Sam McManis

Two young men stage epic road trip to national parks, Zeus be praised

Greg Salva and Daniel Chae, who are on a mission to visit every national park, look out from a cave at Utah’s Arches National Park.
Greg Salva and Daniel Chae, who are on a mission to visit every national park, look out from a cave at Utah’s Arches National Park.

Name your van Zeus, show that kind of vehicular hubris, and you’re almost tempting fate when you hit the road.

Yes, but Zeus was reputed to be one bad mother of a ride, a 1992 Ford Econoline E-350 you don’t see much on the roads these days, perhaps for good reason. Greg Salva, its owner and rehabilitator, snarkily called it his “noble steed” and deemed the hunk of metal “incredibly sexy.”

In reality, it’s a boxy, two-tone brown van that gets terrible gas mileage and had putrid red carpeting in the interior until Salva did an extreme makeover – handsome wood floors and paneling, bed, furniture and solar charger – to make the thing habitable. The plan was that Salva, 21, and his former Oak Ridge High School buddy Daniel Chae, 22, would live in the van for more than three months while visiting 26 of the country’s 58 national parks. And, if they survived, Zeus willing, they’d pick off the other 32 in 2016, which so happens to be the park system’s centennial.

Ah, to be young and footloose, right? Sounds like the epic road trip we may have daydreamed about, once, but never had the temerity to actually do.

But Salva and Chae had the time (it was late last spring, heading into summer), the motivation (to commune with the natural world) and even an entrepreneurial plan (to create a subscription-based guide of national parks). Most of all, they had Zeus, whose name was emblazoned in all caps on one side and whose dashboard bore the foot-long, plastic statue of the Greek god of sky and thunder brandishing a lightning bolt and boldly pointing the way onward for these intrepid young travelers.

So off they went, leaving friends and family behind in El Dorado Hills and heading to the first stop, Yosemite, by way of Highway 89 and the Monitor Pass. Ominous clouds formed as Zeus powered on. Then the rain began. Then, the first stirrings of a full-on storm, rumblings more pronounced than the van’s shock absorbers. Then, the lightning came, sizzlingly close.

“Lightning was, like, striking the road less than a hundred yards away from us,” Salva said. “It was terrifying. Hail everywhere. We were thinking, ‘What a send-off.’ 

Zeus, being all powerful, of course, endured. Not just that initial meteorological maelstrom but 9,600 miles on the road over 96 days with only a few minor mishaps, such as when the brakes failed on an extremely curvy, downhill mountain pass outside Gunnison, Colo., or those three times they had flat tires, and despite the constant fear of overheating in the desert or succumbing to heat exhaustion themselves, because, apparently, there’s no central air conditioning either on Mount Olympus or in the cabin of the van.

“We were lucky, I guess, that we were so excited about the project as a whole that it smoothed over the fact that we were living in a van, a hot metal cube and stuff like that,” Chae said. “But, actually, we got used to it pretty quickly.”

That’s because, Salva said, he quickly learned that Zeus was just a means to an end, that the real adventure lay beyond the wood-paneled walls of the interior and out in the woods of Lassen, the mossy forests of Olympic, the granite visage of Glacier, red rocks of Zion and gnarled cacti of Joshua Tree and all the other national park stops on this sojourn.

“It was amazing,” he said. “We went through so many ecosystems, from the mountains to big trees and waterfalls. Olympic (in Washington state) is an actual rainforest, then down to Utah and those incredible canyons and then finishing at Death Valley and Sequoia with all that geology and history.”

It’s almost too much for Salva and Chae to describe, but describe it they have. Their online travel guide of national parks, ParkHunters.com, has just recently gone live. It offers practical information and advice for mostly novice outdoors types wanting to get the richest experience from a particular park without encamping for weeks at a time. Far from being a seminal, exhaustive handbook, Park Hunters focuses on certain aspects of each park, augmented mightily with gorgeous landscape photography by Salva and presented in an aesthetically pleasing website designed by Chae, a student at the Rhode Island School of Design.

“We were looking for guides,” Salva said. “And we were thinking, ‘It’s the national parks, so there’s probably thousands of them out there.’ But there wasn’t anything concise, you know. I mean, yeah, I could buy a $100 book and get 700 pages on them. I just wanted a list of the top things to do that was all in one spot. So we said, ‘Why don’t we make it? What’s stopping us.’ We’re not pretending to be experts.”

