Finding Purpose in National Parks

A small red Toyota overflowing with clothes, shoes and snacks peeled out of a suburban driveway in Dallas, Texas. In the driver’s seat sat Gentry Bennett, feeling somewhat nervous but mostly excited. She waved goodbye to her dad and put her foot to the gas.

Bennett took a journey she’d never forget in the summer of 2015. After she completed her internship at Southwest Airlines in Dallas, she decided to take the long way back to school in Athens, Ohio. She mapped out a route that took her through 11 states and nine national parks, with plenty of extra time for hiking. Many college students go on road trips — they hop in the car with friends, put on some music and drive. So why was Bennett’s trip any different? One major reason: she was by herself.

“I felt that if I went with someone else I would be subjecting myself to their experience,” Bennett said. “I think it can be valuable to do a road trip with others because you connect with them differently but this wasn’t about connecting with other people, it was about connecting with myself.”

Today’s millennials are obsessed with the idea of ‘wanderlust.’ They want to travel and experience new things. A 2013 study by Expedia found that millennials under 30 take more leisure trips per year than older generations. Social media is a large cause of this obsession. A Yoga Travel Tree blog explains that millennials don’t trust traditional advertising. Instead, they trust their friends, family and other people they follow on social media to recommend everything from hotels to restaurants.

Bennett, an Ohio University junior studying strategic communication, grew up getting used to the idea of traveling. She was born in Columbus and moved to Oxford, Ohio soon after. She moved to Indiana at the age of 12 and back to Ohio three years later, to Centerville. After Bennett graduated high school, her mother moved to Nashville, Tennessee, where she visits often. Her father lived in Florida before relocating to Dallas, where she’s spent two summers of her college career.

Bennett’s friends know her as the spontaneous one of the group. “Gentry is always up for a good adventure,” said Rosie Haren, an Ohio University student and friend of Bennett.

Other friends are both amazed by and perhaps a little jealous of her easygoing yet driven attitude. “Gentry is a free spirit with a restless mind,” said Libby Bradford, another friend and Ohio University student. “I envy her spontaneity and willingness. Her passion for the wilderness goes well beyond a few miles and her trip is proof of that.”

Her mother was not as quick to jump on board with the idea of her daughter taking a solo trip across the country. “I worried about her the whole time,” said Michele Bennett. “I told her to check in with me every day and to send me pictures so I knew she made it to each state.”

Bennett’s trip challenged her in ways that many less adventurous individuals would run away from. At Zion National Park in Utah, she completed a trek that required hikers to hold onto chains, which secured them from a 1,000-foot drop on either side of the trail. Hikers are rewarded at the top with an extended view of the many peaks and valleys of the park.

College is considered a time to ‘find yourself.’ Bennett’s trip gave her inspiration for both her future career and travels. National parks are now a part of her identity, and she plans to visit every park throughout her lifetime. She also hopes to one day combine her avid use of social media with her passion for parks into a career.

“In today’s media landscape, consumers are found online. I plan to use my social media skills to attract visitors to the national parks,” she said. Bennett aims to inspire her love for the outdoors in her audience. “I think it’s very important to spend time outdoors and utilize the land that the government has set aside for outdoor recreation. I want to find people online and bring them to the outdoors.”

Although she did not travel internationally during her summer trip, she plans to explore the world in the future. “I would love to go to New Zealand. It’s so awesome and beautiful, I know I would love it,” she said.

See pictures Bennett took and hear firsthand about her journey in this slideshow.