Neither flat tires nor mangled bikes nor pandemic can keep the Gagnon family from loading up their RV to travel cross country to revel in the glory of its national parks.
The Alamo family of six discovered the joys of vacationing in a recreational vehicle before the COVID-19 crisis kicked off the current RV travel trend.
"Our family has been on a quest to visit all of the U.S. national parks," mom Allison Gagnon explained. "Then the RV gave us the ability to maneuver all around the country in a safe way."
So far she, husband Justin and children Grace, 12; Brady and Hayden, 10; and Quinn, 7, have traveled via RV to 36 of the 62 sites that include "National Park" in their name. The parents have chronicled their travel adventures with "Gagnons Gone RVing" at www.gagnonsgone.com, where Allison states, "I've always had a passion for showing my kids our country."
Summer before last, they tackled the Western states after more than a year of investigation and preparations.
"We had been planning an epic family adventure trip really focusing on the national parks for the summer of 2019," Gagnon said. "We were kind of waiting for our youngest to be able to keep up -- there was a lot of hiking and a lot of exploring."
They liked the idea of traveling in an RV but thought it might be better to rent at that point rather than buy and to start with a shorter vacation.
"We took a one-week trip in the RV to make sure a whole summer was going to work," Gagnon recalled. "We went up the coast of California to Mendocino. After one week, we thought, 'This is a good plan.'"
In the summer of 2019, they spent eight weeks on the road visiting 15 national parks in the U.S. and five in Canada including Banff National Park and Lake Louise in Alberta, Canada.
"We hit national monuments along the way, too, and mostly focused on the Western states," Gagnon said. "We got to Mount Rushmore and Canada, and came home through Washington and Oregon."
"We just had so much fun," she added.
The kids did have their "moments," she noted, when one or another would say they didn't feel like hiking or exploring. And on the website dad Justin does point out that RV travel involves a lot of logistics, maintenance and shuffling of goods -- plus a lot of driving. He also wrote that each night was "like managing the bedtime dynamics of a slumber party."
But Allison and Justin agreed the trip was "a blast." They arrived home the day before school started and jumped right back into their normal life.
"Then a month into school, the kids were like, 'We really miss the RV,'" Allison said. "They were writing stories about the RV and little adventures we had along the way. We asked them, 'Do you guys want to make this a family goal to go to all 62 national parks?' The kids are, like, 'We are definitely in.'"
They began to assess the logistics for their next adventure, and in January purchased a 36-foot Coachman RV Mirada, Class A.
"The one we bought is similar to the one we rented. It has a really good floor plan, and plenty of sleeping spaces," Allison Gagnon said.
At first, they were planning a four-week trip for the summer of 2020, carefully routing hiking and exploring plus fun activities to keep the kids engaged, such as a ropes course in South Dakota.
"Obviously we were not expecting the pandemic," Gagnon said. "When that started, we thought, 'Oh, my God, if ever there was a great time to travel in an RV, this is our moment. We don't have to rely on anything but an occasional grocery store run.'"
They started off driving north and spent two days in Lassen Volcanic National Park, then drove on to Crater Lake, Oregon, and Bend before heading east to Red Lodge, Mont., to visit relatives, then continuing east.
"We had a lot of family time, and it has been awesome for us," Gagnon said. "There is nowhere to run away. You are trapped in there -- in a good way. It allowed us to have an extension of home."
They'd planned to go as far as Michigan, but then they realized nothing was pulling them back home.
"My husband owns a company that does school lunches, for over 200 schools in the state of California, and he was like, 'Why don't we just keep going?'" Gagnon said.
"Our most precious resource is time. We are not going to get this time back with our kids, so let's keep on going," she remembered reasoning.
"We went as far as Washington, D.C., the lower East Coast, the South and Texas on the way home," she continued.
"We went to 36 states this summer. It was pretty amazing to see so many incredible spots. It is such a good reminder that our country is so beautiful and full of so many wonderful, precious places."
The Gagnons also bore witness to the country coping with the pandemic. In the parks, visitor centers were mostly closed with rangers outside to distribute Junior Ranger information.
"We definitely found most people in the national parks were masked and following social distancing rules," Gagnon said. "In terms of the cities, we tried to stay away. It was clear that most people wore masks, but most of the cities were pretty shut down."
The family rode their bicycles through the Mall in Washington, D.C., so the kids could see the monuments, memorials, the Supreme Court, the Capitol Building and the White House -- all devoid of the usual crowds.
"I lived in D.C. for a summer during college, and this was a much different experience," Gagnon said.
Next they headed to Shenandoah National Park, more reunions with old friends, and the South. They also made time for beautiful beaches and enjoyed the warm water and fine white sand in Florida's Perdito Key State Park Beach.
Their RV journeys have included inevitable glitches, like when the key broke off in the lock of an exterior supply cabinet in the middle of Yellowstone, or when they discovered a broken bike rack with its three bikes busted in Arizona.
"When things go wrong, you have to be flexible," Gagnon said.
They were near Vinton, La., this summer when another driver pointed out that one of the vehicle's eight tires was flat.
"We pulled over -- and it was 110 degrees of course," Gagnon recalled. "It took us awhile to get in communication with roadside assistance but meanwhile I found an RV park down the street with a pool. We ended up having so much fun that we decided to spend the night."
Now the children are back at St. Isidore School in Danville, and they have been writing stories about this year's trip.
"Some of their favorite national parks are Utah's Natural Bridges, and Bryce and Zion. And they loved Mount Rainier," Gagnon said.
The whole family tremendously enjoyed Isle Royale National Park, located in the northwest corner of Lake Superior.
"When we were planning our trip we knew the only way to get there was by ferry boat but the ferry boats were not running this summer," Gagnon said. "We had to take a seaplane, and none of us had ever been on a seaplane before."
They hiked to the tip of the island, encountering not one other person along the way.
"I told the kids, 'Never again will you have a national park to yourself,'" Gagnon said. "It was amazing, hiking out to these cliffs on the edge of the island, with literally no one else there. That was definitely a family favorite day -- the sea plane and being alone on the island."
The kids also loved Memphis and Nashville and all the South, where they learned about the civil rights movement.
"All these little moments gave them a great foundation for how wonderful and rich our country is," Gagnon said. "A lot of museums were closed, especially in Washington and in the South, but we weren't interested in going anywhere indoors. That's the beauty of the national parks."
The family has already begun planning for summer 2021, an RV trip through 10 national parks throughout the Southwest.
"Right now we are in this lovely little sweet spot where the youngest is old enough to keep up and have a good attitude about it, and the oldest is in the seventh grade," Gagnon pointed out. "We say, 'Let's take advantage of this time.'"
"I've always had a passion for showing my kids our country," she says on the website. "To breathe in the fresh air; to experience what it's truly like to be dwarfed by the sheer size and grandeur of rocks, caverns, and trees; to find treasure in animals, plants, flowers, and rocks."
At the end of this year's trip, she wrote, "To have seen our country this way has been the most incredible gift under the most difficult of circumstances. We return home GRATEFUL."