S2, E8: An Epic National Park Road Trip

In this week’s episode of Unpacked by AFAR, journalist Emily Pennington—author of the memoir Feral—shares what it was like to spend a year road-tripping to (nearly) all the national parks in the United States.

In early 2020, journalist Emily Pennington set out on a year-long road trip to visit all 62 national parks in the United States. A few months into her journey the pandemic struck, turning her life upside down. She chronicled it all in her new memoir, Feral (Little A, February 2023). In this episode of Unpacked, Emily shares her journey, what our national parks can represent (or not), and what kept her going when it seemed like the wheels were about to fall off, metaphorically speaking. (Gizmo was fine.)


 Emily Pennington, author: The pandemic was roaring. I was literally going through a breakup in the middle of the largest national park in the country. I didn’t technically have a home to return home to, and yet I was also in the middle of some of the biggest wildest, you know, most trail free, road free, no visitor center landscapes that you can visit in the country or in the world, perhaps.

Aislyn Greene, host: That, in a nutshell, is Feral, a new memoir from journalist Emily Pennington that chronicles her year-long road trip to visit all 62 national parks in the United States. The journey was ambitious, sometimes dangerous . . . and just so happened to coincide with the pandemic. In other words, it was an epic adventure.

I’m Aislyn Greene, associate director of podcasts at AFAR and this is Unpacked, the podcast that unpacks one tricky topic in travel every week. And this week, we’re going to hear my conversation with Emily. In it, we talk about her trusty van, Gizmo, which carried her around to nearly all the parks. We discuss why she wanted to tackle a journey like this, what our national parks can represent, or not, and what kept her going when it seemed like the wheels were about to fall off, metaphorically speaking. Gizmo was fine.

One note before we get started. Emily was at home in her L.A. apartment for this interview. So you may hear a little of the city in the background, so you may hear a little of the city in the background.

OK, let’s hit the road.

Emily, welcome to the show. I’d love to just jump in. Congrats on your book, I really enjoyed the read. How does it feel to have it out in the world?

Emily: It feels really surreal. Um, I think one thing that I underestimated was, um, how many other people who have been on really intense and or similar in some way healing journeys. Um, how many people would reach out to me, I think I underestimated that. And so I’ve been a little bit inundated and overwhelmed with really beautiful and kind of intense messages from other people who have been through a lot.

Aislyn: Yeah, that it, I mean, it makes sense. You’re so, you reveal so much in the book, so it makes sense that people would kind of wanna reveal things in turn. Well, I would love to just kind of start at the beginning for listeners who don’t know that much about the book. Um, in 2020, you spent a year traveling around the U.S. in your van, Gizmo, in an attempt to visit all of our national parks. Why? Why did you embark on this quest?

Emily: I was always kind of jealous of people who took a year off, like saved up their money and went on a big trip. And in 2016 I was in a point in my life where I was just starting to get outdoorsy in my late twenties. I didn’t really grow up outdoorsy and I was going to some of the more local national parks to me in California, like Yosemite and Sequoia and King’s Canyon. Um, and I just, I don’t know. I wanted to do something big and scary that would take a whole year to complete and something that I didn’t know if I even could finish, because I think that it’s really crucial to, at least once in your life, lean into something that is kind of terrifying if for no other reason than to figure out what you’re made of and learn more about your own strength and resilience, even if the path to get there is messy and winding.

Aislyn: And you, you know, launched this trip at just the perfect time to really tempt the universe to throw lots of messy, winding things in your path. I was so impressed that you kept going despite everything with the pandemic. What kind of in you motivated you in that way?

Emily: You know, I think one of the things that I was really lucky to have going in my favor was that after the kind of two to three month shutdown that we all experienced, where we were quite literally shuttered in our homes, the outdoors seemed to be the safest place to be. And so I was in this strange front line of travel writers and journalists who were in a way able to keep working when a lot of our colleagues were not. Because what I was doing was kind of traveling in my own little mobile pod, in this little minivan and going into these big wild spaces where it was very easy to keep a six foot distance from people.

Maybe it’s like the Aries in me. Maybe it’s just my upbringing as like a really type A overachiever, but it’s funny, once we, once we learned that the outdoors were relatively safe places to be, there was kind of no doubt in my mind that I wanted to finish. Um, and then especially coming back from Alaska, I think it’s no secret that I go through a breakup in the middle of the book.

