Three Years And 59 National Parks: A Midwest Couple’s Wedding Adventure

It’s been three years and countless experiences since Cole and Elizabeth Donelson’s 2013 wedding. A little over a year ago, they quit their Kansas City jobs and embarked on a year-long expedition across the country—and across the world—to see each of the National Park Service’s 59 parks.

This was a leap of faith, as they didn’t know what the year would entail. “Since we didn’t spend a lot of money on our wedding, we knew we wanted to travel,” Elizabeth says. “We were hiking and talking about things we wanted to do in the future, and National Parks came up. And so we made the crazy decision to visit all 59—we didn’t even know how many there were at that point—in a year.”

As they completed this journey during the NPS Centennial, Elizabeth and Cole wrote about it religiously on their blog “The Switchback Kids,” which has been featured on the National Parks Traveler website. They’ve seen every corner of the United States, from the Everglades in Florida to Acadia National Park in Maine, and even to the National Park of American Samoa in the Southeast Pacific. Elizabeth says that one of the most memorable experiences of the year was watching the sunset on Cadillac Mountain, where she was able to witness the first light to hit the United States. “We were snuggled out in our sleeping bags, sitting on this rock, waiting for the sunrise with a bunch of other people,” she says. “As soon as the sun rose up over the horizon, there was a big cheer from everyone.”

It probably surprises no one to learn that this adventurous couple’s wedding took place in a forested lodge in the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina. Below, learn all about their destination wedding, Cole’s geocache proposal and how they got a free dove releasing for the reception. But first, some background on the couple:

The couple/ Cole and Elizabeth Donelson
Current ages/ Both 27
Occupations/ Cole—MBA student at Washington University in St. Louis; Elizabeth—substitute teacher
Engagement date/ November 10, 2012
Wedding date/ July 27, 2013
Ceremony venue/ Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina
Reception venue/ Lake Chesterfield Clubhouse 

Cole and Donelson went with traditional vows for the ceremony, though they broke from tradition, choosing Cole's dad as the officiant. (Photo courtesy of the couple)

Cole and Donelson went with traditional vows for the ceremony, though they broke from tradition in choosing Cole’s dad as the officiant. (Photo courtesy of the couple)

HUNTING FOR THE RIGHT PROPOSAL

Cole and Elizabeth met during the first day of their first year at the University of Missouri (“Mizzou”). They dated briefly at the end of their freshman year, but they called it off quickly. When they tried it again their junior year, they hit their stride. Once Cole asked Elizabeth to be his girlfriend during their second bout of dating, he set up a scavenger hunt around the trademark Mizzou columns. “I set up tiny little gifts like chocolate and whatever,” Cole says.

Two years later, Cole decided he wanted to marry Elizabeth. “Eventually, I realized I loved the times I was with her, and missed the times I wasn’t,” he says. “It was kind of a gradual thing. I just couldn’t imagine finding somebody better for me than her.”

When the big question came around, Cole set up a similar type of hunt, but this time he set up a geocache at Elizabeth’s childhood home in Washington, Missouri. “That morning—it was a Saturday—I got up early to talk to her parents and ask both of their permission,” Cole says. “They were very supportive. I was probably more nervous talking to them than I was later on asking Elizabeth, because then it was real—it wasn’t in my head anymore.”

Later that Saturday afternoon, Elizabeth was showing Cole where she had played as a child in her backyard when Cole suggested she try and find a geocache, making it seem like he hadn’t been the one to set it up. He was trying to keep it a surprise. “I don’t think that worked in the end,” Cole laughs. Elizabeth shakes her head vigorously, indicating that no, it had not.

Regardless, the proposal itself was a success. Cole had filled the small box with significant mementos from their time together and a poem he had written. “And I said something like, ‘It has everything from our story, but there’s one thing missing,’ and I pulled out the ring and proposed,” Cole remembers.

Standing in front of her favorite willow tree, Elizabeth said yes while her parents slyly watched through the window of her childhood home.

A DIY DESTINATION WEDDING

The Donelsons are a self-proclaimed frugal couple. As such, they insisted on doing everything themselves. Elizabeth made the programs and designed the invitations, wanting everything to look rustic and nice, yet handmade and causal. She realized in the months preceding the wedding, all of these tasks were quite time consuming. “I just had a running list of everything that needed to get done, and a lot of it maybe didn’t,” Elizabeth says. “But that’s okay—we still got married.”

Cole and Elizabeth took pictures after their mountainside cabin wedding. (Photo courtesy of couple)

Cole and Elizabeth took pictures after their mountainside cabin wedding. (Photo courtesy of couple)

Family and friends took care of almost everything that Elizabeth didn’t do herself. Cole’s sister played the piano, and one of his best friends took care of guitar. Elizabeth’s aunt baked the cake, and her cousin took the photographs. Cole’s father was the officiant. “It was all in the family, which for me gave it a nice extra layer of meaning,” Cole says.

With all of the vendors taken care of, the only thing left to decide was the venue. Elizabeth says she was exclusively looking at cabins because she and Cole wanted to get married in the mountains. “We were going for a vibe,” Elizabeth says. “In the woods, mountain view, ambiance.”

Elizabeth did many DIY projects for her wedding, including the invitations and the programs. (Photo courtesy of the couple)

Elizabeth did many DIY projects for her wedding, including the centerpieces, invitations and programs. (Photo courtesy of the couple)

She found a cabin in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina that could house all of her guests and had a huge deck for the ceremony. The owner even set the couple up with a caterer that served amazing barbecue.

The big day was low-key and cozy, with each of the couple’s families getting ready in separate rooms throughout the morning for the 2 p.m. wedding. Cole and Elizabeth say neither of them were stressed or nervous going into the day. As the ceremony inched closer, Cole and his groomsmen took a whiskey shot. “Then my family all got together one last time before the ceremony and we prayed together,” Cole says. “Then it was showtime.”

The first time Cole saw Elizabeth that day was as she was walking down the aisle, and he was awestruck. The couple gave the traditional vows, followed by a personalized sermon delivered by the officiant of the day, Cole’s father. They took photos immediately after the ceremony, followed by a celebration.

But the couple didn’t forget about friends and family who couldn’t travel to the North Carolina wedding, holding a larger reception back in St. Louis. “[The reception] was in the middle of the day on Sunday, so we kind of wanted to make it convenient for people to drop by and stay as long as they wanted,” Cole says.

Delicious watermelon and summery beverages were on the menu for the party, but the real food star was the man with the hot dog cart. Cole and Elizabeth had hired him for the 12 different options that he cooked on site with a blow torch. “That was a huge hit,” Cole says. “The line was super long. Everyone loved it.”

Perhaps the best part of the day was the releasing of the doves, courtesy of Cole’s grandmother. While working at a yearly community basement sale before the wedding, she spotted a couple of stray doves and urged volunteers to grab them. The birds had escaped from a nearby wedding, and their keepers were so thankful for Cole’s grandmother’s help that they offered her a free dove releasing. “I’m still confused about how it all worked out, but the moral of the story was that we got a free gratitude gift of a dove releasing at our reception,” Cole says.

The Switchback Kids have had a memorable first three years, but they’ve just started their forever journey. “In one sense, it feels like it’s been forever that we’ve been married,” Cole says. “But looking back and thinking about our wedding, it seems like yesterday.”

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