I’m in the mood for a road trip. I just realized that it’s probably because it was ten years ago this summer when my husband and I successfully completed our goal of driving through all 48 contiguous United States with our children. We gave ourselves five years to do it. For two and a half weeks each summer we hit the road and watched each other sleep in the car with our mouths open, tolerated the smell of each others’ sweaty feet, and often stayed in really gross motels so we could afford to see America.
In 2002, our daughter was eight and our son was seven years old when we left our Minnesota home and journeyed westward as a family for the first time. We had done shorter trips to neighboring states when they were younger and they did well, so we headed out to Washington by car for my cousin’s wedding. To encourage them to engage with the scenery and the places we stopped at I asked them to write a poem about each state we visited.
It became clear by the time we were through South Dakota that I didn’t need to give my kids a poetry assignment to get them to engage on our road trip – but I like poetry and seeing on paper what’s in their heads, so I made them stick with my writing assignment throughout the trip. But I noticed that both my son and daughter really enjoyed oral storytelling on our trips. They were at the age where they enjoyed repetition and they would retell tales in the backseat about something odd we had encountered on our journey like: how the “ice water” at Wall Drug that had been promoted on billboards for hundreds of miles was actually warm; how the underside of George Washington’s nose looks really funny when you stand right beneath Mount Rushmore; how my seven year-old figured out and gave away the “secret” of the Cosmos site to the other adult tourists, who were really bummed out. The kids’ retelling of their experiences often resulted in fits of laughter. This inspired me early in our vacation to pull out a notebook that I brought along to keep track of gas mileage and give myself an assignment. Instead of mileage, I started recording our travel experiences from the kids’ perspective. I thought that it would help them easily recall the things that stood out in their minds long after our trip was over.
We named the journal: Oddities of Our Odyssey. Oddities became an immediate hit with the kids and they were suddenly extremely attentive about looking for distinctive things for me to write down as we traveled through each state. They paid attention to trees, buildings, animals, signs, the behavior and the accents of the local people, with the hope of experiencing something odd. They found something notable everywhere we went. When we arrived on the west coast in Seattle, the kids were rewarded for their long journey across country when they stepped into Ye Olde Curiosity Shoppe. Thinking it was a museum, it was actually a store with really gross stuff on the walls and ceiling. It had a two-headed pig, a flat petrified dog, a petrified mermaid, shrunken heads, and petrified people. I could tell by the looks on my kids’ faces that they were hooked on taking road trips.
After my cousin’s wedding, the kids asked if we could see more states than we had originally planned on visiting. My husband and I were so hooked on seeing the kids’ excitement about their new experiences that we readily said, “YES!” and chose a new itinerary to take us back home to Minnesota. Shortly after that, my daughter, who enjoyed collecting things, suggested that we try “collecting” all of the states. We said, “YES!”
On our new route home, the kids had fun driving through Oregon’s wildfires and herds of cattle on the roads that refused to move. Taking the Winnemucca Road between Oregon and Nevada was also “fun” because signs were posted that said Abrupt Edge, but they didn’t bother posting any railings. We encountered two donkeys on the side of Highway 140 somewhere in Nevada (we had no idea where because apparently there aren’t many towns in Nevada). Since we hadn’t seen any other vehicles the entire time we had been in Nevada (they all probably fell off that steep road and died), we went in reverse on Highway 140 to get a photo of the donkeys. The kids were amazed that they just stared at us and didn’t move. In Yellowstone National Park we encountered lots of buffalo on the road – and dumb tourists standing next to them, taking photos. It seemed that animals (and dumb tourists) just don’t move out west.
The kids were also impressed by natural wonders on our first road trip. They both saw something splat on the back window. They fought about what it was as we drove for the next two hours – my daughter said it was bird poop, my son said it was a bug. When we arrived in Idaho Falls, I got out and looked at the back window. It was a bug covered with bird poop that the kids had been fighting about. They continued fighting about the bug/bird poo until it finally fell off – 36 hours after it landed on the window.
After returning home from our first successful family road trip my son, the mathematician, noted that we had only 35 more states left to collect and said that if we traveled at the same rate as we did on that first trip we could easily hit all of the states in three or four years. My daughter agreed, and then they both decided that we would start collecting all of the countries after we got the United States done. My husband and I mapped out a loose itinerary that would take us through the remaining of the contiguous United States over the next four summers.
The summer of 2003 took us to the southeastern part of our country. A really long scenic by-way took us through Arkansas’ Ozark National Forest – which was made longer by the inability to find a decent bathroom for the kids to use (but we decided it was worth the wait when we got to use a gas station bathroom that had a shotgun in the freezer). We toured Tennessee’s Graceland and excitedly discovered that Elvis’ kitchen looked exactly like our kitchen before we remodeled. At Florida’s Sea World we excitedly watched a manatee and a fish fight over a piece of lettuce. The fish won. In our rush to get to the Kennedy Space Center on time we encountered a turtle on the road that was moving painfully slow – slow, even for a turtle. It appeared that animals were slow in the south, too. The cheeseburgers we ordered in Florida were made upside down. Horses in Savannah were wearing diapers. We hiked on the Appalachian Trail, and my son, who was eight at the time, was so impressed by how long it was that he wanted to hike on it all the way from Tennessee to New York so he could see the Statue of Liberty (but us grown-ups were too tired to go that far so we told him we would just drive there the following summer). In Kentucky we celebrated the Fourth of July and took photos of the kids biting each others’ necks at Transylvania University.
