SALT LAKE CITY — Neither Dave nor Ilyssa Kyu grew up camping. Both had pretty typical suburban childhoods, but about 11 years ago, the Philadelphia-based couple decided to visit Acadia National Park, Maine’s seemingly enchanted forest of pine along the coastline.
“When we first started, we chose a national park because we needed a place that had a map, itinerary, bathrooms nearby, where you could call for help,” Dave Kyu told the Deseret News. “National parks are great introductory spaces into the outdoors. You can rely on some of the amenities of regular life, but you can dip your toe.”
At first, the Kyus weren’t very good at camping, but they loved going. Between Dave Kyu’s work as an artist and Ilyssa Kyu’s career as a user experience designer and strategist, the husband and wife spent much of their free time over the next decade exploring the outdoors.
But visiting the national parks wasn’t enough — the couple also wanted to know more about them. As Ilyssa Kyu hunted around for some good campfire stories, but she found mostly fictional ghost stories. That was when the couple decided to gather stories about the national parks for people like them — people who love the outdoors but need some introduction.
The idea inspired the Kyus to spend months traveling, camping and car-living in six of America’s national parks, gathering stories, poems and legends set in Acadia, Great Smoky Mountains, Rocky Mountain, Yellowstone, Yosemite and Zion national parks. Their work resulted in “Campfire Stories: Tales from America’s National Parks,” a diverse collection of stories published by Mountaineers Books Press that people can easily tell around a campfire, specifically set in these six iconic national parks.
“When we travel, we are always curious to learn more about the place, the people, the environment,” Ilyssa Kyu said. “A book is a way for other people to find that excitement and inspiration without having to dive full-on into an oral storytelling experience.”
Their extensive project wasn’t without obstacles, though. When they were only a few weeks into their journey, Ilyssa Kyu got sick in the middle of a hike. When they made it to an Airbnb outside of Nashville, she took a pregnancy test. It came out positive.
“I laughed into a pillow hysterically for about five minutes straight,” Ilyssa Kyu said.
Medical professionals had previously told the couple that they would have a hard time conceiving, so this was welcome news. But they began to question the timing and even the advisability of continuing their project during her pregnancy.
After seeking medical advice, the couple realized: “People have babies everywhere in all kinds of conditions and in Third World countries all over the world,” Dave Kyu said.
The Kyus set up doctor appointments in various places across the country and started up again.
The couple stayed in each park for a couple of weeks, hitting the local libraries, museums, national park archives and other research centers while they were there, as well interviewing people from cultural organizations and historical societies.
“We want to show not only what the place is, but why it is,” Dave Kyu said. “It would be easy to leave a place and realize that we only talked to white men, so we tried to make sure that we were talking to all types of people and outside of a single demographic.”
Their book includes stories from pioneer diaries, indigenous oral traditions and stories from authors including John Muir, Bill Bryson and Utah’s Terry Tempest Williams, with a foreword by professor and writer Carolyn Finney, author of “Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors.”
Throughout their journey, however, couple did find that they had an easier time finding stories in some parks than others.
“Zion was the most challenging for us because we’re not desert people, but we fell in love with the stories,” Ilyssa Kyu said.
The Zion National Park stories are among the book's most compelling, like a well-known Paiute tale about the North Star’s origin, the story of the pioneer stock who found a physical and religious refuge in the land and a story of a thrilling race to rescue a climber — a fairly common story for Zion, especially in the summer heat.
As the Kyus traveled the country and collected stories, the couple also connected with the people they met, and especially learned to appreciate for nature, cultivating a strong desire to help preserve these lands.
“As humans, we think we can control our environment,” Dave Kyu said. “We lay concrete over the landscape and feel like we can control the weather and the climate. … Until a giant blizzard comes in or a hurricane or a drought. In those moments, we realize just how reliant we are on the environment.”