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A Quest to Visit (and Illustrate!) Every U.S. National Park

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Technical mapper turned visual storyteller Karla Sanders met restless Colombian web designer Andres in Italy and fell in love. Now, they’re back in America and on a quest to visit all 59 national parks in the U.S.—with a twist.

Here’s their story:

About a year into having an Etsy store, I was also working as an in-house graphic designer in Cleveland. To sustain our outdoorsy natures, Andres and I would go hiking in Cuyahoga Valley National Park. Our online shop was doing fairly well, but something was missing.

While on one of those hikes, the idea just came to us: why not combine our love of the our local national park and our illustration skills? Our first masterpiece for Hike & Draw was our illustrated map of all 59 natural national parks.

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We were drawn to showcasing these parks in a creative way, to help people remember the places we are drawn to and so often cannot describe with words. In the hustle and bustle of the day today, we want people to have something that reminds them of the natural places they cherish.

We saw our maps and posters as a starting point… but there was still something missing.

That’s when it hit us: Our goal is to visit every national park and design a poster of that park.

Our National Park Quest began in April, 2016 after nearly two years of planning. We’ve been on the road for a few months now, and it’s been a wild ride. We’ve camped most nights, slept in our Subaru Outback, and spent a few nights in an Airbnb while in Nashville.

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A funny coincidence had us arrive in Nashville at the same time Chris was in town for his Born for This talk. The event was great, but it was the people we met who stood out the most. In particular, a woman named Amanda came up to us after the talk and introduced herself. After chatting with her a bit, she said, “If you ever need help Couchsurfing or finding a place to stay, I know a lot of folks out west and can help.” Turns out we were in need of some help much sooner than later.

The very next night we seemed to have only two options: paying for a hotel, or sleeping in a Wal-Mart parking lot. The campground we were counting on was still closed for the season, as we recently learned, there aren’t many campgrounds near Nashville. Then, we remembered Amanda.

We live in a society that makes it not okay to ask for help. Asking is often associated with weakness. But although we felt funny asking for help, we did. Not only did she offer to help, she welcomed us to her beautiful home and invited us to go contra dancing—a style of folk line-dance from 17th century Europe (think Pride and Prejudice). We hadn’t laughed so much in a long time.

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Neither of us have ever taken a trip like this before. We keep a tight budget, and decided to stay in campgrounds for the financial peace of mind. Since we work from the road, staying in one park for awhile is a good thing: it gives us time to focus on our business and not always worry about where we’re going to sleep at night.

Living in one spot, it’s easy to get accustomed to a sheltered world: same neighbors, same routine, same comforts. When you leave and hit the road, you’re forced to encounter unknown situations.

From a sheltered world perspective, it’s easy to be afraid of all the things out there. Andres grew up hearing about crime in the U.S., and ironically, we hear the same thing about Colombia. But facing so many new people, or strangers, I’ve learned that many of us want similar things: peace, kindness, and community. And we want others to feel those things too, so helping often comes naturally.

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We just left our third park, Great Sand Dunes National Park, a totally new environment for both of us. We usually only see such things on travel blogs, not with our own eyes. Great mountains lie behind us, and an indescribable sense of wonder lurks over every direction with vast open land, vibrant skies, and dunes that seem to go on forever. Andres and I have felt overwhelmed in this park. 

This is the moment of looking back at all of those steps. The saving. Working jobs we didn’t feel passion for. Starting a business that failed. Moving to a new state in 2014 only to realize it’d been a mistake because we had no money or jobs lined up. Writing weekly goals on a white board, and often not achieving them.

Then, editing our plans over and over again. Writing sponsorship proposals and getting denied. Figuring out where to cut corners so we could save the right amount of money. Establishing our LLC and educating ourselves. Sitting in rush hour traffic day in and day out.

Maybe the majesty of this landscape is unleashing the magnitude of our endeavor and all it took to get here.

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Our quest is young yet, but it’s a journey that began years ago when I dreamed of doing something like this, and just didn’t know what it was yet. Great Sand Dunes is a place where we finally feel like it’s all really happening. This is where I want to tell people: it is possible.

One, and we want to tell people one more thing: if you’re ever on the road and a little lost, try checking out the local public library. This country’s library system is amazing.

We have a hotspot and ways to charge our devices from the road, but we’ve actually worked the most at public libraries (about 5 in 4 states!). They’ve been welcoming and comfortable temporary work spaces with good wifi and quiet desks.

We’ve got almost two years of travel ahead of us, which leaves plenty of libraries and new friends to come. We’d love to meet up with people along the way — feel free to reach out!

Learn more about Karla and Andres on their blog, and follow them on Instagram @hikeendraw.

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About Anas Alaoui

Anas Alaoui

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