Christina Benton loves the road. She loves it so much that she took her three home-schooled kids on a 64-day, 5,704-mile RV journey across the country in the middle of the winter.
Starting in January in their hometown of Charlotte, N.C., they visited dozens of national parks—all the way to Santa Monica, Calif., and back.
Why national parks? To deeply educate Joshua, 13; Averie, 10; and Nathaniel, 6, Benton says, and to raise awareness about a serious problem the parks face—a lack of visitors who look like her family.
Before her trip, Benton, whose alter ego is Nomadic Mama of 3, contacted regional directors in the National Park Service to express her concern about the lack of diversity she saw during her travels. She said the directors shared her concern, and referred her to several people and organizations working on the issue. One was Teresa Baker of African American Explorations, the founder of African American National Parks Event, to be held this weekend, June 4-5. Baker’s campaign focuses on getting African Americans into national parks and having them submit photographs of the outings to the event’s Facebook page.
We asked Baker to interview Benton, who recently launched a travel magazine, GO Places Magazine, and plans to launch a travel magazine for kids, GO Places Jr.
How was the road trip experience?
(It) was truly amazing for me and my children. Our goal was to make it coast to coast, and we wanted to hit as many national parks as we could along the way. We were lucky enough to make it to Carlsbad, White Sands, Sequoia, Lake Mead, Joshua Tree, Grand Canyon, Red Rock Canyon and Four Corners Monument in the Navajo parks. The places we have seen, the people we have met and the cultures we have experienced have been life changing. My kids are getting a hands-on, active and involved education they could not get in the classroom, and I am learning right along with them. Of course, we have our moments. Traveling with a 13-year-old, 10-year-old and 6-year-old in a 200-square-feet RV, there is bound to be some bickering, but overall, the experience has been amazing.
How many national parks had you visited before this trip?
Great Smoky Mountains was my first taste of the national parks, because I was born and raised nearKnoxville. My family enjoyed picnics (in the park), but not much more than that. No hikes or camping. But even the short visits sparked a love of the outdoors. … I can say that my love peaked when I had children. I knew when they were babies that I wanted to show them the world and take them on amazing adventures, and a large part of that included the great outdoors. When I divorced a couple of years ago, I bought an RV, and the kids and I hit the road for some real outdoor adventures. We had been to 43 sites within the National Park system prior to this road trip. All were on the East Coast, so we have been extremely pleased to earn passport stamps from the Southwest and West Coast. Each and every site was a learning experience. We really love the Junior Ranger program, and we make sure to participate wherever it is offered.
What are your favorite parks?
I asked my children this as well, so this answer is from all of us. I have to say that two national parks from this most recent trip tied for my favorite. Sequoia National Park: The drive up the mountain to this park was treacherous, especially in an RV, but it was so worth it. To understand your place in the world while you’re standing so insignificant among those mighty trees—it put things in perspective. Now I know huge, and it is amazing. My other favorite park from this past trip was Lake Mead. There’s something about a lake so pristine in the middle of the desert that will make you stand in awe.
Joshua: My favorite park was the White Sands (in New Mexico), because it was interactive, and the sledding down the dunes was really fun. Also, Carlsbad Caverns were really fun, and required a lot of physical strength to get through.
Averie: I liked the Sequoia National Park because of how big the trees were, how pretty the snow was, and how the mountains looked in the background.
Nathaniel: White Sands was so epic because you could sled all the way down, find a path to run back up and sled down again. It was the most fun in the world.
What message would you like to share with others who may be hesitating to do what you are doing?
The landscape of this country that we live in is absolutely amazing. We often think international travel is the key to being “cultured” and “well-traveled,” but starting at home in your own backyard is actually the key to a well-traveled person. … We have natural wonders of the world right here in our own parks, and people of color do not seem to be taking advantage of this. Not knowing how or where to start is no excuse. I’ve offered many times, and I’ll offer again to be a hiking buddy, camping buddy or park-tourist buddy, as well as offer any advice and guidance (within the scope of my experiences) on where to start when exploring the national parks and the great outdoors.
What kind of reactions did you receive from people you encountered?
We had a unanimously positive response when people learned what we are doing. Many expressed how they wish they could do something similar or are planning to do just that. The percentage is roughly equal between the positive reactions of people of color to non-people of color, yet I notice a huge disparity in the national pParks, the RV parks, and the outdoors in general. I can say I have never had any problems with any group of people while visiting national parks.
Have your kids made any mention of the lack of diversity in your travels? If so, how do you feel it has affected them if at all?
The kids have not mentioned the lack of diversity, but have, in fact, noticed. In conversations about our experiences, the kids (my older ones) have made a note about being the only brown people in the park at that particular visit. … Collectively, it is a conversation that we have. I do not believe it has affected them in any kind of way other than helping to (disprove) the idea that brown people don’t participate in the outdoors.
What are your plans once your travels come to an end?
I hope to continue to work with individuals on the same journey, such as you (Teresa Baker), Audrey Peterman, Rue Mapp and others. In addition, I will continue to write about the topic in the travel magazine I publish, as well as my travel blog. In the future, I hope to create opportunities for gatherings and meetups in the national parks and other outdoor spaces with people of color. I am in the initial phases of planning RV camping meetups in several of the national parks for 2017.
Teresa Baker is the founder of African American Explorations, which encourages people of color to connect with nature and the outdoors, particularly national parks. She tweets@LoveOnNature. This piece originally appeared in High Country News.