It was the summer of 2021, and Aaron Hill was running on the trails of Camden State Park southwest of Marshall, Minn., when he unexpectedly — profoundly — met up with someone: the real him.
Later, Hill recognized the moment as a breakthrough, shedding a version of himself that had been weighed down by the death of his wife, Kathryn, the previous year. He grasped that he had been someone else from the time of his wife's lung cancer diagnosis at age 37 to her passing at 41. He'd internalized a "crisis mode" mentality as the primary caregiver, Hill said.
The real him had emerged that day on the path.
"I had this sense that I was meeting myself again, getting to know myself again," he recalled.
"At that point, I realized there was more to me than I'd been aware of."
Hill, 48, has returned again and again to places like Camden, fanning out to visit all the state parks and their trails as a restoration project of the human kind. He'd always had an interest in trail running, and that included a dream of adventure in the parks system. The undeveloped idea jelled after Kathryn's death, he said. He decided to visit all 66 Minnesota state parks beginning in early 2021, with a plan to run their trails in a year's time. The time frame, alas, wasn't achievable, but the goal is now within striking distance.
The Hills' four children, ages 17 to 9, have visited most of the parks with their dad, who bought a 25-foot Rockwood Roo camper and a truck to pull it after his wife's death. He researched the parks system to game-plan. He grouped some geographically, while others were targeted for trips around the home-school and activity schedules of, oldest to youngest, Evangelyn, Ariana, Alexander and Elias.
The effects of the pandemic also opened up their opportunity. Hill, who was employed in product management at Wells Fargo for a time, would work from a campsite. The family's first outing was a day trip, out and back to Myre-Big Island State Park in Albert Lea. Their first overnight was at St. Croix State Park in Hinckley.
"I just felt this need to kind of seize on that opportunity for an adventure. … When she died it really hit me: What am I now? Who am I now?
"I wanted our family to craft a new family of five versus a family of six. What are we going to be about?" the Lake Elmo man recalled of his thoughts.
Evangelyn said having already been driven closer by her mother's death, they became "more of a team" through the travel. Plus, her eyes were opened to the breadth of diversity in Minnesota's outdoors.
"It was fun getting to explore together and see how much beauty there is out in Minnesota," she added. "I didn't really realize how many unique places there are."
Learning along the way
Hill has enjoyed the sweep of experience of researching and then visiting parks. St. Croix, for example, might be river-centric, with the influence of the National Scenic Riverway and the Kettle River, but the park also covers more than 34,000 acres. Hill still is chipping away at the park's 127 miles (!) of trail. Conversely, his run at John Latsch State Park in Minnesota City off Hwy. 61 and hard against the Mississippi River was about a half-mile — a climb to the top of Charity Bluff.
Perhaps most striking on some of their visits have been reminders of land that was under the feet of Native communities like the Dakota hundreds of years before it became state property. Hill singled out Upper Sioux Agency State Park in Granite Falls, which, under recently adopted legislation, will be closed and transferred to the Upper Sioux Community.
"That is such a powerful piece of our state's history ... and there are so many parks that have a part to play in that story [of the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862]," Hill said.
Hill's running quest, about 1,300 miles overall, is near completion. He has about 100 miles remaining between St. Croix, Frontenac, Gooseberry Falls and Jay Cooke state parks.
He said his kids have begun to find their footing, too, and healing in all the intimate time together outdoors.
"When we kicked this thing off, they were all on board," Hill said, "and just took to it like they had been born on the road."
Steve Andersson of Stillwater has been impressed as a friend of the family and observer. His kids know the Hill children through school and, eventually, Andersson and Aaron Hill connected for some runs together.
Andersson thinks the running project has been inspirational, too, for the kids to see their father accomplish big things and consider their own. Even running every state park trail.
"It's really neat to take a sad situation and make a positive and a strength out of it," Andersson said.