So coming back from Alaska, knowing that I had literally no home to go back to, which was like having the rug pulled out from under you 10 times over, um, I, think having to, having to really just jump into the new reality of, Wow, this van actually is my home now lent a new immediacy to the project that I definitely did not wanna back down from.

Aislyn: And do you still have your van? Do you still have Gizmo?

Emily: I had her for about a year after the trip ended, and then I was daydreaming about using my book advance money to upgrade something with a refrigerator, and so I have another minivan now that was a little bit more professionally built out. Her name is Doris.

Aislyn: Doris. OK. I like it. Was she named after anyone in particular?

Emily: Actually kind of yes. Um, she has weird features. She has like Bluetooth but doesn’t have Apple CarPlay and her clock never works. And she doesn’t have a digital, she’s a brand new van, but does not have a digital, um, mileage speed readout. So she has all of these like, kind of clunky features in the middle of a very new van. So I wanted her to have kind of a grandma name and then also the van in the movie, Almost Famous, is named Doris, or not the van, the bus.

Aislyn: Love it. An honorable name. Um, well one of the things that I noticed, and you of course remarked on this in the book, but your schedule was so ambitious, and you moved so quickly through some of the parks. Looking back, would you have liked to have taken more time?

Emily: Yeah, I think one of the big takeaways from the book, is this notion of slowing down and adhering to a schedule that’s more dictated by your body, your body and your mind’s ability rather than trying to strong arm yourself into a way of being that is solely intellectual. Um, and so I think what I like to joke about is that if I ever did the trip again, I think it would be really cool to do it with about twice as much time.

I think that I had some weather hiccups here and there, especially in the Pacific Northwest when I was facing the worst wildfire season in history. Um, also in Glacier National Park. I feel like I’m due for a Glacier redux because I was there for five or six days hoping like, okay, I’m gonna backpack, I’m gonna have plenty of time.

And then of course it rained the entire time that I was there, and that’s like one of the most famous, gorgeous parks and I just saw gray clouds for every day but one.

Aislyn: Would you do this again, do you think, or would it be more like targeted parks that you would return to one-on-one?

Emily: I’ve toyed around with the idea of doing something else that would be a big, you know, six to 12 month trip. But I don’t know if I would make it quite as arbitrary as checking a bunch of things off a list even though it was really magical the first go around, I’ve thought about doing other things that are more landscape or road based.

So doing something like driving all the way from like the tip of Alaska in pre Red Hill Bay, all the way down to the tip of Patagonia doing something like—

Aislyn: Oh yeah.

Emily: —Alaska to Argentina could be really interesting. Yeah, so I’m just, I’m kind of brainstorming other ways to move across landscapes in big ways that would be adventurous, but not necessarily, um, adhere to such a rigid schedule that feels a little more mathematical.

Aislyn: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, it makes sense for your kind of first big journey in that way to kind of take that approach, right? Like it’s this structure, the spine, something to aim for. And now that you’ve done it and you learn from it, um, do you think you would kind of go at your, at a different pace, like allowing your own whims of the moment to guide you?

Emily: Yeah. One of the ideas that I did have was actually was this kind of silly concept of like, “Can you cure your own type A isms in adulthood?” So like is there a version of this trip that’s also like—I don’t know, isn’t there a book called The Year of Yes or something? I was gonna say is maybe there’s a version of a road trip where you have to say yes to everything that every detour that someone takes you on, as long as it’s generally in the direction that you’re trying to end up.

Aislyn: Yeah. I love that. You kind of mentioned this a little bit, but so much of the book is about disappointment and uncertainty and things not going as planned. So what advice might you have for somebody embarking on a journey like this?

Emily: I would say always have a plan B and maybe even a plan C if you’re going out, especially into wilderness areas. I feel like that’s one of the biggest pieces of advice that I give to people, even if they’re just going on a weekend trip or a weeklong road trip to national parks in Utah or something. Because especially as they get more crowded and as you get, you get weather delays or maybe there was rockfall and a trail is closed, it’s always a really good idea to have a plan B and like I said, maybe even a plan C ready to go that you’re excited about so that you can be flexible. You can kind of pivot on a dime.

