Mordor or something. [laughs] And we went up into the Aquarius Valley and saw three or four of the most insanely aquamarine, mirror clear alpine lakes that I've ever seen in my entire life.

And I think something about the entire emotional experience of getting there, hiking not on trails, plus the almost indescribably beautiful landscape made that a real standout park for me.

LA: You know, you talked about hiking off trail, which I love hiking, but that does sound more intrepid than the average hike in a national park. Physically, what does that feel like? You touched on how it kind of ties into the title of the book, but I mean, it must be really quite grueling.

EP: It is grueling. There's something really fascinating about our mind's ability to focus on things that we have evolved for thousands of years to focus on, like carefully scanning a landscape for hours on end while moving slowly through it.

I think that it can be strangely meditative but then also strangely exhausting, because the second that you stop for the evening and set your pack down, you are exhausted and ready to eat something and just plop onto your mattress. [laughs]

LA: There are lots of characters in your book, most of which are human, but there is also, I'd say, the character of your van, Gizmo.

EP: Yeah. This was not a $100,000 [laughs] Instagram van that you see.

LA: You weren't, you weren't-

EP: [laughs] If you see-

LA: ... living, like, van life. [laughs]

EP: No. [laughs] No. So combination of me not having $100,000 but also [laughs] being very aware of the mild hypocrisy of wanting to visit these beautiful, you know, protected landscapes in the middle of pretty severe climate change occurring, I wanted to get the smallest, most fuel efficient thing that I could. And I bought carbon offsets hoping that they would do something.

But in terms of, like, the financials of it, you know, I bought, like, a used van that had almost 100,000 miles on it for, like, $12,000 and built it out myself for, like, $2,500 with a friend. Like, this was not a fancy vehicle, but she did have a lot of love and heart thrown into her.

She had, like, these beautiful tapestries that were, like, embroidered together, ribbons that I picked up in India and Thailand that was dark burgundy that turned into her walls that was originally going to be part of this psychedelic [laughs] pixie tearoom that I built.

My dear friend Jack, who is a Burning Man friend, and he's, like, an old school hippie, he's very handy, much handier than I am, and he helped me hand stain the wood that became the inside of the doors.

And so she had this very, like, bohemian cabin feel on the inside and kind of this, like, strange white minivan that didn't look like much on the outside. And then I kind of just cobbled together some solar [laughs] energy and, like, basically Velcroed it to the top of the van.

LA: What did you discover [laughs] to be the most useful equipment you used? Was it a pee funnel? Was it a portable power station? You know, what were the really practical learnings you were figuring out whilst also going through this, like, huge emotional turmoil?

EP: [laughs] Yeah. I mean, listen. I think that the reason so many outdoor people love to nerd out on gear is because gear feels so emotionally essential when you're carrying it on your back and you need it to weigh nothing and be so strong and everlasting, because it is your safety and your comfort that you're going to lean on when you're on the trail.

Shocking piece of gear that I never really used until 2020 and haven't used too much since definitely was, a pee funnel was great because you know, when you're in a van that doesn't have a heater that can just turn on at night, well, actually, I guess the outside, [laughs] now that I think about it, the outside is going to be the same temperature as the inside of your van, so having the ability to stay relatively warm and out of the wind and elements so that you can, like, pee in a bottle, go back to sleep, was really, really nice.

I had this little... I don't know if I'm going to be able to remember the brand. It's basically a knockoff of, like, the Goal Zero power stations that are so easy if you don't know how to do electrician things. You can just plug in a USB or your laptop charger or whatever. I used that basically every day to power my lights and, you know, charge my phone and things that you need.

I had a little Garmin inReach Mini, which is a satellite texting device, which was really key for the moments where I didn't have cell phone service for maybe seven days in a row, and I was sleeping on a dirt road in the middle of the back country. Knowing that I could text someone and get them to call a mechanic if I got a flat tire if I got a flat tire in the middle of nowhere felt like a really important safety latch.

LA: I love the idea of the van rattling down the highway, and people passing it have no idea that inside it's, like, sort of coated in this drapery and sort of [laughs] like your, like, pixie teacup party fabric and all that stuff. It's brilliant.