In 2004 we headed to the northeast part of the United States, where we discovered that the sand squeaked under our feet on Lake Michigan’s beach. For some reason we had trouble finding Vermont (it is kind of small). After driving through a cemetery with bizarre headstones, we slept at the Days Inn in Barre – in the parking lot, because tiny Vermont was full and there was no vacancy anywhere. In New Hampshire there were signs that said: “Brake for Moose. It could save your life. 100’s of collisions.” We pretty much had to stop the car on the road to read the lengthy sign. We frantically rushed to Bar Harbor, Maine to ride the Acadia Whale Watching boat at 8:30 a.m. When we got to the address listed in our AAA tour book we were told that it was the wrong location. We were sent to the correct one and were told it was the only one in the area and that the tour would leave at 9:00 that day. We were told we couldn’t get just Whale Watch tickets that day; we had to see puffins, too (woo-hoo). So we bought our whale-puffin tickets, but the tickets wouldn’t print. We were told to run to another store to get our tickets printed. After getting them printed we ran and caught our catamaran just in time. We had difficulty seeing whales and we could barely see puffins sitting on rocks from a distance, but we did see wood and underwear floating on the Atlantic Ocean. There was Scooby-Doo style fog in the historic graveyard in Boston – and nowhere else. We went through three towns in Rhode Island as we crossed it from east to west. Near the western border of Rhode Island we tried to buy Rhode Island postcards and we were told to go to Massachusetts to get them. Our ferry to the Statue of Liberty made a stop at Ellis Island first and we had lunch. While eating, we watched pigeons fight over french fries. Then we watched in horror as a cannibalistic pigeon swooped down and ate my daughter’s chicken. Pigeons seemed really tough on the east coast. The kids noticed that the Statue of Liberty looks really chubby when you look up at her from below. We heard that the inbound subways to lower Manhattan were shut down because of a shooting on the line we had just taken (those kids you may have seen flapping their arms and doing bunny ears in the background of NBC news coverage of the shooting were mine). The hotel room we were given in Philadelphia overlooked Ben Franklin’s grave. It was kind of a creepy trip and it made the kids look forward to our next trip even more.
During the summer of 2005, we headed east again to Washington D.C. to help the kids understand what helps keep our country operating as it does. On the way there, in Indiana, we saw a farm selling life-size cement elephant lawn ornaments (really, it’d look great next to that deer you’ve got). On the way through Pennsylvania, the kids enjoyed seeing flipped over semi-trailers and runaway truck ramps on its mountainous roads. In D.C., my daughter and son pretended to be sculpture in the garden at the Hirshhorn Art Museum (which became our daughter’s “most favorite art museum in the country”). We saw a couple of SUVs with tinted glass evacuate whom we assumed was President George W. Bush from the White House premises and watched while a CSI unit inspected a gun belt on the ground (the kids wondered, though, why during that time a water delivery truck got thoroughly searched before it was allowed to enter the White House grounds, but a van that said “Bushwacker” on the back was allowed to drive right in without inspection!). At the U.S. Capitol Building there was an albino squirrel eating a granola bar. In Virginia, we saw the many graves at Arlington National Cemetery (and while we were there, a Kennedy half dollar that my son was holding suddenly disappeared after it fell out of his hand). After we had been driving in Virginia for a long time, near Richmond (roughly the center of the state) there was a sign that said, Welcome to Virginia. Although our Washington D.C. trip was educational and informative enough, it was lacking the exploration factor we had grown accustomed to on our previous trips. So, to get our travel adventure fix, we spontaneously headed for the Outer Banks of North Carolina to see where the Wright Brothers took their first flight and hung out on the Atlantic Ocean. On our way back home to Minnesota we decided to swing by New Orleans for some jazzy culture and beignets, and then went to Memphis, Tennessee again for lunch at Graceland and a fun tour of Sun Studios. . . well, the way we traveled, New Orleans was on the way home to Minnesota from North Carolina. No, we weren’t bad at geography, we just hated seeing our road trips come to an end.
Our daughter was twelve and our son was eleven years old in the summer of 2006. We headed to the southwest to collect the remainder of our states. We traveled historic Route 66. A sign on an Oklahoma bench said, Felon, if you’re packin’, you’re back in (if it hadn’t already occurred to them to abide by the law, certainly a sign on a bench would do the trick). We ate at a real Texas Steakhouse and had real cowboys sing to us while we dined. In New Mexico, we searched for aliens and ate at a McDonald’s shaped like a flying saucer. We explored large caverns in Carlsbad where they had mined bat guano. In the El Paso Taco Bell there was a sign on the register that that said, Small fiesta poo for 99 cents. We fell in love with saguaro cacti in Arizona (and the kids discussed whether or not it’s alright to say “cactuses” since we all know that the plural is cacti). In a Mexicali, California gas station they had two whole shelves devoted to candied bugs – that were real! At a Subway restaurant in Las Vegas, Elvis sat down and ate across the counter from my son. During our mad dash to get to Four Corners National Monument (where Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico all touch) before it closed, we encountered a bunch of wild horses on the road. We made it right before closing and made a very ceremonious entrance into our 48th state – Colorado. Then we took turns standing in all four states at once. And then we got locked in the park. To celebrate the accomplishment of our family’s goal to see all 48 states in five summers, we drove to the top of Pike’s Peak in Colorado, where we all worried that we might drive off the edge of the steep road without guardrails. We toasted all the American oddities we had seen together the last five summers with hot cocoa and donuts while it snowed outside on the mountaintop. Then we had to somehow get back down the slippery mountain without going over the edge or having a heart attack.
I think every family should take at least a couple weeks out of every summer to be trapped in a hot vehicle together. The four of us ended up learning a lot about the United States over those five years, but more importantly, in that confined space, we really got to know one another. We realized that when we’re together we’re ambitious, the goals we set seem ridiculous but worth it, we tend to seek out humorous situations, and the less traveled route is where we usually end up.
I wish I could be trapped in a hot car with my cool family again.
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