I also feel like it’s really important to simultaneously have a plan and also not, not define success by that plan, if that makes sense. I feel like human brains are really bad at cognitive dissonance. But I feel like in order to travel for a long period of time successfully, you have to become kind of a master at it. So often what I’ll do when I’m traveling, even now, cuz I work as a travel writer and a journalist, I will have a list of things that I wanna do, but I will not know on which day I’m going to do any of them. And so there’s kind of this play at being flexible and also rigid at the same time.

Aislyn: I like that some structure, but not needing it to kind of follow the A, B, C, D order. Because you’re right. You never know what you’re gonna encounter. You never know how you’re gonna feel on a particular day, right?

Emily: Exactly.

Aislyn: You wanna leave room for serendipity. Well, kind of pivoting to a slightly different topic. I was really struck by something that you wrote early on in the book, kind of once you were outside of Los Angeles, where you still—do you still live in L.A.?

Emily: I do, yeah. I’m hoping to move to Colorado later this year, but we’ll see how it works.

Aislyn: OK. Um, you wrote that “getting gas in Coalinga reminded me of how much of the country lives: fried food, dented pickups and trailers, housing produce pickers etched like bricks into the town center. Los Angeles’s maze of organic grocers and vegan gelaterias is not the status quo.” And it made me wonder how this trip kind of changed the way that you see the country and even L.A.

Emily: Yeah, it really opened my eyes to what a bubble we can often live in when we live in a big liberal city like Los Angeles. Um, even though Los Angeles is really diverse and we come up against a lot of different kinds of people and a lot of different ways of being every single day because it’s such a dense city.

Um, I think that it’s one thing that was really striking, especially because so much of the trip took place during the pandemic, was noticing how much of the world in a way didn’t have the kind of white collar luxury of shutting down. Everyone I knew in Los Angeles could basically work from home and so they, although it was deeply uncomfortable and very traumatic, they were able to kind of shutter indoors and still enjoy a lot of creature comforts.

Whereas in a lot of places that I traveled to that year, you know, especially gateway communities of national parks are more rural. So you still have people that are out working the farms or feeding their horses or you know, going to retail jobs. And so I think that there was something. There’s like a quiet respect that I have for those people that I think often go unseen that maybe I didn’t have as deep of a feeling for before the trip.

Aislyn: Yeah. Yeah. That makes sense. Did it help kind of temper—you know, there’s such extreme discourse on either sides of the U.S. now and throughout the pandemic. And I don’t know, it just seems like it allows you to kind of see a little bit more of all different perspectives to travel through communities and that way.

Emily: Yeah, it’s an in, it’s an interesting question because I feel like even though I have very firm beliefs in science, and vaccines, especially as a travel writer because I know that what I do could impact people because I’m moving around so much, but I have more compassion for people who do live on the outskirts of societies or people who live in remote island communities where misinformation can spread really quickly.

So even if I might not agree with it, I have a lot more compassion for people with wildly differing beliefs and I understand how they might have gotten there, and I have patience to talk to them and maybe share my side of the story in a calmer way that’s a little bit less divisive and blame oriented.

Aislyn: Kinda speaks to the power of travel and opening our minds, right, and opening our souls. Well, on a more straightforward level, which parks do you wanna return to? You kind of talked about it at the top of the chat, or which have you returned to? It’s been a couple years.

Emily: Um, yeah, it has, it has been a couple of years. I finished the book almost a year and a half ago, so it’s wild that it’s just now coming out. I’ve been back to quite a few. I went back to Capitol Reef in Utah almost immediately.

Aislyn: Oh wow. Really? Why?

Emily: I went back I think maybe three months after my trip technically ended in Hawai’i, um, because I wanted to go back in a slightly warmer month and I wanted to go back and do some slot canyons with supervision so that in case I fell into something,I would have a friend who could make sure I didn’t die.

Um, and that was amazing. I highly recommend doing some slot canyons in Utah. They’re really incredible and a little bit scary. And Capitol Reef is one of the less visited parks in Utah as well. I feel like we like to talk about, you know, Arches and Bryce Canyon and Zion. But Capitol Reef is this weird little, it’s kind of more central Utah than Southern Utah, I think. And it’s just, it’s in the middle of just gorgeous Red Rock country. Um, I’m currently in the middle of trying to plan hopefully an August trip back to Alaska this year. Um, I really wanna go back, um, hopefully up towards the Arctic Circle and do some more trekking or some river rafting.

