The National Park System has more than 400 sites across the country. An Illinois man has visited all of them and wrote a book about the journey.
David Kroese said it all began at a turning point in his life. He had worked for years in biotechnology, but his career advancement had stalled. While on assignment in the Netherlands, Kroese took the time to visit various historical locales around Europe.
“I couldn’t get my mind off," he said. "Maybe my way of being homesick was to think about the U.S. and all the places I had never seen and always wanted to, whether they were civil war battlegrounds, historic sites, or the big natural places, like Yellowstone.”
This feeling came to a head in August 2012, he said, when he brought his then-fiancee, Kareen, to the Chancellorsville, Virginia civil war battlefield. Kroese recounted details of the battle to Kareen, including the death of Stonewall Jackson, but he said she didn’t share his level of historical interest. Recognizing that Kroese liked visiting these historical sites, Kareen directed him to a station for National Park Passport Stamps. Intrigued, Kroese examined a map of the National Park System. He realized most of the locations were either places he wanted to visit, or had never even heard of.
“By Labor Day weekend of 2012," he said, "I had made a commitment in my head. It was a goal to see every one of these places."
Kroese and Kareen married in early 2013, and she would accompany him on many of his future park visits. But Kroese was only able to visit about 30 parks in the first year or so. His pace changed dramatically when he discovered the National Park Travelers Club. This organization was formed to collect the 6500 unique passport stamps spread across the National Park System.
“All of a sudden, I could ask people questions," Kroese said. "I could read about their experiences. I had this database with all these stamps that I could use help plan trips and stops.”
By 2016, Kroese had visited 318 unique sites. That year was also the centennial of the National Park System. Kroese had many stories of his visits, but it took family encouragement for him to commit them to paper.
“When I saw my mother in a one-night stop at my hometown here in southern Illinois," he recalls, "The first thing out of her mouth, she grabbed me and said 'you need to write this story.' I said 'yes ma’am.' With that tone of voice, that’s the right answer for Mom.”
Kroese’s experiences varied in both nature and tone. He remembers one, a visit to Minute Man National Historic Park in Concord, Massachusetts. Kroese approached a bridge when he saw two “living historians” engaged in conversation. One was dressed as a minuteman, the other as a British redcoat.
"So I cross over the arch in this bridge and I get close to them, they’re actually talking about last night’s Red Sox game," Kroese said. "I wait for a pause in the conversation and I say 'guys, I’m no historian, but shouldn’t you be shooting at each other?' Without missing a beat, the minuteman turns to me and says 'we might just load up and start shooting at you.'”
A more somber visit took place at American Memorial Park in Saipan. This island, north of Guam in the Pacific Ocean, was invaded by the United States in World War II. Kroese said, at the time, many Japanese civilians were so afraid of capture that they committed mass suicide by jumping off cliffs.
“So you have these settings, the tropical jungle, the rugged interior of the island, it’s really a beautiful island," he said. "Then you have this horrid history that’s coupled with it. So you’re trying to absorb both of these things at once.”
Writing the book became Kroese’s full-time job in 2017. The book, “The Centennial,” was published in January 2019.
After visiting all 419 national park sites, Kroese noted the system faces financial difficulty. He said the number of people visiting the parks has risen more than 20% over the past decade, and more places have been incorporated into the system. But a lack of funding means park management often has to leave some of their full-time positions unstaffed.
"And then they use some of that freed-up labor money," he said, "and they spend it on construction projects and infrastructure that’s literally necessary, usually for safety reasons, to keep the place open."
Kroese said the infrastructure backlog runs from $13-$14 billion.
Since writing “The Centennial,” Kroese has branched out to other writing projects and created a travelling exhibit of 483 commemorative pins he collected during his park travels.
For those interested in exploring national parks, Kroese has several tips. First, he said, find your passion, since topics from history, to art, to nature are all covered in some part of the park system. Also, he said, be careful about scheduling a visit on holiday weekends, since those tend to be the most crowded. Finally, he said, keep an eye out for experiences off the beaten path.
"The general public doesn’t know some of these places exist," he said. "I didn’t know some of these places existed until I started exploring. So take a look at all the parks, the entire park system.”
And with 419 sites to choose from, there are plenty of options.