They were visiting relatives in Montana, an early stop on the Gagnon family’s carefully planned spreadsheet-to-Michigan summer 2020 national park adventure, when mom Allison first spoke up. “Our kids’ activities are all canceled. We have nothing else on the calendar. Don’t you think it just makes sense to just keep going? Maybe go to the East Coast.”
Cue the Montana cousins with the sarcasm. “Oh, yeah, the East Coast, because you’re basically already there once you get to Michigan.”
When you’re traveling in an RV from the San Francisco Bay Area, the difference between the Midwest and the East Coast starts to feel pretty negligible, Allison Gagnon ’02 insists, but among the extended family “it became this big joke.”
Until they got back on the road and dad Justin chimed in from the driver’s seat. “Actually, I think we should just keep going.” Their four kids, ranging in age from 12 to 7, were on board, literally and figuratively.
This is, to be sure, a family with its foot on the gas. Inspired by a 2016 family trip chronicled in Notre Dame Magazine, the Gagnons embarked on an 11,000-mile summer 2019 excursion to numerous national parks in a rented RV, documenting the highlights — and the inevitable frictions and frustrations — at Gagnons Gone RVing. They returned home the day before school started, got the kids haircuts and merged back into the traffic of everyday life.
Little moments showed Allison and Justin how much the experience resonated with their children. One wrote a paper about visiting Yellowstone, another started crying after choir practice. Why? Because the director had asked the singers to envision something about summertime that made them happy. “I just kept thinking about the RV. It just made me miss it so much.”
Allison and Justin came to the conclusion that “maybe this is just our jam for right now. Maybe this is how we should really take this time and make the most of it.”
Together the family made a goal of visiting all 62 national parks in what felt like the fleeting sweet-spot years when the kids were just the right age. And last January, in the waning weeks of blissful obliviousness when ambitious travel plans could still be made, they bought their own RV for the 2020 leg of the journey.
Then came the pandemic. In the very niche category of viable plague vacations, a self-contained mobile home bound for outdoorsy destinations was about as plausible any could be. Still, they were not immune to COVID-19’s disruptions.
Justin Gagnon ’00 and classmates Keith Cosbey ’00 and Ryan Mariotti ’00 run Choicelunch, which provides meals to hundreds of California schools. When the pandemic shuttered schools, Gagnon, the CEO, had to perform “major triage,” as Allison puts it, after an economic earthquake. There was no way he could justify another extended summer expedition. Maybe half the previous year’s, max.
By the time they were on the road, though, his work situation had stabilized enough to make “sea to shining sea” seem feasible. In some ways, the pandemic made the extension even more plausible, with the family’s usual crowded and scattered schedules left empty.
“When we’re home in a normal world, there’s always something pulling at one or two or five of us,” Allison says, “so I think just really being able to take advantage of that opportunity was such a gift.”
Their original 2020 itinerary would take them as far as northern Michigan’s Isle Royale National Park on Lake Superior, a stop worth lingering over for a moment. Ferries normally transport visitors from the mainland to the island, but because of COVID-19 they weren’t running. That meant the Gagnons had to take a seaplane to the park, where they hiked without encountering another soul.
“You may come back with your own kids someday, but it will never be like this again,” Allison told her children. “Never again will you be the only people in a national park.”
From Isle Royale they ad-libbed their way east, encountering more kismet moments possible only in upside down 2020. Some of the most popular parks were crowded, but the Gagnons ended up visiting 14 — along with little detours like a stop at Notre Dame and a late-night campus bike ride. They biked around the National Mall and the monuments in Washington, too, another tourist destination they’ll never share with so few people again.
On the way back west, they swept south, spending four memorable days at Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Then there was a little takeout barbeque tour of Nashville and Memphis, down through New Orleans, into Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and home.
They doubled their original plan, more or less matching the 2019 marathon, spending another eight weeks and 11,000 miles on the road.
After Christmas the Gagnons climbed back into the RV. They’re crossing the country toward Florida’s three national parks as we speak. Right now they’re in Texas, fresh from a visit to Big Bend National Park with plans to see Notre Dame play in the Rose Bowl, rounding out this rough year with more of the moments that made it memorable in a good way for their family.
“To have this beautiful, enriching experience born out of those challenges,” Allison says, “was the most cathartic experience we could have imagined.”
Jason Kelly is an associate editor of this magazine.