And, um, I did a little bit of a uh, kind of like a punk rock like I don’t wanna do a normal road trip. I wanted to do like a cranky road trip up to the Pacific Northwest. Um, this was in November, so I felt like the sunshine in Los Angeles was oppressive and I wanted to go, um, I wanted to go up to the Pacific Northwest and check out giant trees, but kind of purposefully in the middle of rain and weather that we were not getting in Southern California. So I went all the way up to Olympic National Park and Redwoods National Park in November to kind of get a different, a different experience than I got when I was there in a much more fair weather month during the book.

Aislyn: And did you get the moody, rainy experience you were hoping for?

Emily: Yeah, definitely almost too much so, but I had the best time kind of getting my wits about me in Portland and renting an Airbnb for a few days to take a break and eat food and then keep going up into Olympic, which was awesome. And seeing the fall colors out there was really incredible. It felt like they were kind of coming on late last year and I was really grateful for it.

Aislyn: Nice. Oh, that’s so cool. And did you do that trip alone?

Emily: No, I did that trip with someone I was dating at the time. Um, I think I’ve had quite a lot of solitude and I’m comfortable traveling alone and I’m a lot more comfortable being alone probably than I ever have been. But that being said, I think that when you do as much travel as I do for work and writing and projects, it’s really delightful when I can bring a plus one because I think you make more memories and there’s just one more wrench that can get thrown into your trip, which is someone else’s personality. And by that I mean there’s a very good wrench that can get thrown in, a laughing wrench that hopefully will induce some smiles.

Aislyn: I like that. A good wrench.

Emily: Yeah, like, well, let’s just throw a good wrench into this situation.

Aislyn: Speaking of wrenches, we’re going to take a quick break. And when we get back, we’ll get into the stoicism movement, body image and the outdoors, and much more.

I was curious because, you know, there is, there is a little bit of that tension throughout the book of, you know, the times where you were alone in nature and then the feelings of loneliness or, you know, despair or craving like food or technology and why. But you seem the better for those experience. So why do you think having some time alone in nature can be so good for us as human beings?

Emily: I think there’s a big move towards stoicism right now. I know Tim Ferris is really into it and talks about it a lot. I think a lot of the tech guys do in Silicon Valley. Um, and what I mean by that is that I think, um, there almost comes a time when we have so engineered the modern world to be nothing but comfortable for us all of the time.

So much so that it’s actually, it feels like a respite or a vacation to go and be less comfortable for a while. Um, so I think that’s why we’re seeing a lot of movement in like glamping where people wanna be comfortable, but they also wanna be outside and cold. We’re seeing big movements and even like van life, you know, you see these people buying these really expensive vans, but it’s really because they wanna pair down their life.

It’s like life has gotten too big and too comfortable. And so we’re trying to figure out how we can fit a modern, comfortable life, like through the eye of a needle and figure out how to come out a little bit more tailored and simple and clean maybe as a result. But I think that there’s also a lot of, I think there’s a lot of busy work that the mind does when it is surrounded by things that are manmade and, um, even like right now, there are probably I don’t know, four or five different pieces of white noise in my apartment. And we become kind of blind to that. But then when you get out in nature, there is a level of quiet that is totally unlike anything you’ll experience in a city, even when it is a quiet moment.

Um, and then I think I also talk about in the book, there’s a wonderful Eckhart Tole quote about how when you’re walking around in a city, even if you’re looking at like a garden or something, it’s like manicured and things are kind of placed in certain positions and everything has right angles and your brain is processing all of these ideas that are man-made ideas and so you’re creating language as you’re walking around a ski a cityscape.

Whereas in like a forest, maybe it’s similarly dense. It’s all of these weird vines and bushes and flowers and trees and things that have naturally grown, creature like, and kind of crawled into each other. And I think that there’s something really meditative about that, that’s also visually and and mentally important to get out into.

Aislyn: And there’s the kind of awesome size of it, right? That can make you feel small in such a good way. Um, you know, you talked a lot about, or bit about your own journey, like building confidence in the wilderness and I was just curious what you might say to other women who were at the beginning of their wilderness journey. Any tips or words of wisdom, like, you know, either encouragement to do it or ways to be brave—reasons to continue when it’s hard?

