Fait accompli: Woman visits 357 national parks

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Adventure > Freda Mantei completes her journey at Bandelier

By Arin McKenna

In 2001, Freda Mantei and her late husband, Alan, set off on a journey with the “Passport® to Your National Parks” book as their guide. On Wednesday, Mantei completed her tour of the 357 national parks, monuments and historic sites in the lower 48 states by stamping her passport at Bandelier National Monument.

Mantei’s inspiration came during a visit to Petrified Forest National Park, when they saw someone Freda describes as “a very old man” getting his passport stamped and saying that this was what kept him alive. The passport is a guidebook with maps, photos and information about every national park area in the United States, with a place for a “passport” stamp from each park.

The couple bought the passports and dreamed about their journey for years. Freda was 46 and Alan was 45 when they exchanged their home for a fifth wheel trailer and set out.

“Both of our fathers died at 59: mine from cancer, his from a heart issue,” Mantei said. “So our mantra pretty much was, we always wanted to travel, we wanted to see the United States, and we wanted to do it when we were young and healthy. That was our goal.

“We always wondered if we were retired or temporarily unemployed. We just kind of lived on the cheap. We lived very frugally.”

Mantei’s love of travel began at an early age. A native of Richmond, Va., Mantei bought a car and set off to see the United States upon graduating from Virginia Commonwealth University at the age of 23. She met and fell in love with Alan in Albuquerque, and came back to be with him after completing her tour of the United States. They were married in 1980.

The couple’s first long travels together were in 1984, when they spent nine months touring the south and the entire East Coast en route of moving to Richmond to be with Freda’s mother. They returned to Albuquerque in 1990.

Two and a half years into their travels to visit the national parks, Alan was diagnosed with internal melanoma, and died three months later.

“I didn’t know what to do. All of a sudden I was alone. I had never driven the rig. He did all of that, the hitching and unhitching, and I didn’t know how to do it,” Mantei said. “I didn’t know what to do with my life. I kept thinking I still want to travel; I still want to do this. I just have to learn how.

“I was here in Albuquerque at the KOA, and people came into my life who have become lifelong friends to me, who encouraged me to continue, and they taught me. They helped me buy a smaller fifth-wheel, so it was manageable for me, and they taught me all the things I needed to know about how to hitch it, tow it, take care of it, service it, park it. ”

Mantei set off alone in 2005. The couple had 150 passport stamps when Alan died. Mantei completed the final 207 with just the companionship of her cat, Gillespie.

“Some people just run in and get their passports stamped and leave. They don’t care about it,” Mantei said. “I would walk every trail and read everything in the visitor center. I want to watch the films. I want to learn something and appreciate where I’ve been, not just be a run in and go person.”

During her journeys, it began to dawn on Mantei that she would like to get her last passport stamp at Bandelier National Monument.

“I didn’t start out planning it that way, but the last few years I thought, I’m saving it to do as the last one,” Mantei said. “It was the first national park I visited when I met my husband, and fell in love with him and fell in love with New Mexico. Bandelier was part of that.”

Mantei’s reception at Bandelier brought her to tears. She told the rangers the reason for her visit. They informed Park Superintendent Jason Lott, who came out to congratulate her and present her with a special commemorative coin he had created. Ranger Chris Judson posted her photo and story on the park’s Facebook page.

“I was just a mess. I was sobbing. It was exciting. I was proud. And the fact that I started this with my husband and lost him along the way,” Mantei said. “I was just overwhelmed. And then Chris put me on Facebook. I knew yesterday was going to be an emotional day anyway, but I never expected that.

“I can’t say enough about the park service. We have so much to be proud of with the National Park Service, and it’s so easily underfunded and overlooked. The people who work for the National Park Service work because they love it, certainly not because they’re making money off it, but because they’re dedicated Americans.”
Mantei’s travels have left indelible memories.

“Nothing makes me prouder than being at the Grand Canyon or Yosemite, and all the people around me are speaking foreign languages,” Mantei said. “Everywhere I go, there are people from different countries looking at our history.”

Mantei also was moved when she returned to Washington to visit the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, which had opened since her last trip to the East Coast. She just happened to be there in the week leading up to the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.

Mantei is not sure what to do with her life now that she has completed her long-standing goal. She currently spends half the year in Maricopa County, Ariz., as a camp host, but she is already thinking about the other half of the year. “I think now I’m ready to go back and revisit some of the places, like Rocky Mountain and Yellowstone, because my husband and I were there 12 years ago,” Mantei said. “I think I’m ready to go back and revisit them. It will be different, being alone, but I want to go back and enjoy some of those places.”