Traveling to all 59 U.S. National Parks
A Bethesda woman's journey across America
(From top) Mary Jo Veverka on trips to Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Preserve in Alaska; North Cascades National Park in Washington state; Big Cypress National Preserve in Florida; and Yosemite National Park in California
The summer after her freshman year of college, Mary Jo Veverka had a choice: Go back to her family farm to detassel corn, or accept a job at Yellowstone National Park.
It wasn’t a difficult decision. Veverka felt stifled by life in rural Minnesota, where she had grown up with parents who didn’t want her to go to college, saying she should leave that to the boys in the family. What she enjoyed was camping, hiking and exploring nature—skills she’d acquired as a Girl Scout.
Veverka, who lives in Bethesda, spent the next three months in America’s first national park, living in a dorm on the parkland, waiting tables at the Old Faithful Inn and hitchhiking her way through the park. “I always likened it to being in college without any homework,” she says. She liked it so much that she returned the next two summers.
Those experiences stuck with her, and when Veverka, now 68, retired in 2003—she had been a partner at both Booz Allen Hamilton and Accenture and a commissioner at the U.S. Food & Drug Administration—she decided to explore America’s parks. Over the next 11 years, Veverka visited all 59 U.S. national parks, occasionally ambling to other historic sites along the way and visiting a few parks more than once. “I didn’t want this to just be a check-off [list],” she says. “I wanted to get a chance to really explore these parks.”
Veverka has been to Yellowstone three times since setting off on her goal, most recently for nine days last August for the centennial celebration of the National Park Service, which was founded on Aug. 25, 1916. She spoke to Bethesda Magazine about her experiences.
Picking favorites: “I very frequently get asked ‘What’s your favorite park?,’ and it’s like answering ‘Who’s your favorite child?,’ ” says Veverka, who is married and has one son and two grandchildren. “I just can’t say.” A lot of them have been memorable. She’ll never forget watching caribou cross miles of sand dunes above the Arctic Circle in Alaska’s Kobuk Valley National Park, or coming across churches and historic buildings against a backdrop of striking cliffs and canyons on a trip to Capitol Reef National Park in Utah. The creeks in Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Texas reminded her of home. “I stood on the top of Half Dome [in Yosemite National Park] on my 60th birthday,” she says. “That was cool.”
Going solo: Veverka traveled mostly alone. “When you go by yourself, you’re focused on learning about the park,” she says. “When you go with others, you’re socializing.” Still, she’s gone on a few trips with friends and family. Her son, his wife and their son, who was 13 months old at the time, joined her on a trip to Mount Rainier National Park in Washington state. She says going with a young child encouraged her to spend even more time taking in nature. “You go up to a stream and sit down and throw stones or pebbles in the stream,” she says, “or you explore the buds on a tree.”
Help along the way: On her first trip in 2003, Veverka met a volunteer from the Rocky Mountain Conservancy who offered to take her through Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. “For the next few days, he took me all through the park, showing me what they were working on,” she says. On a trip to Glacier National Park in Montana, a citizen scientist hiked with her for six hours, showing her how researchers monitor mountain goats in the area to study how glacier melts affect animals.
Further travels: Though she has achieved her goal, Veverka says she’s not done traveling. Last year she visited Mongolia, where she went birding with the International Crane Foundation. Next up: Cuba and Antarctica.
Focus on the future: Since 2011, Veverka has sat on the board of directors for the National Park Foundation, where she helps implement educational programs for children. Teaching kids to care for national parks is a way of “developing the next generation of stewards for our public lands,” she says.
Perfect ending: The last park Veverka needed to visit to reach her goal was Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota, where she’d gone on a camping trip with Girl Scouts in high school. “As I was coming across the Upper Peninsula, I was retracing a portion of that camping trip,” she says. “I thought, ‘I’ve come full circle. I’ve come home.’”