Emily: Yeah, I would say that I think, I think that spending time in the wilderness, whether it’s alone or with trusted friends and confidants or even a guide, is perhaps even more important for female-identifying people because especially with all of the, the body image nonsense that we’re thrown on a daily basis, I think having something that is wholly dependent on your body, but not in terms of an aesthetic way. It’s more like a strength and perseverance way. I think that there’s something really somatically healing about that. Um, I’m someone who actually had an eating disorder in college and I remember when I was in my like, yeah, I guess kind of late twenties, um, and I had come out of it a few years before, but I never really felt a hundred percent comfortable in my body until I was doing mountaineering and climbing these big trails and doing these huge solo backpacking trips and carrying 40 pounds on my back that I realized that my body is.

You know, yes, my body can turn into this like city thing where I wear a dress and I wear makeup but my body can also be this really incredible tool that can do amazing things. And it sounds really trite or overly simplistic, but I’ve heard, I’ve heard other people mention this notion that there’s something really transformative about doing big, hard things in the outdoors where no one cares what you look like or what kind of makeup you’re wearing or if there are dead mosquitoes smashed on your arms because it was a mosquitoy evening. You know, it’s really nice to feel your own prowess in a completely different way.

Aislyn: Yeah. Yeah. It’s so empowering, right?

Emily: Exactly. Yeah. That’s a great word for it.

Aislyn: I think it was your friend Kate, who was kind of talking about like this ancient journey, this kind of hermetic wandering and that she said that this roaming in the wilderness is something that many women in their early thirties need to go through when they realize they won’t be 25 forever. And I was just curious if you think this is a journey you could have taken earlier in your life.

Emily: Yeah, it’s a good question. I think my gut instinct is that I either probably would’ve lost interest and maybe wanted to go do something else halfway through, or I would’ve maybe been turning to substances to self-soothe much more so than I did.

I was pretty much sober the entire year, except for a couple of little moments where I drink wine with a friend or get like a beer. Yeah. I think that when I was younger I was much quicker to reach for things to get me out of discomfort, and I think so much of the journey in Feral is about sitting in the discomfort so much so that it like overtakes you at times.

Aislyn: And then coming through to the other side of that, right? And seeing what you’ve learned or what waits, and realizing that you don’t need to necessarily numb out, right, in those tough moments.

Emily: And I think that that’s something that I’ve heard monastics talk about it in meditation retreats I’ve been on as well. Like there’s this notion that like, Oh, like I’m cold. But you don’t necessarily have to like get up from your meditation and like go get a jacket or a wrap. You could just tell yourself like, Well, this cold is a sensation that I am feeling right now and I’m not gonna die because it’s only a little bit cold. And, um, you know, in 15 minutes when I’m done sitting here, I will calmly go and get something warmer. And I think that a lot of the year, that’s like a very small, small piece of the philosophy that I tried to enter the year with.

Aislyn: Yeah, I mean it’s, it was powerful. I felt like it kind of, you know, came through a lot of the pages like I felt. I was in that discomfort with you. It was very visceral. I also wanted to— completely moving away from discomfort—ask you about Instagram. Maybe that’s a different kind of discomfort. But when you were in Death Valley, you were talking about visiting a spot where there were all of these people kind of jockeying to get the best photo and you kind of shared your own experiences and this realization that like building an itinerary around trying to get this perfect moment isn’t always very satisfying. And what would you say, like, how can leaving the camera behind help us experience nature or just living more fully? What’s your philosophy around that?

Emily: I actually love this question because I will frequently go on hikes where I do not take any photos and I’ll call them my “just for me” hikes. Um, I think especially when you are a big Instagramer or when travel becomes a part of your job, it can be really tricky to almost never have a vacation because the thing that you love is now also the thing that’s paying your rent.

And so finding ways to create boundaries within your own life becomes really crucial. Um, but I think I’d also love to talk about the idea of overcrowding at specific areas that are maybe social media or Instagram famous in different national parks. Um, I’m friends with the Grand Teton superintendent, um, Chip Jenkins, who is delightful.

And he has always said to us travel writers like, “You have no idea how much power you wield, because if you talk about something in a big article, people are gonna go there.” And they notice it in places like Jackson Hole, where they are really heavily impacted by tourism because they have beautiful mountains and national parks all around them.

And so I think that one of the ways that I found that was best to alleviate some of that feeling of, oh, Like every trail I’m going to is overcrowded, or, oh, like I just Googled these three blogs and they’re all saying the same five trails. There’s gotta be like other cool ones. These must just be the five that everyone does.

