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Jan 24, 2017 12:09PM

A national parks adventure: Bettendorf man pens first book

By Jonathan Turner
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Rob Erwin at Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, in 2015.
In early 2015, Rob Erwin felt directionless and unfulfilled in a 9-to-5 office job. So he quit, got lost in some of the most famous national parks in America, and found a new purpose, passion and material for his first book.

The 29-year-old Bettendorf man recently released "Lost With Directions," which recounts two weeks of hiking and camping in the Smoky Mountains, Yellowstone, Rocky Mountains and Grand Teton National Parks. The self-published book spent some time as the No. 1 Amazon best-seller for all travel books about Wyoming, and No. 1 for Jackson Hole, Wyo.

"I've always loved out West," he says.

Erwin majored in math at Augustana College, Rock Island, and graduated in 2008. There, he was a student football coach for two years. He also has been an assistant football coach at schools in Montana, Michigan and South Dakota.

He had worked at Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming in 2013. "I put that math degree, magna cum laude and all that to work as a dishwasher," Erwin says.

"I tell everyone it was the best job I had my entire life."

Erwin says the people he met out there were genuine. "They were all looking for a little adventure in their lives, looking to do something different, wanted to get away from the status quo," he says.

In the spring of 2015, after a four-month stint at an office job in residential life at Augie, he applied that principle and was on the road to the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee.

"I wanted to get off the beaten path, where you do get that true national park experience — wild, untamed, adventurous, discovering stuff," Erwin says, adding that he hiked and camped half the time solo and half with friends.

He camped one night in a massive canyon at the bottom of Yellowstone, five miles from a trail, on a 100-foot-high cliff overlooking the Yellowstone River.

"That's a grueling hike, especially on your way up," Erwin says, adding that he carried a 40-pound pack on his back. His favorite experience was at the Lamar Valley of Yellowstone, with wolves, grizzly bears and mountain lions.

He saw a wolf chasing an antelope. "It was awesome," he says. "It suddenly became very real, not a TV show. You know there's a hungry wolf out there, and probably a dozen others in the valley that are all hungry."

He took bear spray and a machete, but that night, he never saw a wolf and slept 13 hours. "It was definitely the low point of the trip at the time. But I wanted the experience. If I wanted to be safe and comfortable, I would have just stayed in the Quad-Cities," Erwin says.

"In retrospect, it was my favorite part because it was a scary thing that I got through."

Another challenge was scaling 11,000 feet up to Haynach Lake in Colorado's Rockies. "It's one of the prettiest, least-visited places in the park."

Unfortunately, he and friends never saw it. They hit waist-deep snow, and then stepped close to a sinkhole. Freezing and frightened, they turned around.

"I was so far outside my element. I was clueless; I was lost for all practical purposes," Erwin says, of some of his trip. "There's a lot of trial by error."

He called Jackson Hole in Grand Teton the most scenic of his visits.

Erwin came home after just two weeks because he wanted to write, look for a new job and was to be married that July to his now-wife, Kellie.

At the book's end, he writes that "for the first time in a long time, I felt invigorated and ready for whatever challenges lie ahead. If I could make it from the Appalachians to the Rockies in one piece, in spite of all my screw-ups and mistakes along the way, I knew I'd be able to make it through just about anything."

Since last fall, Erwin has been working as a substitute teacher in Orion, and wants to get back into coaching. He already is planning his next book, "Lost on the Rails," after taking the train to Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota, Glacier National Park in Montana and whitewater rafting in Oregon.

He hopes to inspire others to take similar adventures, to "live life the best we can and not get stuck in these routines. While you're young and active, why not see what's out there?"

Contributor Jonathan Turner is a writer on staff with the Dispatch•Argus•QCOnline.

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