Campfire Stories with Dave and Ilyssa Kyu

The couple behind a new book of national park stories has a sweet tale all their own.

Authored by Susan Fornoff

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Courtesy iStockphoto

When Dave and Ilyssa Kyu embarked on a five-month search for tales from six national parks worthy of inclusion in their book, Campfire Stories: Tales from America’s National Parks, they had no idea they would soon be writing a story of their own.

In Nashville, just after they’d researched Great Smoky Mountains National Park, they discovered a stowaway. And it wasn’t their dog, Truuli. In Denver, just before they crossed the Front Range into Rocky Mountain National Park, they stopped to see a doctor.

“We discovered we were pregnant in Tennessee,” says Dave, on the phone from their home in Philadelphia. “We were both excited but also thought the timing couldn’t be worse. And we were worried. We’re going to be in the desert, we’re going to be at 12,000 feet. Is this safe? We weren’t planning for it, we didn’t know anything about pregnancy, so we were terrified.”

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Courtesy iStockphoto

“I think we went into the Denver appointment thinking, this guy is going to tell us if we can keep going or not,” says Ilyssa, in the neat her-turn-his-turn style the couple naturally assumes. “We really thought we couldn’t continue with our travels.”

The doctor, trying not to laugh, told them, “People have babies all over the world. People have babies in the desert; people have babies everywhere. It’s not unsafe. It’s just uncomfortable.” So when their Subaru pulled into RMNP, Dave set up camp alone for the first time, but only after setting up Ilyssa in the tree hammock. “We had to build in a lot of time for naps,” she says. “I was tired. I could pretty much sleep on the grass, or the pavement, or wherever he put me.”

Fortunately, their project proved engaging enough to keep Ilyssa awake through days in libraries, poring over historical archives, and in visitor centers, interviewing park experts. In the evenings, the couple would sit by their campfire going over their notes, looking for the right stories for their book, which they hope others will share on their own trips to national parks.

“Telling campfire stories is definitely a lost and dying art,” says Dave. “Neither of us grew up camping, so we didn’t have these stories to share. I think that’s what made us go on this quest.” The result of their work is a beautiful book, bound in black and peppered with abstract illustrations by several of their friends and colleagues.

Dave and Ilyssa Kyu

Dave is an artist and community arts advocate, and Ilyssa has been a user experience researcher and strategist for web and digital projects. Neither of them is a writer, so when they decided to do the book, they used Kickstarter to raise funds rather than trying to get a book advance. Inspired by annual visits to Acadia National Park on the Maine coastline, the first park in the book, they wanted stories that would give a sense of each place. Realizing they couldn’t do that from the couch in Philly, Ilyssa took a leave of absence and Dave quit his job to hit the road to do research.

They hit their Kickstarter goal and then some, with 379 backers pledging $20,264. “There were people from all over the world, countries I’ve never even heard of,” Ilyssa says. “That really showed us the power of the national parks here in the U.S. and cemented our pursuit of the project.”

Mountaineers Books joined them later with the goal of a 2018 pub date. By then, the Kyus had finished their 2016 journey (on to Zion, Yosemite, and finally Yellowstone) and embarked on a whole new trip with now-2-year-old Lulu June. This year, the three spent a month in Yosemite.

One problem so far, said Ilyssa. “Lulu doesn’t like to hike.”

Campfire Stories: Tales From America’s National Parks
(Mountaineers books, $22)
Available wherever books are sold