And so—this is gonna sound, so for anyone who’s not a millennial that’s listening, I feel like this is gonna sound so simple and cheesy—but like just, just going and like talking to a ranger or calling the ranger station. I also don’t love picking up my phone and I get scared, especially during, in 2020, during the pandemic I didn’t love going up to someone and wearing a mask and being like, “Hey what trail would you recommend?” But to be totally honest, I got some of the best recommendations of the least crowded places because the rangers have hiked all over that park, and they’re not only, they’re gonna know which ones are crowded, they’re gonna tell you probably to go at sunrise or go late.

If there is a crowded one that you’re dying to get a photo of, and then they’re gonna have a couple of recommendations for really similar topographies that you could go hike through and photograph that will not have the same crowds.

Aislyn: I love that. That’s such a good tip. And I imagine an underutilized resource. And, um, and you’re right there, you know, travel writers and editors have so much power, so I love that you are thinking about that in your work. Um, that segues into this other question that I wanted to ask you about. What do you think America’s park system means in 2023? That’s a big one.

Emily: Yeah, I don’t get asked this question a lot. Let me think. I mean, I think the national parks and the outdoor industry as a whole have been in the middle of a reckoning for the last three to five years. I think first it was trying to include more diverse voices in the way of female writers and adventurers. Then it moved into kind of LGBTQ issues and people of color.

And right now, I know that there is a huge movement both within the outdoor industry and the park service, to not only include more Indigenous voices, but also to increase tribal co-management of national parks. So places like Joshua Tree, which is one of the, I think it’s usually one of the top 10 most visited national parks, I believe just a month or two ago, they finally signed off on getting the first official step of tribal co-management to, um, to pass through like the review process. So I believe that that is happening now in 2023.

Yeah, so I think that I just talked about a few ways that they are improving in terms of access and equity and telling more whole stories about the thousands of years of history in these lands that were essentially stolen from Native peoples, but now we have a lot of a lot of back and forth discussion between the National Park Service and a lot of affiliated tribes to allow for things like subsistence hunting and fishing and um, like I said, co-management of certain parks and lands.

Aislyn: Well returning to kind of a specific place or park, um, Alaska seemed like it was a kind of pivotal time in your journey. So much happened there. In what ways was that a turning point for you and, and how did kind of Alaska fit into that as a landscape?

Emily: Alaska is my absolute favorite thing to talk about, so I’m so glad you asked this. Yeah, you’re right. I think that the pandemic was roaring. I was literally going through a breakup in the middle of the largest national park in the country. Um, I didn’t technically have a home to return home to, and yet I was also in the middle of some of the biggest wildest, you know, most trail-free, road-free, no visitor center landscapes that you can visit in the country or in the world, perhaps. And I think that there was a depth of sorrow that I was experiencing on a personal level that was somehow matched by this unyielding, vast landscape that felt harsh, but not cruel. And it was really spellbinding and healing in a way that I don’t think I would’ve expected. I think that it could have been really easy to be afraid of such a vast landscape at that moment, but there’s something so mysterious and beautiful about it that I think it piqued my curiosity rather than my fear in my mind, and I ended forming this kind of hopefully lifelong love affair with Alaska.

I really fell in love with just how, how the land theoretically used to look and be, because I think that we, in the Lower 48, in a way, we’re spoiled because we have these, these parks with trails and visitor centers, and some of them have WiFi now, which is crazy, but up in Alaska you’ll have these like 3 million acre parks with like one road and that’s it and no trails. And so you can access different areas, but you have to bend to the land’s will rather than the other way around because it’s not like there’s bridges over the rivers. There’s not trails going over a muddy field.

Um, and there’s something really humbling about that that feels ancient and important, and I mean, you will totally get weird blisters and have cold nights in your tent, but you’ll also experience what Earth is supposed to look like and, and just also the amount of wildlife you see. It really, it almost made me sad because I feel like you don’t see that kind of wildlife in the Lower 48. I would bet that that or more is what it used to be like because they had these undeveloped tracts of land that they could roam free on. And yeah, it’s, it’s kind of bittersweet, but I’m really grateful that we do have so much protected land up there.

Aislyn: I mean, itt’s such a magnificent place, and it was interesting, I think, what park was it that you could only visit by plane because of the pandemic?

Emily: Um, there are, I believe, four or five in Alaska that you can only fly or boat into. Um, Alaska does not lend itself to roads. There’s a lot of weird fjords and, um, pretty intense mountain ranges, but I think the two that you’re referring to might be, um, Gates of the Arctic and Kobuk Valley.