EP: [laughs] Thanks. Yeah. She was designed to be stealth, I would say. I wanted to be able to park her in a parking lot, you know, legally, of course, but I still wanted to not be suspect or, you know, I wanted to be safe if I was sleeping alone in a rest area. So I kept her very white minivan kind of suburban friendly on the outside. And on the inside, she was, like, this little bohemian dream machine.

LA: You mentioned wanting her to be safe if you were sleeping alone in rest areas. How much were you factoring that into the way you planned your trip? You know, I think safety is something that kind of is top of mind for some travelers and not so much for others, especially, you know, when it comes to gender.

EP: You know, so much of what you see on Instagram of van life or, you know, outdoor camping influencers does feel like you're going to be sleeping with this amazing backdrop of mountains or canyons every single night. But the truth of the matter is, I think that when you're a woman especially traveling solo, for better or worse, there are considerations that you have to make for your safety.

So, yeah. So at the beginning, I would say that I pushed myself quite a lot harder. I drove at night more. I would drive, like, an hour outside of a park to go find, like, a cool free campsite.

And then towards the middle and the end of the book, I was pretty exhausted. It was a really high priority to feel safe when I was sleeping. My sleep started deteriorating just because of the anxiety, I think, of being on the road for so long.

And honestly, like, it's quite comfortable if your van is your home to be sleeping in rest areas or, you know, the occasional truck stop or Walmart parking lot, because there are 24 hour bathrooms. There can be a sense of safety in being surrounded by a small amount of people or community, even if ultimately what you're seeking is a solitude wilderness experience. I don't think that the two have to be at odds.

LA: Yeah. I think I've talked about this with other people on this podcast, but there's no one way to have a experience of solitude or a sort of solo travel experience. You know, I think that people sometimes worry about kind of cheating, and that's not a reality.

Stay with us after the break for more about Alaska, including Emily's own account of what it was like to see the northern lights while camping in the middle of nowhere. And if you're enjoying this episode of Women Who Travel, do leave us a review on Apple Podcasts. I promise we read every single one of them.

The wild Kobuk Valley National Park in Northwestern Alaska sees more caribou traveling through than humans, migrating across rolling sand dunes and tundra and through thick boreal forest. Needless to say, moving through the park by foot is an arduous task.

EP: You know, hiking for so long in such difficult terrain and soaking your boots in freezing streams just to get to this little meadow with insane views on all sides of just these jaw dropping, sky high granite peaks, seeing the northern lights for the first time in Kobuk Valley in the middle of also having scarlet fever, because when it rains, it pours.

LA: Sorry. Describe that a little bit more.

EP: [laughs]

LA: What was it like watching the northern lights with a fever?

EP: Yeah. So I, I think like most of my friends that I've talked to, I thought that scarlet fever was a disease that 18th century brothel workers got, and I thought that it had been [laughs] since eradicated. And, um, it turns out that, no, if you have strep throat, and you don't know that you have strep throat, and you don't get treatment, then it can turn into scarlet fever.

And so when I was in the Arrigetch Peaks, which is ironically one of my favorite parks that I feel like I talk about all the time, I got kind of a weird sore throat, and I got a little fever. And we were thinking, "Oh, it's got to just be like a cold. I'm not coughing. It's probably not COVID."

And then it just got worse and worse. I woke up to pee and, like, crawled out of my tent, you know, totally exhausted at 3:00 in the morning, and looked up and saw this faint wavy glow of clouds. And it was not green. It did not look like the pictures [laughs] so my brain took a while to realize that the clouds were moving.

And then I turned to my partner Adam and w- just kind of, like, wait. [laughs] Are the clouds moving? Like, why are they glowing? And then we were like, "Oh, it's the northern lights." [laughs]

I think that being in such a depleted physical state and seeing something that is as akin to real magic as we might ever encounter on Earth was pretty transcendent in a way that only the best travel can be.

LAu: You refer to being in a depleted physical state, and one of the through lines of Feral is sort of, as well as emotional changes that you go through, there are physical changes too, and your own relationship to your body kind of evolves. What was your path to becoming feral?

