Guadalupe Mountains National Park

Alumna exploring West with teenage brothers

When Carson Miller ‘19 decided to backpack the American West alone with just a tent, her parents were a little nervous for their 19-year-old daughter. When Carson’s brother, Caleb, 18, decided to join her, their nervousness turned into excitement.

“And when they asked if Sawyer (their 15-year-old brother could go), it broke my heart just a little bit,” said their father, Kiley Miller.

Driving their parents’ 2012 Chevy Suburban with 200,000 miles, the Iowa siblings started their five-month adventure on Jan. 4 after spending the holiday with their grandparents, who live near Big Bend National Park in Texas – their starting point. Sharing a three-person tent, they have experienced 20-degree nights, icy mornings and mountain snow.

Carson and Sawyer also have to find the time and WiFi to continue their online studies. Carson is a sophomore at Cornell University, majoring in international agriculture and rural development; she is taking 14 credits this semester instead of her usual 22. Sawyer is a high school freshman and Caleb recently graduated from high school.

“We’ve tried very hard to open our kids’ eyes to the idea that the world is theirs for the taking and it should be experienced,” their father said. “So when they decided to go, you sort of have to say ‘yes.’ There’s just not going to be a chance for them to do something like this together again.”

Carson became interested in extended backpacking trips after serving as a wilderness leader at UWC-USA. She has also backpacked the Camino de Santiago in Spain and traveled in Jordan, Albania, Macedonia, Greece, Montenegro, Italy, France, and Mexico.

“We had been cooped up a lot because of COVID,” she said. “I felt I could socially distance in the backcountry and go on an adventure.”

Since leaving Big Bend, the trio has traveled to Guadalupe Mountains National Park on the Texas-New Mexico border; and Carlsbad Caverns and White Sands national parks, Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument, and the Lincoln and Gila National forests, all in New Mexico.

In the Gila, a snowstorm forced them to head for Arizona’s warmth. Earlier this week, they made it to Saguaro National Park near Tucson; their two-night stay was extended to one week.

“We really like it and there’s some nice state parks, and the weather’s nice,” Carson said.

They plan to continue onto Southern California and take Highway 1 north into Washington and Oregon. From there, they would like to cut back across central California to Utah.

Carson worked three jobs over the summer to help pay for the trip. She continued her public relations job with Cornell Lab of Ornithology; did data analysis for Rembrandt Foods in Iowa, one of the world’s largest egg producing and processing facilities; and worked in the office at a resort in her hometown of Arnolds Park.

Carson, Caleb and Sawyer grocery shop every two weeks, try to limit campsite fees to $15 and have become weekly regulars at truck stops.

“We have learned the joy of Pilot showers,” Carson said. “It’s us and the truckers. It’s so funny when you see three teenagers standing outside with towels and toothbrushes.”

As for getting along, they’re making it work.

“I’m very blessed,” Carson said. “Caleb and Sawyer are probably my two best friends in the world. We do sometimes argue and know each other a little too well. We encourage each other.”

“Every morning, Caleb makes breakfast,” she continued. “I normally cook dinner and lunches, and Sawyer takes all the photos. We all contribute and participate in the planning. There are plenty of times, I’m really glad I’m not doing this by myself.”

Their father, who is the executive director for Trees Forever, an environmental non-profit in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, noted that Carson is the planner. Caleb will argue against plans, while Sawyer is the mediator.

“They’re going to have significant struggles and arguments, but six months after the trip is over, they’re going to remember the crazy unplanned adventures, not the arguments,” he said.

The siblings’ mother, Carry, teaches English as a second language and gifted students.

To follow the Millers’ adventures, go to this link.

Stay Connected