America's National Parks Through the Eyes of a Gay Couple on an RV Journey to See Them All

Matt Kirouac and Bradley Setter
Photo: Courtesy of Parklandia

As it turns out, national parks are the best medicine for homesickness. They’re also a source of comfort and inclusion, especially as a hiking-obsessed gay man hoofing it through red states.

America’s national parks have long been a source of inspiration and rejuvenation for my husband Brad and I, so when the opportunity presented itself to live in an RV and visit these beautiful places, I dove in head-first. A daunting considering I prefer to tiptoe into things, rather than plunge all at once.

Why the plunge? Brad and I needed to come up with a living arrangement that matched both of our on-the-go lifestyles and jobs. Since we were both traveling so much for work, we had less and less time together at home in Chicago, eventually getting to the point that we would go weeks without seeing one another. It was Brad’s idea to look into buying an RV, which is something that I had only fantasized about, but eventually realized how viable it actually was for us. We both work remotely, we both travel constantly, and we both love national parks. This is something so many people dream about doing, a unique opportunity we didn’t want to miss, and I’m so glad we didn’t.

A large part of our move into an RV has been driven by Brad’s role as events manager of Burton’s Maplewood Farm, an Indiana-based maple syrup farm that’s grown its national presence at farmers markets and special events. This is what Brad frequently traveled for, and his events dictated our schedule and routes as we hit the road. At first, long travel hours felt arduous and overwhelming, especially with a small dog who was still antsy and restless in this new environment, but things began to normalize and feel comfortable as we made stops in fun places like Albuquerque for the International Balloon Fiesta, Las Vegas for the National Finals Rodeo, and Disney World for Epcot Food & Wine.

Along the way, we always make sure to prioritize time for national parks, whether it’s an afternoon stopover or a special trip to camp for a week. Although there are technically 61 national parks in the country, there are actually more than 400 units managed by the National Park Service in every state across the country, including national seashores, national monuments, national battlefields, and of course, iconic national parks like Yellowstone, Badlands, and Rocky Mountain. So no matter our itinerary, there’s almost always a national park of some sort that we can visit along the way, and they’ve become the recurring theme of our RV life.

For me, I crave that dynamic lifestyle that comes with RV-ing through national parks. I get bored and anxious far too quickly if we’re stagnant someplace with little to do, which is how living on wheels started to feel like home, especially when we’re surrounded by hiking trails in pristine wilderness. Leaving Chicago, where I lived for 13 years and my entire adult life, was incredibly difficult, and it hit me a lot harder than I expected. As excited as I was for this new chapter with my husband, it was an emotional struggle to leave my friends, our cozy home, our beloved neighborhood, and the city that’s been so good to us. Still today, after more than a year of living on the road, a common topic of conversation for Brad and I is simply reminiscing about what Chicago bars and restaurants we miss and crave.

After the first couple weeks living in the RV (and more than a couple good sobs), our homesickness was tempered by the adventures we were embarking on and the thrilling new memories we were making, from attending a Christmas parade near Arches National Park to kayaking amidst crocodiles at Everglades National Park. In every sense, I felt like we were starting to live our lives to the absolute fullest, immersing ourselves in national parks and experiencing things that would stick with us for the rest of our lives. I still get homesick, of course, and I periodically return to Chicago to scratch that itch, but America’s national parks have single-handedly made this journey worth it, in more ways than one.

A few months into RV living, Brad and I started to conceptualize a podcast about this journey of ours, focusing on what it’s like to live on the road in an RV while visiting national parks. In the summer of 2019, Parklandia was born, a show produced by iHeartRadio, Christopher Hassiotis, and Myke Johns, with episodes centered on national parks we’ve visited.

It’s been important for us to talk about things like history, climate change, and the cultures surrounding these places, all while remaining upbeat and fun at the same time. We toe that line as best we can, making each other laugh by describing Abe Lincoln as the Beyoncé of Gettysburg, while respectfully discussing things like Native American cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde, or how to safely explore Carlsbad Caverns. For us, the podcast has been an incredible validation for this whole crazy journey. We didn’t hit the road seeking this out and we’d be RV-ing through national parks regardless; it just happened organically, fortuitously aligned with this life we’re living.

Of course, it hasn’t been all laughs and adventure. The RV life comes with its own set of struggles and hardships, some of which I anticipated (e.g. significant downsizing, having to go to laundromats, not always having basic things like running water) and some of which I’ve been completely caught off guard by. In addition to homesickness, which naturally gets better with time, especially since Brad has a knack for outfitting the RV with homey elements like photos and boardgames, one particularly personal issue has been grappling with my own sense of identity as a gay man in places that aren’t as open and accepting as Chicago.

In a big city, I never think twice or worry about how I present myself, or how my voice sounds, or what people think when they see Brad and I holding hands on the street. Since moving into the RV, however, my general appearance has become much less colorful and I wear far less accessories and jewelry. Granted, part of that is out of laziness and physical lack of space for clothing storage in our 26-foot RV, but when I’m walking around small cities or towns way outside my comfort zone in places like Wyoming, North Dakota, or Arkansas, I’m much more self-conscious about how I’m perceived.

Matt Kirouac and Bradley Setter
Courtesy of Parklandia

I sometimes feel ashamed that I allow outside influences to stifle myself, especially when it means I’m too uncomfortable to hold Brad’s hand in public. It’s an issue that’s caused arguments and hurt feelings, but at the end of the day, Brad is very understanding and empathetic. Over the summer, someone on the street in Cheyenne, Wyoming, called me a homophobic slur as I walked by silently. It’s the first time in my life I’ve ever experienced something like that, and it rattled me. It was the first time I felt genuinely unsafe and violated.

But that same afternoon at a coffee shop, a smiling barista was kind enough to give me an iced coffee for free for no apparent reason. It was a sweet gesture that came at precisely the right moment, reminding me that not everybody here is judging me or thinking hateful things. Most people are good. And that’s been another emotional theme of our travels, too. No matter the location or size of the town, most people have been welcoming and kind.

National parks, especially, have felt like the ultimate safe spaces. They are common grounds set aside by the government for the enjoyment of all people, and you truly see a melting pot of cultures, ages, sizes, races, and sexual orientations at national parks. This is something we try to showcase and celebrate on the podcast as well, highlighting how national parks are not exclusively for hardcore backpackers and wilderness junkies; rather, they’re accessible places with something for everyone.

Our first year of RV living was filled with some of our highest highs and lowest lows. This is by no means a glamorous endless vacation, and the physical and emotional challenges that come with it are myriad. But now that we’ve gotten into a comfortable groove and we’ve arranged the RV to make it feel feel like us, things have never been better. We’ve gotten to the point where the journey across America is what feels like home.

Sure, getting physical mail is a tedious hassle, WiFi can be nonexistent in certain places, and collecting change for laundromats is a headache, but it’s all worth it for this adventure of a lifetime. Personally, I’m also steadily becoming more comfortable with myself again. Even though some podcast commenters say that I sound like a valley girl, I’m comfortable putting myself out there like that. I’m comfortable wearing a ridiculous amount of rings. Most importantly, I’m comfortable walking down the street — any street, or any trail — hand-in-hand with my husband.

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