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Choose your own adventure travel blog
Standing surrounded by the beautiful orange, yellow and red trees in Little Buffalo State Park, a question obsessively rolled around my head. Why have I not heard of this place before?
It was my first ever trip to the 923-acre park in Perry County. My wife and I found it while taking a drive after brunch in Harrisburg. At this point -- October 2020 -- the COVID-19 pandemic was in full swing and we took every chance we could to get out of the house.
Little Buffalo State Park is stunning in the fall. The fall foliage reflecting off the calm lake. The views and scenery filled me with so many feelings. But the question kept nagging me: Why have I not heard of this place before.
The answer was simple: I don’t pay attention to Pennsylvania State Parks. I’m not outdoorsy. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy the outdoors, but it’s never really appealed to me. I don’t hike. I don’t kayak. I’m more of an air conditioning kind of guy. Comfort, that’s what I like. The outdoors is not comfortable. It’s hot and sticky and filled with animals and bugs and spiders and ticks.
But, if this sort of beauty is at my doorstep, I thought I should see more of it. Then the next question came to me. How many parks are in Pennsylvania? 40? 50? 60? A quick Google search revealed that there was 121 Pennsylvania State Park.
One hundred and twenty one. That is nuts.
Then I thought: I wonder how long it would take to run all of them? At this point, I had been spending the past year focusing on my health. I had lost 90 pounds and picked running back up. I love running. I don’t enjoy it but I love it. Running is the only physical exercise I’ve done -- and I’ve done everything from football and baseball to CrossFit and soccer -- that does so much for me mentally and physically. It’s like the Marines -- it breaks me down and builds me up.
How long would it take for someone to run a single mile in every Pennsylvania State Park? A year? That sounded about right. That’s 10 parks a month for a full year. That doesn’t sound that hard. Right?
I am naturally drawn to the idea of setting difficult personal challenges, especially ones where there’s no real reward for them. I love stories of people pushing themselves as hard as they can. Not for medals or world records but just to test their mental and physical toughness. I fully support the idea of doing something that’s hard, something that sucks, to find out what you’re made of.
"Why are you doing this? For money, for fame, for glory."
No. I’m just doing it to see if I can.
That’s when the idea started to take hold. I wonder if I could run a mile in every state park in Pennsylvania. Ah. That’s dumb. There’s no reason to do it. I mean, I’m not a very good or fast runner. Why waste the time and money and energy doing something that doesn’t matter? Just because? That’s a good enough reason for me.
It was an idea but I wasn’t really sure if it was something I was going to attempt. It would take a lot of time and money driving to and from 121 parks around a giant state like Pennsylvania. Then I got the news, my grandfather passed away from COVID19. My parents -- who took care of my grandfather in New Jersey -- both battled the infection. My mom -- a cancer survivor -- really struggled. With much of her lungs removed, she struggled to breath and could barely function. My dad struggled less. But my grandfather’s body just couldn’t handle it.
Bob Sauer -- who his 20-plus grandkids and great grandkids called Grandpa -- died at 93 years old.
I loved my grandfather. He was kind and generous and always wanted to catch up. I’d fill him in on recent trips and adventures I’d been on. He’d tell me tales about visiting Africa and Asia and what it was like growing up. He loved a good story. He loved supporting his family. He deserved much more than a small, socially-distanced funeral. He deserved to be surrounded by dozens of family, friends and loved ones.
After the funeral, I kept thinking about the state park idea. My grandfather was not an outdoorsman. Most of the time he spent outside in his younger years (that's to say MY younger years) was golfing and doing yard work. He didn’t run. He didn’t hike. And he didn’t camp. But, he did love adventure. He did love a good story. Running a mile in every Pennsylvania State Park would make for one helluva good story. That’s when I decided.
The challenge I set for myself was simple. Run a mile in every state park in one year starting on Jan. 1, 2021. For Christmas, my wife Abby bought me a State Park Passport which included places to get a stamp from every park in Pennsylvania. So, I’d run a mile, get a stamp and take a picture at the entrance sign in every state park. The completion date I set for myself was Dec. 31, 2021. Though I didn’t tell anyone at the time, I wanted to do this 121 in 21 Challenge -- that’s what I started calling it -- in honor of my grandfather. He would have loved this, I thought. He would have loved me starting something so ridiculous and unnecessary. He would have loved to hear the stories.
I told Abby about what I planned to do and she gave me a very cautious, “Ok.... why?” And I didn’t really have a good answer other than, “I want to see if I could do it.” I didn’t tell her or anyone else about the challenge’s connections to my grandfather. I tend to keep family matters private. I believe they call it “emotional internalization.” She supported me, as best as she could support a husband doing something this unnecessary and time consuming.
I had the idea. Run one mile in 121 Pennsylvania State Parks in one year. Now, how the hell do you start to plan for something like this?
Be sure to read my future #121In21 Challenge blog posts!
Hey! I'm Christian.