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A year in the national parks

Before Maureen Welcker committed her family to a yearlong road trip to visit America’s national parks, she decided to do a trial run.

The Boise, Idaho, family used an annual trip to Iowa to hit five national parks, including Padre Island National Seashore in Texas. That left the Welckers a 33-hour drive home spread over three days.

At Padre Island, they watched the release of baby sea turtles on the beach.

“That driving was terrible,” the Welckers’ middle child, Oliver, said when he got home, “but seeing the baby sea turtles was totally worth it.”

“I don’t know if Oliver realizes this,” his dad, Chris, said, “but he pretty much doomed the entire family to doing the trip because he was saying it was worth all the driving, all the hassle, because he got to see some awesome stuff along the way.”

The Welckers returned last week from an epic adventure that certainly will have the kids’ friends buzzing as they return to school Wednesday. James, 10, missed fourth grade and Oliver, 9, missed third grade at Washington Elementary to spend the year exploring the country with Maureen and their younger sister, 5-year-old Lily. Chris joined his family periodically as his vacation time allowed, seeing fewer than a quarter of the parks.

Maureen and the kids visited 107 National Park Service properties and put about 27,000 miles on their Toyota Sienna minivan. They took a couple breaks at home but the initial journey lasted from Aug. 28, 2015, until the middle of January. The trip resumed from March through mid-May and July through mid-August.

The last stop was Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado.

“We wanted to make it to at least over 100,” Oliver said, to the surprise of his mom.

Maureen got the idea for the trip from President Barack Obama’s “Every Kid in a Park” initiative that opened the national parks to all fourth-graders and their families for free and from a family friend who suggested the ultimate way to take advantage: Spend a year touring parks.

“I could tell by the look on her face she was taking it seriously,” Chris said. “I was like, ‘Oh, it’s actually going to happen.’ ”

That conversation with a friend was in spring 2015. By June, Maureen was serious enough to do the trial run. She spoke to the teachers and principal at Washington to vet the idea.

“They were all extremely encouraging and thought it was a great idea,” Maureen said.

The boys kept up with their reading and math in the car, and James studied Idaho (a staple of fourth grade) through books. All three kids filled out junior ranger workbooks at each park (one was 36 pages, Oliver pointed out) and sent postcards from every stop to the classrooms where they would have attended school if not for the trip.

“Oliver is bitter with me because he had two classes following him so every single park he had to send two postcards,” Maureen said. “They’d send it to specific students and the student would read it to the classroom. The teacher would take it from there. When we came back in January and visited the school, the third-grade classroom door was covered with all the postcards. In other cases, the kids took the postcards home.”

Chris followed much of the trip through his iPhone. He would FaceTime with his family, sometimes while they were at a park so they could show him what they were seeing. He also used the Find My iPhone app to see what they were doing — occasionally spotting a dot in the middle of a body of water. He’d then Google where they were and check it out online.

“We went on a kayaking trip over Lake Superior and then my dad texted and said, ‘I see you’re on the water. Have a great time,’ ” Oliver said.

Maureen tried to keep the schedule loose, but one specific plan was for the family to hit the Boston area at Thanksgiving. Chris joined them, and the kids marched in a Plymouth parade. Chris’ family connects directly to the pilgrims and he marched in the same parade as a boy.

The family camped much of the trip — the first night was spent in the car because it was pouring rain at San Juan Islands National Monument — and spent nights with family and friends, too. They used hotels when necessary.

Among the unexpected highlights (for more, check the family’s blog at parkpilgrims.wordpress. com):

▪ At Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina and Tennessee, the throngs were there for fall colors and black bears. Oliver caught a ranger’s attention and got a 30-minute briefing on what he wanted to see: salamanders. “I made the kids do one hike and one drive to see a bear,” Maureen said, “and after that we just spent the whole time in the creek catching salamanders. ... It was exciting and fun to be able to see the parks from the kids’ eyes and also shocking to realize maybe what I expected to get from a park was not at all what they were excited about.”

▪ Lassen Volcanic National Park and Lava Beds National Monument in California were popular with the family. Other places that were memorable included the Ulysses S Grant National Historic Site in Missouri, Historic Jamestowne in Virginia and Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota.

▪ James wrote a letter to Obama about the family trip. He received a letter and some family photos in return. “There is so much learning to be done in our national parks, and it’s clear you and your family are no strangers to America’s historic treasures,” the letter signed by Obama said. “I encourage you to write down what you discover, and remember to take care of our public lands so future generations will have the same opportunities to connect with our nation’s wilderness and monuments. The memories you make this year will be sure to last you a lifetime.”

▪ In Georgia, Maureen read a news account about former President Jimmy Carter that indicated he still taught Sunday school. The family visited the Jimmy Carter National Historic Site and attended his Sunday school class at a church. “The less-scheduled we were, the better it was, because then you have more flexibility,” Maureen said. “... We met Jimmy Carter. That had not been on the agenda.”

Maureen and Chris wonder how the alternative year of schooling will affect James and Oliver as they return to school this week. They knew going in that they were taking some risk.

“Chris and I sort of decided that if I completely failed at this, because I never really thought that I would do home-schooling or necessarily would be good at it,” Maureen said, “we would make the effort this coming year and catch them up. I guess time will tell how everybody does.”

If nothing else, the kids will have more context to understand their history lessons. James has talked to Chris about the Louisiana Purchase and school desegregation. Desegregation came up at the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site in Arkansas.

“They know a lot more about what’s out there than I ever did at their age,” Chris said of his children. “It will be interesting to see how they use it.”

The Welckers pause during a hike at Arches National Park in Utah. The family spent most of the last year on the road visiting 107 national parks. From right, thatís James, Oliver, mom Maureen and Lily. Photo courtesy of Maureen Welcker
James Welcker brings his love of parkour to the trails of Sequoia National Park in California. Photo courtesy of Maureen Welcker