Brand New Badger: Reporter, long-distance walker, now UW student

October 10, 2018 By Parker Schorr
Jackson Parr with a backpacking pack poses during a cloudy day before his trek across the U.S.

Jackson Parr – triathlete, journalist, musician – is new to campus this fall, studying public policy. This photo was taken before he attempted to walk across the United States. CREDIT: Jackson Parr

Walking across the country seemed like a romantic idea at the time.

Jackson Parr was in peak physical shape and continually pushing the envelope. He started racing bikes at The University of Iowa as an undergrad, then got into triathlons, which then evolved into ultra-marathons. He finished Madison’s Ironman Triathlon in 2015, biked halfway across the U.S., and completed a 50-mile running race in Door County, where he lived and wrote for the Peninsula Pulse, the local paper.

“Honestly I have no cogent explanation as to why I wanted to do it. It just sounded like a really cool thing, and it sounded like a good challenge,” Parr said. “I know that I don’t have any problem with being alone, so that wasn’t going to be an issue.”

Parr embarked on his journey quietly and without fanfare, telling his editor to publish a piece about his walk in the Pulse only after he had left town. Setting a path from San Diego to D.C., he tried to calm his nerves. He knew from his experience in racing he went out too fast, and that if he was going to make it 2,800 miles on his own two feet, he had to take it slow.

He didn’t take it slow. In the first three days, he travelled 120 miles. As he crossed the California border into Arizona, his ankles became so swollen he couldn’t tie his shoes. He visited a local doctor who implored him to pull out or else risk never being able to run again.

Only a few weeks into a six month trek, Parr didn’t want to give up so easily. He walked to a Walmart and bought a bike, jerry rigging his pack on the back of it. Setting out into the desert once again, the bike broke down almost immediately.

“It just totally wrecked me,” Parr said. “There was no coming back.”

Meanwhile, another man was walking across the country from the opposite direction. Heading east to west, Mark Baumer, a climate change activist, was hit by an SUV and killed. Parr decided to pull the plug.

“For me, I was just sitting in the desert, I was like, ‘what are you contributing right now? Is this going to make you a better person? Or the world a better place?’” Parr said.

Parr running a race with a cowboy hat on.

Parr during his racing days. CREDIT: Jackson Parr

Parr returned to school this fall with the aim of getting a Master’s Degree in Public Policy at UW’s La Follette School of Public Affairs. He hopes to focus on water policy, partly because of reporting he did for four years at the Peninsula Pulse.

Parr joined the small, idyllic county’s paper shortly after graduation. The newsroom was tiny, employing only two reporters, which meant Parr was tasked with covering anything and everything of import.

From covering highly specific local government disputes to beekeeping, Parr discovered that journalism complimented his natural desire for learning.

“For a profile like this this is going to sound like such a cop out answer, but [my passion is] academia and reading and scholarship,” Parr said. “I really enjoy understanding how the world works … trying to understand why we’re in the place that we are and in some ways how to get out of it.”

A photo of Parr as he wrote a story on the restoration of a 1960s sailboat for the Peninsula Pulse.

A photo of Parr as he wrote a story on the restoration of a 1960s sailboat for the Peninsula Pulse. CREDIT: Jackson Parr

Every April around Earth Day the Pulse would publish its “sustainability issue.” Since Door County has the most miles of coastline of any county in the U.S., many of the stories were about water quality. Parr covered many of these stories – dairy-intensive farming practices, wells contaminations, beach closures, and the successes of farms who limited their environmental impact.

Parr believes the struggle for clean water will be the issue of our lifetime. By coming to UW, he hopes to be able to get in on the ground floor and figure out how people can collectively work together to improve water quality.

“Through my work reporting, you just end up realizing what you’re interested in what stories you go above and beyond reporting,” Parr said.

3 questions with Jackson Parr

Why I chose UW–Madison:

I have made a home in Wisconsin and when it came time to search for a graduate program in public policy, there seemed no better place than the state capitol. The Wisconsin Idea is something I’ve tried to practice in my professional life and I hope to employ as a student during my studies as well.

What I’m looking forward to this year:

I am excited to become engulfed in academia again. While my role at the newspaper gave me great latitude to learn about a variety of topics and meet people from every walk of life, there is a kind of magic in getting hundreds of bright heads in one space and loosening the reigns.

Something on my Bucky List:

Get out on the water. Whether through my studies of water policy or for recreation, there’s nearly more water to explore around Madison than there is land and I have two years to discover.

Tags: student life