"So, are you the one?"
The young woman behind the counter at Swallow Falls State Park raised her eyebrows a little and looked at me.
"The one?" It sounded a tad Obama-esque, but I nodded. She sighed in relief and handed me a small, red plastic tub filled with camping essentials (bug spray, sunscreen, pretzels, Band-Aids) and topped off with a stuffed black bear — a welcoming gift to start Park Quest 24/7.
My goal was to visit 24 state parks, from west to east, during seven consecutive days and complete the quizzes, puzzles and scavenger hunts cooked up by the Maryland Park Service, compressing a summer-long event being done by 750 families into one week.
My newly acquired, but hardly deserved, fame among park employees and Park Quest participants lasted as long as it took for me to arrive at my campsite and embed the point of my exquisitely sharp folding knife into the fleshy part of my arm just below the elbow, a move that pumped globs of blood onto the dirt and caused a young camper who had stopped by to flee in horror.
Good thing for the Band-Aids.
There are only so many things you can prepare for when you don't know what you're doing. So instead of sweating the big stuff, or sweating the small stuff, I decided to treat the entire week like a gigantic sauna bath minus the icy plunge at the end.
Following the script, Mother Nature provided me with days of unrelenting heat broken by nights of unbearable warmth.
Did I mention the bugs? Crazed wasps in Western Maryland were undeterred by my awful odor and deranged deer flies on the Eastern Shore dive bombed anything that was left exposed.
Food wasn't a problem. I didn't bring any.
During my final Quest at Assateague State Park, Adam Stachowiak, my companion from the Maryland Conservation Corps, was quizzing me about the importance of all elements in a food chain. "For example," he began, clipboard in hand, "what did you have for breakfast?"
"A breakfast bar, four cups of coffee and a bottle of Gatorade," I replied.
"Nothing in the food chain there. We'll skip the question," he answered, laughing.
When it rained, it poured. Literally.
Last Saturday, the skies opened up while I was trying to bag Gunpowder, Susquehanna and Elk Creek state parks.
"I've never seen anybody complete the worksheet as fast as you did," said a Susquehanna park employee. "You were running like you were on fire."
I paddled like I was on fire when on the way back from solving the puzzle at Janes Island State Park, massive, dark clouds gathered on the horizon.
"I don't care how old you are," said Ranger John Somers. "You really moved out there."
Move, I did, covering 1,492 miles and hitting 22 of 23 counties (sorry, Kent), plus Baltimore during Park Quest 24/7.
Human disfigurement, heat, bugs, rain, foods not found in nature. Mind-numbing hours of driving followed by brake-stomping, clock-chewing gridlock.
I had a blast. Really, I did.
In some ways, Park Quest 24/7 was a disservice to the parks themselves. It's hard to take in all a park has to offer when you are on a single-minded mission, like a speed vacation designed by Evelyn Wood.
That's not to say I didn't notice stuff. Some parks, like Patapsco Valley and Gunpowder, were already old friends. Others are on my must-return list:
1) Swallow Falls in the fall. It's a great campground in a great Garrett County setting: four waterfalls along an easy-to-navigate trail. Thomas Edison liked the place. So did naturalist John Burroughs.
2) Cunningham Falls, anytime. Again, with the falls, but there's so much more at this Frederick County park, including a cool aviary and nearby Catoctin Mountain Park, owned by the federal government. Short of being elected president, it's the closest most of us will get to Camp David.
3) Merkle Wildlife Sanctuary in Prince George's County. Despite my initial desire to use Merkle as a verb ("I've been Merkled but good.") after a disastrous Quest, the place has definite charm and lots of birds. I'll go back when the road gets fixed or the weather cools off. Whichever comes first.
4) St. Clements Island. The limited water taxi schedule of Sundays, noon to 4 p.m., from Memorial Day to September doesn't leave much time, but I highly recommend packing a picnic lunch and making the trek to St. Mary's County. Pair it with Calvert Cliffs and make a day of it.
5) Paddle at Tuckahoe or Janes Island. Just not on consecutive days, like I did. Pocomoke River is lovely, too. Three different water experiences, and all unforgettable.
Time and again, I was asked which park was my favorite. They all were, for one reason or another.
Tuckahoe's Dave Davis believes it might be time to expand Park Quest and have a fall/winter challenge to break the evil spell of cabin fever. Parks Superintendent Nita Settina says the idea is being batted around.
I can hardly wait.
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