Though unabashedly a money-making venture, the online guide was something of an afterthought for the friends. The genesis for their adventure, frankly, sounded like any other late-night bull session, perhaps lubricated by adult beverages, in which two buddies stare into the night sky and say, Dude, why don’t we just take off and …

“Last December, right after I bought the van, we went out hammock camping,” Salva said. “I told (Daniel) what the idea was, and we casually made the plan. I hadn’t found anyone yet who was willing to drop everything and go. But I knew he was serious when a couple weeks before (they took off), he sent me his part (of the money). I was like, this is happening.”

Chae, for his part, admitted to having a little trepidation.

“I didn’t tell anyone until a week before we’d actually go,” he said. “I mean it’s common for even simple plans to fall through, but for a plan that would take 100 days … it was kind of hard to see it become a reality early on.”

The two men, though friends, come from different backgrounds. Salva was reared by parents who were “really outdoorsy and adventurous,” took the family on numerous backpack trips (once stringing together trips that stretched from Tahoe to Yosemite), rock climbing expeditions and long-distance mountain biking treks. Chae said his parents took him to a few national parks “when I was real little, but nothing like what Daniel was exposed to.”

Salva, who last year produced an Instagram project called “Adventure 365,” in which he did at least one outdoor activity every day of the year and posted it on the social-media site, said his adventuresome spirit was not innate. He learned over time to appreciate nature. He said he had to, to keep up with his two older sisters and his mom and dad.

“Everything was always hard because my dad was pushing the limit, but I got to the point where I started enjoying it,” Salva said. “I didn’t realize it at the time, but, like that Tahoe-to-Yosemite backpack trip, that gave me confidence in outdoor activities when I got older.”

One person not surprised that Salva and Chae did, indeed, go through with the plan was Stan Salva, Greg’s father.

“He’s always had an impressive knack of putting his mind to something and getting it done, not letting things get in his way,” Stan Salva said. “I thought this was a great idea. We sort of had that dream as a family once. My wife (Meg) and I considered taking a year off ourselves and traveling with the kids because, you know, you only get them for so long.”

Instead, Stan lived vicariously through Greg and Daniel’s adventures last summer. In fact, Meg was responsible for spurring the guys to experience what both now say was the highlight of many highlights.

It was August, and the two had just completed the popular Angel’s Landing hike at Zion National Park. It’s 5 miles on a narrow rock path gaining 2,500 feet in elevation and culminating in a jutting perch that hikers must ascend via steel cables. Later that afternoon, back down from the peak, Salva and Chae were eating dinner in the park and talking about the “mind-blowing views of the entire canyon” and planning to pack it in for the night.

But Salva decided to check in on social media, and saw that his mom had posted to him on Facebook that the Perseid meteor shower was that night and, being in Zion with its famous clear night sky and no moon to obscure the stars, they might be in for a treat.

“We’re exhausted and, after finishing the meal, we were like, ‘This probably would be an incredible experience to go back up to Angel’s Landing,’ ” Salva recalled. “So we took the last shuttle to the trailhead at 9 o’clock and hiked in the dark. When we got up there to the point, this 20-square-foot platform all around, we were standing there in absolute awe. We stayed there all night.”

Chae said spending the night at such great height, under such dazzling stars, changed him. Changed them both.

“We kind of got that feeling that we really can do everything that we want,” Chae said. “(The experience) was something I didn’t really understand the gravity of until I was actually at those parks. There was a lot I was missing out on, things that Greg’s been doing for years.”

Friends since high school, the two admit there were times their bond was tested over the 96 days.

“Daniel and I had been face-to-face for every minute of every day, and we were starting to get on each other’s nerves,” Salva said. “We expected that and had talked beforehand. After we got done with Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, we picked up this hitchhiker, named Ben Graham, who was backpacking from Indiana to San Francisco to look for graduate schools.”

Chae: “It was perfect timing. … We picked up Ben and we got a resurgence of excitement to have another person share the journey with us. Though it was now three of us in the van.”

Zeus could handle the trio for the last month, though. No problem. Zeus was godlike in his powers to get the guys through Death Valley in August, sans air conditioning. The guys rotated “bed night” – “the greatest night of the week when you got it,” Salva said – with the other two either sleeping on a cot near the floor or in the driver’s seat set to recline.

“Most of the time, that last month, we were sleeping outside anyway,” Salva said.

They finished the 26-park odyssey in early September, dropping Graham off in Southern California. Chae is back for another year at the Rhode Island School of Design, and Salva, when not waiting restaurant tables to build his savings, is working diligently on the online guide, culling 15,000 photos he took on the trip.

And what of Zeus?

He sits on his throne outside Salva’s parents’ house in El Dorado Hills, awaiting resumption of this epic quest … and maybe a brake job.

Sam McManis: 916-321-1145, @SamMcManis

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