Those are the two with no roads, no trails, nothing to help you other than you hire a guide and they land, you know, on this gravel river bank and you just kind of get out and watch the plane take off and hope that you brought enough snacks for five days.

Aislyn: And what a trippy experience to kind of see so much land by air. What was, what was that like?

Emily: I mean, totally riveting. Especially coming into Gates of the Arctic in early September when the tundra is actively changing colors cuz they have such a short summer season up there. Watching these huge mountain ranges in the Brooks Range, these huge undulating peaks turn like bright crimson and bright yellow and marigold.

It was really like flying down into an artist’s palette of paint splotches, except the paint was the different trees and shrubs that grow along the tundra. And also, like I said, it can be a little bittersweet because you notice how much Earth there is and how much we have impacted that Earth, and we might think that we’re like these small little things that don’t have that much of an impact on how wild and rugged the landscape is, but we definitely do.

I mean, that sounds like really simplistic, but when you see a landscape that is millions of acres large and you see that there are literally no roads or trails or buildings or light sources or anything really impeding it, it’s kind of eye-opening because you realize that maybe there’s a way to have like a happy medium that we haven’t seemed to achieve in some of the more developed Western states.

Aislyn: Well, kind of pulling back out, and I imagine this is an almost impossible question to uh, answer, but I will ask it anyhow. Um, what if you had to kind of pick a single lesson or lessons that you took away from this journey, what might they be? Or it be?

Emily: One of the things that was really important to me when writing Feral was accurately showing that going through a transformational journey is not ever gonna be this neat, linear packaged product like we might see in a movie or on TV where it kind of has to have this three-act structure. Um, I think that we’re really blessed in books that we can explore slightly messier life structures and life happenings.

And so, um, understanding that my own path toward healing and change was going to be this like messy, funny, strange, chaotic up and down roller coaster of a year. Um, and trying to accurately portray that in the book I think helped me ultimately learn the lesson that life is simultaneously gorgeous and deadly.

I think I talk a lot about this in the last national park in Hawai’i. Um, like looking out over these vast lava fields and watching the way in which new earth gets created was really because basically you have these like noxious gases that I think could kill you and you have this molten rock and it’s not a very hospitable place, and yet that is how so much of the thing that gives us life is created. And I thought that there was something really beautiful and kind of dark and mysterious about that. So I would say that for me, one of the biggest takeaways was learning how to lean into that kind of deep discomfort, understanding that it is actually very natural. The earth, in fact, mimics it. So a lot of times the feelings we experience are quite ancient things that the earth itself moves through as well. And I think once you realize that, it can give you a lot more patience for yourself as you’re on this kind of messy, radical journey towards wholeness.

Aislyn: Well, I won’t reveal too much of how the book ended, but I really did appreciate the kind of strong, very centered note of it. You know, it felt very empowering and you talked a little bit about what’s happened since, but what does life look like for you now?

Emily: Life has looked like taking a lot more time to focus on my mental health because it is really important for us to keep our minds safe and happy as we continue through adulthood and I travel a ton internationally now. Um, I’m trying to to branch out into some of the more international national parks and learn more about biodiversity and how climate change is affecting different communities in other countries and how it’s affecting landscapes and wildlife across the globe, and trying to be an advocate for nature, not only in my own country, but hopefully the world over.

Aislyn: Any particular places that you’re focused on right now, internationally?

Emily: Yeah, a bit. Um, I just went to Antarctica on my first ever trip there and learning about— there is a hole in the ozone there. Um, there’s a tourism board that’s trying to manage how many cruise ships are going down, but also it’s kind of exponentially increasing right now. So I’m doing a little bit of research work on the sustainability surrounding Antarctic tourism. Because I mean even more than Alaska, that is a huge, relatively unexplored, undeveloped piece of land that houses a lot of wildlife and fish and birds and um, whales. And so it’s really critical to have places like that stay protected.

Um, and then also I got to go on my first trip to Africa last year, which was really eye-opening and learning how they manage poaching and wildlife and different park and preserved designations was really eye-opening as well because they are such a key piece of biodiversity when it comes to, um, protecting these big landscapes. And it’s really fascinating to see that there’s not necessarily one answer when it comes to how land is best preserved.

