Growing up on a dairy farm, Charles Dean, of Ridgely, was never able to travel, as the family had to stay close to care for the cows. Over the past 10 years, he has made up for lost time, crisscrossing the country in pursuit of a dream — to visit all 412 National Park Service areas in the U.S. and its territories.
Since he began tracking his travels in 2006, Dean has visited 326 of the country's National Park units, and by the end of next year, has plans to finish off the rest of sites in the continental United States.
Dean said the dream began when he started his teaching career at South Carroll High School in 2000.
"I was teaching an elective called the American Revolution and Civil War, and I thought to become a better teacher, I should visit the battlefields I taught about," Dean said. "From there, after seeing every battlefield, I thought, why don't I start trying to see as many as possible?"
After buying a National Parks passport in 2006, Dean said, he began spending all of his spring, summer, Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks traveling the country, checking more sites off of his list. For many of the parks, Dean said, he'll fly out to a central location and then start on a road trip to visit clusters of parks at once. Last summer alone, Dean was able to check off 70 different National Park units in a single trip.
Because of his dedication to this goal, Dean said he's become known as the "National Parks Guy" among his friends, co-workers and neighbors. The journey and the parks themselves have become an inextricable part of his personality. Dean and his wife Rebecca were married in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee, and his dog Parker was found as a stray near Hovenweep National Monument in Utah.
On each of his trips, Dean collects pictures, literature and anecdotes to share in his classroom. Dead said his National Parks expertise expands beyond his own history classes and into other fields as well.
"When we're doing professional development in my school, I can say to the science teacher, 'Here are National Parks units with volcanoes or about climate change where you can get hands-on,'" Dean said. "Or for an English teacher I can show them, 'Here are park units dedicated to the various writers you cover.' I have a park for every occasion."
Dean said many of his favorite parks are in Alaska, though there are plenty he appreciates in the lower 48 states as well. He said his favorite National Park unit is the Gates of the Arctic, above the Arctic Circle.
"The water is the bluest blue you've ever seen, and you feel the bigness of it all," Dean said. "You feel really small when you're in these parks. It's like nothing you've ever seen."
For East Coast park units, Dean said one of his favorites is the obscure Kings Mountain National Park in South Carolina. The park was the site of a Revolutionary War battle, and at the base of the mountain is a dairy farm.
In third grade, it was a trip to Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia that convinced Dean he wanted to dedicate his life to studying history. In the classroom, Dean said, he gives extra credit to students if they buy a parks passport and report back on parks that they see.
While next summer he plans to finish off all of the continental sites, Dean said there are still a number of sites that require a little more planning and expense to get out to. These sites include six in the Caribbean, five in the Virgin Islands, and others in Puerto Rico, American Samoa and Guam. While these trips will end up being more elaborate than the ones he's used to, Dean said he's excited for the exciting and beautiful journeys to finish off his task.
Though he's coming close to the end of his quest, Dean said he'll always be a traveler. After visiting all of the sites, he said, he'll likely continue to visit his favorite battlefields. In addition, he has another goal to start to try to reach as well.
"Through these trips, I've also started visiting all of the counties in the United States," Dean said. "I'm close to 60 percent, so there's always more travel to be done. I guess I'm a little obsessive about it all."