EP: I think that as a woman living in, you know, one of the biggest cities in the world, Los Angeles, I think that there are a lot of expectations and beauty standards that we're holding ourselves to, perhaps not even fully consciously, on a regular basis.

And I think that they can create a lot of kind of mental unworthiness and anxiety that maybe we don't even realize that we're carrying around. And so a big part of the year was trying to strip away a lot of that, which honestly happened pretty naturally, I would say.

I think I wore makeup maybe once the entire year. I just, like, stopped shaving as an experiment, just to see how I would feel. Then I got scared that people would think I was gross and started shaving my armpits again. [laughs]

You know, there were just these weird back and forths. It's fascinating to stop doing something that you've been told to do your whole life and then wonder how it's going to make you feel emotionally, or wonder how you, you know, anticipate that other people are going to perceive you.

I think there was also a big learning curve when it came to starting to go from my early 30s to my mid 30s and having this kind of awakening of, oh, the body is something that can and will eventually break down. There was also a bit of a reckoning with my own identity as an athlete and as a type A overachiever who can and should do everything all of the time.

And so I think that one of the big takeaways towards the end of the book is very much about understanding that there's not a wrong way to experience nature. Travel doesn't have to be this never ending checklist of ego driven, you know, I saw this. Okay. I did this. I did the best stuff.

The best stuff can sometimes be, like, I found this really cool beach that had one other person on it, and I was going to go on this other hike, but I was like, "Fuck it. I'm doing this beach."

LA: You talk about the sort of grieving, the kind of loss of the notion of the self. And it sounds like that also came along around the same time as your relationship started to, I'm going to put words in your own mouth, so please correct me here, but somewhat unraveled, and you write about that in the book.

You traveled with your partner for a large portion of this journey, but not all the time. Do you think that those two things were somehow tied to each other? Were they both just separate results of the same travel experience?

EP: I think that one of the most challenging things about long term relationships is the fact that humans are not a point on a map. You know, we're these kind of messy, ever shifting bundles of plans and dreams and emotions and traumas.

And I think that when you undertake a big rite of passage like being on the road for a yearlong trip, I think that you're basically inviting a high amount of change to take place in a short amount of time.

LA: I do want to go back to something you said interesting about, which I think can be applied to all sorts of different travel experiences, about the sort of different energy levels that you and Adam had, and how in hindsight, you realized that maybe you weren't paying attention to that at certain points. It feels very relatable.

Did you find yourself getting more attuned to it as the months went by, and being able to read each other? And was also your ultimate takeaway that you preferred to be traveling alone?

EP: I think there's a really important moment in the book when Adam kind of turns to me and says, "You get this almost, like, spiritual download of energy. [laughs] Like, you get this kind of boost of extra energy because you're on a mission. You have a goal, and you're not going to stop moving towards that goal until it is complete in some version of itself."

I think that that was a big moment for me, because it highlighted not only that we were having an energy disconnect as people in a relationship traveling together for three months at a time, but it was also I guess a wake up call as to why.

I think it really highlighted for me that I was experiencing the year in a different way than he was, because you know, I did want to write a book, and it was my idea since before I even met this person.

I was the one that saved up all of my pennies and got roommates and, you know, moved out of my nice little bungalow that I had by myself. And you know, I think that when you give so many things up and you need something to be a success, you have this, like, otherworldly pull of determination.

LA: After the break, a listener who loves to blog her hikes describes her travels through America's many parks, and we hear an excerpt from Emily's book, Feral.

EP: I think Alaska really flipped my notion of what a national park can and should be on its head, because it's so rare that we get to experience, especially in America, maybe in some more developing countries this is more common, but in America, I think it's so rare that we get to explore these kind of road and trail free wilderness areas that are designed to be these massive, you know, migratory corridors for wildlife.

And so you get to see what the country likely looked like before, you know, we upended, you know, native peoples and, you know, very much kind of overpopulated so much of the East and West Coasts.

I feel like these wilderness places are necessary so that we can fully experience our own kind of cacophony of upheaval that we will all inevitably as adults experience. You know, we're going to have ups and downs, and I think that the natural world is one of the few places that I've found that not only won't judge you for your extreme, you know, cackling joy, but it also will be perfectly huge to hold whatever magnitude of grief you're feeling.

