One year. 56 stops. Over 10,000 miles.
2017 provided a lifetime’s worth of adventure for Leah Verville and her three sons as they visited each of Tennessee’s 56 state parks.
Verville, a Hartsville native, came up with the idea after a February 2017 visit to see bald eagles at Reelfoot Lake – an item that was on her bucket list.
“It just happened that in February they had a little festival called Eaglefest at Reelfoot,” she said. “Thy had spotting scopes for us to look through and more.”
On the way back from West Tennessee, Verville said she noticed a number of signs for various state parks and wondered just how many there were.
An online search revealed 56 state parks, and Verville said she “though that would be a perfect opportunity to do a project with my sons; to get outside and see our state.”
Life-changing surgery to resolve ulcerative colitis, which Verville had suffered from for years, and a new job were the catalysts in making the dream a realistic possibility.
“I had surgery and then was appointed to the Register of Deeds office in November (2016),” Verville said. “It opened the door and freed me up to be able to do things I had been wanting to do.
“I really couldn’t afford to do a lot of traveling with the boys, but after that we decided we could go to other places like state parks.”
So the journey began for Verville, accompanied by Garrett, a rising freshman at Trousdale County High School; Wyatt, a junior, and when possible Everett, who just completed his second year at Volunteer State Community College.
Verville printed off a map of the state and marked each of the 56 locations they would eventually visit.
“I drew every single state park on there and started thinking, ‘How can I group these together?’ I had 26 weekends to be able to get al of them in one year.”
Verville talked the idea over with her sons, who were supportive of their mother’s vision.
The trip started two weekends later with a short jaunt up Highway 25 to Bledsoe Creek State Park in Sumner County.
After a 3-mile hike by the lake and over the ridge exploring the park, Verville said the boys found it “pretty boring.”
So she spiced up the trips by acquiring a dog from a local family, a weimaraner/pit bull mix that they named Juno. The trips became an opportunity to take Juno out for excursions and the boys quickly fell in love with the dog.
“She started being our riding companion,” Verville said. “She is gorgeous, going on 65 or 70 pounds. She’s loving; a great dog.”
In March, the Vervilles traveled to Burgess Falls (Putnam/White Counties) and hiked down to the waterfall there, before heading over to Edgar Evins State Park (DeKalb County).
“Adding that little bit of adventure – the waterfall and having the dog with us – got them inclined to go,” Verville laughed. “My oldest son only got to go with us a couple of times. But the other boys went when they could and when they couldn’t I called my mom and dad (Debbie and Joe Jenkins). Sometimes I would take them, sometimes I would go by myself.”
Asked which parks were the most memorable for her, Verville listed Fall Creek Falls, Roane Mountain, Reelfoot Lake, Johnsonville State and Hiwassee/Ocoee.
She enjoyed Fall Creek Falls not just for the waterfall, but also for the natural scenery along the path. At Roane Mountain, she listed a rhododendron festival that takes place each May, with 10,000 acres of flowers blooming.
“Its historic nature makes it a fascinating place,” Verville said of Johnsonville State, located in Humphreys County. “If you’re into Civil War history, it’s fascinating.”
Verville said she particularly enjoyed whitewater rafting on the Ocoee and was looking forward to going back.
In a Wilson Post story earlier this year, Wyatt cited Cummins Falls (Jackson County) as one of his favorites.
Leah said the family enjoyed a long hike at that park, one that went through the water and not just around it.
“You actually get into the creek or the river and follow it all the way to the falls,” she said. “It was Memorial Day and it was packed!”
At one point on a trip to Meeman-Shelby Forest State Park near Memphis, about halfway through the year, Wyatt turned to his mother and asked, “How many more trees are you gonna make me look at?”
In one weekend trip to the Chattanooga area, the family visited seven different state parks. While they might not stay at one for long, Verville said each stop became a memorable one.
Garrett particularly enjoyed the Devil’s Racetrack section of the Cumberland Trail at Cove Lake State Park near Lake City (Campbell County). That trip involved a 5.3-mile hike, the longest the family made on their Tennessee trek.
“It’s a mountain that when you climb to the rock dome, you can see forever around you,” Leah said.
Verville said they put over 10,000 miles on her vehicles over the course of the year. Early on, they drove a Toyota Avalon with nearly 150,000 miles on it. In April 2017, she purchased a Honda Acura that had fewer miles and was more comfortable for the family.
The quest ended on Dec. 18 with a visit to David Crockett State Park (Lawrence County). The boys held a sign saying “We Did It” along with the hashtag #56in17 to celebrate.
She noted that the Tennessee State Parks system has a passport that shows points of interest and has places for visitors to keep notes. She also cited some of the good food along the way, including burgers and milkshakes in Martin and “the best Reuben that I ever had in my life” near Pickwick Dam.
With the state parks down, Verville was asked what is next on her list.
“Campaigning” was the first answer, as Verville is seeking a full term as Trousdale County’s Register of Deeds in the August election. She was appointed to the position late in 2016.
After that, she said she wants to visit some of America’s national parks and the hot air balloon festival in Albuquerque that takes place in October each year.
“Albuquerque is one that could be done,” she said. “I would like to take my boys to Washington, D.C., as they’ve never been.”
Verville said her sons have visited 38 of the 50 states over the years with the help of their father.
“My boys are well traveled,” she said. “That’s another bucket list for me.”
She noted that the Tennessee State Parks system has a passport that shows points of interest and has places for visitors to keep notes.
Verville said the best part of the trip was that her sons were able “to embrace adventure and never assume you know what to expect.”
“I just wanted to get out with my kids,” she said. “That made the entire journey worthwhile.”
Reach Chris Gregory at 615-374-3556 or firstname.lastname@example.org.