Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

A Walk in the Park More Than Just Hobby for Woman, Children

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

A Walk in the Park More Than Just Hobby for Woman, Children

Article excerpt

Connie Merlotti is a fan of Missouri's state parks, and little wonder. "Where else can you take three kids for a weekend for $6 a night?" she asks.

Since last September, Merlotti, of Maplewood, and her three children have visited all 78 state parks and historic sites, and they have the stamped "passports" to prove it.

Merlotti is an avid camper and nature lover. She's been packing her children and camping gear in the family car almost every available weekend for the last eight years. She heard about the new passport program last September while camping at St. Francis State Park. "The naturalist there told us about the program on Friday night. We woke up to a drizzly, ugly Saturday and I knew what we were going to do. We did eight state parks that weekend. I think we hit another on the way home Sunday." At that point, Merlotti knew it would be possible to visit all the Missouri parks. At first her children groaned at the beginning of each trek, she recalls, but as budding naturalists, they quickly caught their mother's enthusiasm. With each park, they got a new stamp in their passport books. They got colorful patches when they visited all the sites within six theme categories: famous Missourians, Missouri's mills and covered bridges, lake parks, caves and geologic wonders, Missouri's legacy and natural landscapes. Tony Merlotti, 10, likes the three sailboats on the lake patch best. Merlotti's favorite is the covered bridge patch, a replica of the Sandy Creek Covered Bridge in Jefferson County. As of last week, a spokesman for the parks division of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources reported that 112 people had completed the passport program. "I told them we'd be adding four more to that total," said Merlotti as she leafed through her family's completed passports. As a single mother with busy children and weekend custody to share, Merlotti sometimes found scheduling the park trips difficult. But Merlotti was not easily deterred. "One Sunday we went down Interstate 55 to New Madr id; we did seven that weekend," she said. The record was 11 state parks in one weekend, in and around Hermann, Jefferson City, Columbia and Sedalia. That weekend, in late March, was a celebration of Merlotti's birthday and included a rare extravagance - a night in a motel. Merlotti cleans houses for a living. She can be home when her children leave for school, greet them when they get home and drive them to all their activities. And she can often arrange to be finished by noon on Fridays on camping weekends. When their treks take them close to state lines, they usually go across the border and take pictures. That's taken them to more state parks, including Mammoth Spring in Arkansas. In addition to Arkansas, they also hit Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa and Illinois this past year. …

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