LA: Here's Emily reading a passage from Feral. It's about halfway through the book when she and her partner Adam are in the Central Alaskan Mountain Range at Denali National Park and are having some serious talks about their relationship.

EP: Adam and I arrived at the Eielson Visitor Center to a breathtaking view of Denali. The mountain was more than 16,000 feet higher than where we stood, unfolding ripple after snowy ripple like a huge tectonic layer cake.

The two of us took off up a steep, rocky trail toward Thoroughfare Ridge, sweating and panting in the unyielding sun as we gleaned better and better views of the high one. We smiled at each other with the delirious expectation of what might lie at the top. Crimson bearberries and poisonous purple monkshood flowers swayed in the wind near the hill's summit.

Once we crested the ridge, crumbling orange boulders greeted us, along with a commanding view of the park's namesake mountain. Wind battered my face as I gazed out across the vast alpine valley. Denali felt more like a spirit than something of this Earth.

At dinner, I sat across from Adam at our picnic table, transfixed by his hands. Not wanting to ruin our precious day in the park, I sat quietly, biting my lip to ward off unwanted thoughts. Tears began to form, and before I could help it, I was sobbing into my stir-fry. The pandemic had put all sorts of new worries into my already frazzled mind, loneliness chief among them.

LA: And now for listener Lalitha, who photographs trips to national parks along with her husband and daughter.

Lalitha: Living in California, there is no dearth of national parks close to me, but my favorite national park is not in California, but in Southern Utah, and that is the Zion National Park. I've visited this park about three times in the last few years, and I develop a new perspective about this natural wonderland every time I visit, with its stunning geological formation, be it like towering canyons or stunning cliffs or the evergreen forests.

I especially love how the park provides shuttle services throughout the park for various popular viewpoints, so we don't have to fight traffic. There is a lodge within the park, but it gets booked months in advance, especially during the spring and summer months.

My most favorite memory of this park is hiking through the Zion Narrows last September. The Narrows is a narrow section of Zion Canyon that is famous for its towering cliffs, its narrow passageways and crystal clear waters.

It's about 16 miles long end to end, and what's unique about this hike is that the entire trail is in the water, so hiking this trail literally means wading through the Virgin River. The riverbed is very rocky in most places, so we had to wear hiking boots with ankle support which we didn't mind getting wet, and we had to use poles to support ourselves in the flowing water.

As we hiked further up the river, the water turned from muddy brown to blue to a beautiful sea green, and the number of hikers also considerably decreased. The river was ankle deep in some places, and in other places, it was waist deep. It was such a fun and unique experience from start to finish, and I would do it all over again in a heartbeat.

Do visit my blog at solarastills.com.

LA: Before I sign off, the inner music nerd in me had to ask Emily one last question before she took off her headphones.

EP: I have many playlists [laughs] and many audiobooks and many podcasts. I'm trying to think. [laughs] I went through a big Johnny Cash phase, I think, in the middle. I think when I was in Middle America, I was like, "All right. We're doing..." I was watching the Ken Burns Country Music documentary series for quite a lot of the trip, because it's very long. Went through a big Johnny Cash phase.

And then after the breakup that we briefly talked about with Adam, I went through, like, a big 1990s, like, vintage girl punk phase, so I was listening to a lot of Bikini Kill and Sleater-Kinney.

LA: You're talking my language. [laughs]

EP: Yeah. [laughs] Which felt very appropriate as, like, a solo female just thrown out onto the open highway.

LA: Next week, we're mixing up the format a little bit and putting together an anthology of listener dispatches, from solo travel adventures to physically challenging trips to animals appearing in unexpected places. Join us.

Thank you for listening. I'm Lale Arikoglu, and you can find me, as always, on Instagram @lalehannah and follow along with Women Who Travel on Instagram @womenwhotravel. You can also join the conversation in our Facebook group.

Allison Leyton-Brown is our composer. Jennifer Nulsen is our engineer. Jude Kampfner from Corporation for Independent Media is our producer.

EP: She popped her head up. Marla.

LA: Oh, my God, she's gorgeous. What's her name?

EP: Marla.

LA: Marla.

EP: She's a little lab German shepherd Husky mix. There's her face.