For most of us, a to-do list represents a series of daunting errands, everyday chores and endless cycles of grocery shopping. Dale Blasingame has more exciting tasks to cross off his list: getting to know every part of the country through its national parks.
Blasingame’s love of parks is greater than Leslie Knope’s, and in his quest for greenery, he won’t leave any leaf unturned. In 2015, he set out to visit every Texas state park and visited all 95 of them within a year. Then, he moved on to national parks. So far, he’s halfway there, with 200 or so to go.
While Blasingame’s passion for adventure mostly entails outdoors pursuits, the pandemic has still changed his plans. In the beginning of the year, he only got to visit Hawaii, though after hiking in the jungle he drank contaminated water and contracted norovirus, and the only views he got to admire were inside the toilet bowl he faced for days. He spent the rest of his week on bed rest.
“There are about 420, roughly, national park properties, and that includes the full national parks, but also national monuments, national battlefields, and national lakeshores,” he explains. “I think I'm actually right at 200 right now.
“This year's basically been a total wash because of the pandemic,” he says. He's had to cancel his five trips planned for the summer.
Blasingame wasn’t always an outdoors cat. He grew up in the Rio Grande Valley city of Harlingen “about 10 minutes from Mexico.” For most of his working life, he was a journalist and a TV producer at the NBC station in San Antonio. After that, he co-founded a digital marketing company. For the past eight years, he’s been a professor, teaching journalism at Texas State University in San Marcos.
In his free time (and sometimes as part of his work) he continues to explore the country’s parks.
“The nice part of being a professor,” he begins, before considering the full picture of his work. “I mean, there are many nice parts of being a professor because you get to help students, and you get to make all these amazing connections with students and see their growth and all that …
“But, you know, we have big breaks.”
Blasingame says that while instructors don't get vacation time “like everyone else gets throughout the year,” they get time off around Christmas, and most of the summer.
“There's the possibility for ... chunks of time off then,” he says. “And so I take full advantage when I can to go on as many trips as I can and see as much of the country as possible.”
The school encouraged him to weave his interests into his teaching, and several times a year, Blasingame takes students to parks, sometimes in road trips, others by plane, for courses on storytelling and video and photojournalism.
“It’s just like a ‘study abroad' program, but you stay in the United States,” he says of one course, with which he partnered with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
Blasingame says that his travels bring him, and his students, a greater sense of appreciation for nature and all its diversity.
“Our overarching goal is to encourage them to spend time in the outdoors,” he says of his students, “and then also to help with breaking those stereotypes of the outdoors, you know, highlighting people they run into along the way that don't look like them and have different stories than they have.”
Blasingame grew up with the occasional camping trip, but it wasn’t until a wedding invitation forced him out on a journey that the outdoors became his calling. On the way to the ceremony in Big Bend, he decided to stop by the Marfa lights.
“And so you go in the middle of the night, and most nights it seems like they're not really visible,” he says of the stars. “But the night I was there, they were dancing around like crazy and so, to the left, I'm looking at the Marfa lights and then I notice, over the mountains, this massive thunderstorm was coming in."
Blasingame remembers lying on his car's windshield, his eyes darting everywhere.
“I'm looking at the Marfa lights to my left. I'm looking at this amazing lightning show off to the right, and I just started bawling, crying," he says.
He was so moved that he called his father.
"I had a really horrible cell reception because you're out in the middle of nowhere," he says, "and my dad answered the phone and started worrying because all he could hear was me crying on the phone. But I I was trying to say it was like one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen in my life. It really had an impact on me.”
Soon, Blasingame would build an album of unforgettable snapshot memories. First, he had a dream that he went on a road trip around the country. Within the week, he was on his way to Montana. In two weeks, he stopped by national parks such as Mount Rushmore, Yellowstone Park and the Rocky Mountains. He bathed in the hot springs of Arkansas and forgot about his disdain for driving. Coming home was a big letdown.
“When I got home, I got into this really bad depressive funk because I'm coming off this, like, massive high of experiencing something new in my life at, like, age 35 or whatever it was,” he says. “You know, you don't typically associate that age with when you're finding all these new things that you suddenly love in life.”
That’s when Blasingame, at his then-girlfriend’s suggestion, decided to visit state parks that were within reach.
At Austin’s Pedernales Falls, the park ranger sold him a state park pass for $80. Blasingame asked him how many state parks there were.
“I don’t know, 90 something,” the ranger said.
“And I remember saying to him, ‘OK, I'm gonna do them all in one year,’” Blasingame says. “And he was just kind of like, ‘Ok, you know, whatever random dude. And that's literally what started it all.”
He made good use of his pass. Whenever there was any block of time off, Blasingame was off to the parks. He was methodical in his logistical planning and knocked out 15 parks at a time.
Halfway through his quest to visit all state parks in a year, he rescued a dog, Lucy, now his travel partner and the first dog — to his knowledge — to visit all state parks in Texas.
“She’s a little bit of an Instagram celebrity,” Blasingame says of Lucy. “She gets recognized in the parks. That's always funny when people stop and ask to take her picture or any time I hear somebody screaming ‘Lucy’ on the trail.”
Blasingame also has a following that contacts him frequently for advice or to share their own park-visiting resolutions. After hitting up all 95 parks (the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has changed the classification for state parks to only 89), he began looking to national parks. He’s now visited 46 states.
There are 62 full national parks, Blasingame explains, but hundreds of park properties (like a lake, monument or battlefield) designated as national park properties.
One universal truth he’s found in his travels is that people everywhere — at least those on vacation — are invariably friendly.
“I've generally found that people are really nice in the parks,” Blasingame says. “I think there really is something to being outdoors in nature that calms us.”
Blasingame believes that it’s the healing power of the outdoors is the reason why people flocked to nature during the pandemic.
For all his lists and standout experiences, Blasingame picks no favorites.
“There is something beautiful about all of those properties,” he says, “and there are some states that, you know, may not have the best reputation in terms of, you know, an outdoors experience.”
“West Texas is a perfect example,” he continues. “I think those of us who have been born and raised in Texas have this idea that West Texas is just like flat and gross, right? And West Texas is one of the most absolutely breathtaking places you'll ever visit in your life. “
It’s not all picnics in the park. Blasingame has gotten lost, had a bear jump on the trail right behind him at Yosemite, come across mountain lions at a glacier in Montana and he and Lucy have been chased by wild boars at a state park.
One would assume that Blasingame has a hard time maintaining a social life, as his schedule is booked up year round. But traveling solo, with his dog, forces him to be more social, and not just to the rattlesnakes he meets along the way.
“I get to meet so many new people because of this that I would say it's actually helped my social life,” he says, “because people are usually kinda fascinated by it. So it's a great icebreaker to to meet new people.”
Blasingame also uses the opportunity away from home to stay in “really weird” properties he finds on Airbnb. He’s stayed in a school bus in West Virginia, an Amish farm in Maine and an Airstream “miles away from everyone else” at the top of the mountains in California.
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He’s taken his parents to Alaska, found himself alone on Cumberland Island with nothing but wild horses.
International travel is next on his list, but he doesn't even want to map out the possibilities before he's finished collecting all national parks.
Blasingame’s trips are well-rounded. He also spends fine exploring cities like Savannah, and his interest in JFK often brings him to Dallas, where the "X" on the road in Dealey Plaza marks the spot.
“I typically do the city stuff, too,” he says. “I love geography. And, you know, I just want to see everything.”