But um, I don’t know if, I don’t know if you’ve been reading about like the 30 by 30 initiative that President Biden and a bunch of other world leaders have signed onto, but it’s this idea that we need to protect 30 percent of the world’s lands and waters by 2030, or we are facing massive species loss. And preserving doesn’t necessarily mean setting aside as totally untrammeled, you know, undeveloped national parks. It could mean farmers setting aside a certain amount of acreage to allow wildlife corridors to migrate through. Um, so things like that. It’s really cool to see how other countries are kind of taking it upon themselves to make conservation look a bit different than it does here, but still effective.

Aislyn: Yeah, absolutely. And it’s so important that we work together, right?

Emily: Yeah, exactly. And I think that even though the national parks are often credited as America’s best idea, because we have this American exceptionalism gene in all of us, I think that, um, I think that, you know, there are other countries that are really improving upon it. Like, um, I think it’s Chilean Patagonia.

They have like—they recently, or somewhat recently, connected a bunch of different parks and I think former farmlands that vaccaros inhabited. And now it’s this huge coastal fjord land, um, landscape that goes from north to south for many, many miles. And it allows the wildlife to move from place to place pretty, um, unencumbered, which is great.

Aislyn: Those are the, um, maybe the good wrenches, that we’re seeing.

Emily: Yes. Yes. We need to throw some more good wrenches and just like , let’s just, let’s just have more, more untrammeled wildlife corridors. I mean, even things like in Los Angeles, there’s a lot of talk right now because we had a celebrity mountain lion die, um, I think a month or two ago named P 22. And there’s a lot of talk about getting more like wilderness bridges over the big freeways so that big cats and large mammals can more easily migrate around to our very few wild spaces in, in our big city.

Aislyn: That’s cool. Nice to see the bigger cities stepping in in that way and finding ways to make it work well.

Emily: Yeah. And I think that’s something we might have even taken from Europe. I know they’re much more common over there. So it’s a great example of like something that we might be learning from other countries.

Aislyn: Yeah. Europe’s best idea. Um, is there anything else that you would like to add, other wisdom you’d like to impart?

Emily: Not really other than, um, just, just the parting notion that if anyone is contemplating taking a really massive journey like this that terrifies you, I would definitely go out and do it. Tell someone where you’re going and make sure you have a little bit of a nest egg in case something goes horribly wrong. But you’re never gonna be younger than you are in this moment right now. And there’s no better time than the present to test yourself against the beautiful, chaotic, strange, difficult landscapes of the American wilderness.

Aislyn: Excellent advice. Emily, if people wanna find more about you, where can they find you?

Emily: Um, I can be found on Instagram @brazenbackpacker, and I also have a column for Outside magazine that goes into the parks from a more service oriented perspective. So exploring trails and hotel recommendations and things like that in addition to the book, which is a much more personal, like, PG-13 rated journey of behind the scenes of the column.

Aislyn: I love it. OK.. Well, thank you so much for being with us today. I really appreciate it.

Emily: Thank you for having me. This was awesome.

Aislyn: And that’s it for this week’s episode, thanks for listening, everyone. Emily shared her social media handles, which we’ll link to in the show notes, along with a link to buying her book, and her audiobook. And you can find more about Emily on her website, brazenbackpacker.com.

Before we part, I wanted to share a new segment we’re testing, inspired by our popular travel trivia game, which is a regular part of our newsletters. Our copy editor, Pat Tompkins, who was almost a contestant on Jeopardy puts these devilish quizzes together, so she’s the blame for any stumpers. This week’s question: Which country has the most islands? Canada, Indonesia, Sweden, or the Philippines. I’m not going to tell you the answer now. Of course, you can just google it but if you are too busy, or just really patient, we’ll also reveal the answer in next week’s episode. Stay tuned for more!

Ready for more unpacking? Visit afar.com and be sure to follow us on Instagram and Twitter. This season, we’d also like to hear from you. Is there a travel dilemma, topic, or trend you’d like us to unpack? Visit afar.com/feedback or email us at unpacked@afar.com to share what’s on your mind.

If you enjoyed today’s exploration, I hope you’ll come back for more great stories. You can subscribe to Unpacked on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast platform. And be sure to rate and review the show. It helps other travelers find it. This has been Unpacked, a production of AFAR Media. The podcast is produced by Aislyn Greene and Nikki Galteland. Music composition by Chris Colin.

And remember, the world is complicated. We’re here to help you unpack it.