The process of completing the Ultimate Outsider Challenge by visiting all of South Carolina’s 47 state parks transformed the Slagle family of Chapin into park fanatics.
The metamorphosis wasn’t planned – though there were weekly planning sessions for the trips – as much as it just happened. They fell in love with hiking in the parks together, with learning about the state’s history and discovering its natural beauty. They came up with personalized trail names. They formed new bonds with each other and with parks employees at each stop.
“We have so enjoyed our journey,” said Spring Slagle, the matriarch of the clan.
The adventure began last April out of a particular form of desperation. Spring and Sam Slagle have four children, ages 14 to 7. The oldest, Isaac, has severe autism.
“To be honest, there are not a lot of things our family can do that don’t have to be severely modified,” Spring said.
Isaac has no patience, sometimes makes odd noises and might reach out and grab a stranger’s arm. The wide open spaces of parks seemed much more welcoming than, say, a movie theater. When Spring and Sam heard about the State Park Service’s Ultimate Outsider Challenge early this year, they decided it would be ideal for their crew.
The challenge was supposed to coincide with the publication of a new parks guidebook, but the Slagles couldn’t wait for the book. They printed out park-specific pages from the state tourism website and created their own book.
By coincidence, “we started this at the moment I wanted to throw the iPad through the window,” Spring said.
Visiting each of the 47 state parks seemed like the ideal unplugged family entertainment. Each weekend for four months, they loaded up their vehicle and headed out.
Isaac has a limited vocabulary, and it’s a big deal when he adds new words, Spring said. Each night, he looks at the calendar to determine the next day’s itinerary. On Thursday nights, for instance, he checks the calendar and says, “School tomorrow.” A few weeks into the parks tour, he would check on Friday and say, “State Park. Come out and play tomorrow,” referencing the park service’s Come Out and Play marketing campaign.
Sometimes, the family would hit multiple parks. Usually, they made day trips. Isaac isn’t much for camping, but he liked the cabins at Oconee State Park on their one multi-day trip.
They hiked trails at nearly every park, with Sam leading the way and Spring bringing up the rear. The children – Isaac, Eva (13), Jonathan (10) and Tirzah (7) – aren’t into team sports like soccer or baseball, but they proved to be great trail hikers. Jonathan and Tirzah completed all three levels of the Junior Ranger program.
At each park, they had rangers stamp their printed park pages to prove they had visited. After knocking off No. 47 at Hunting Island, they went together to the park service’s main office in Columbia to collect the T-shirts promised to anyone who completes the challenge.
They were the first to get every park page stamped, and proud of it.
The most difficult part of the experience was answering the inevitable question at the end: Which was their favorite park?
“The whole journey was full of so many unexpected delights that it makes it difficult to declare a favorite,” Spring said. “It’s kind of like asking a kid which was their favorite chocolate chip in the cookie or asking the queen which is the favorite gem in her crown. Each was amazing. Each is necessary to complete the whole. Each is a treasure in its own right.”
But if you listen to the family stories, certain parks come up most often. They used Oconee as their base for several days of exploring the mountain parks. They were charmed by its cabins, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s and 1940s, and by its family-friendly atmosphere. The kids especially enjoyed the education programs at Lee State Park and playing on the beaches of the four beach state parks.
They discovered that even the parks with the fewest amenities and activities can be enlightening. At Woods Bay, where they had to flag down an employee to get the park stamp in their book, they hiked the park boardwalk through the edge of the geographical oddity known as a Carolina Bay. It was a quick hike, but “there was one tree covered as high as you could see in caterpillars,” Sam said.
Spring and Sam worried about Isaac standing still and listening during the tour of the historic home at Rose Hill Plantation, but the ranger leading the tour quickly developed a rapport with him.
“I can’t think of one instance when the park employees made us feel uncomfortable, even on the home tours,” Spring said. “They were incredible.”
Dreher Island State Park near Chapin has become their home park. They came out to meet the tourism department employees dropping off the new parks guidebooks at Dreher Island last week.
“We’ve tried to teach them that it’s not just about visiting the parks, it’s about taking care of them,” Sam said. “We’ve adopted a couple of picnic shelters out here. When we come out, we pick up trash around them.”
They so enjoyed the 47-park journey that they’ve started a new challenge. They plan to find a geocache – small hidden containers that can be found using GPS units and clues – at each park. They already are 15 parks into their second tour, and Isaac’s vocabulary has another new word – “treasure.”