I can tell you something strange about each of the 49 United States. No, one did not drop out to join Canada while your news feed was occupied by other headlines. Yes, I’m aware that there are 50 states in America. But I have lived in one of those states my entire life (for fifty years now), so Minnesota is not strange to me. And, I don’t say “strange” as if it’s a bad thing. I mean “strange” as in: unfamiliar; not previously encountered.
My parents loved to travel and frequently took my brother, sister, and me on summer road trips across America. When I was young, traveling through the country was something that I thought all families were supposed to do—I thought that experiencing the country we lived in was part of being American. My parents didn’t take us on all of their trips, so when they accomplished seeing all 50 states together, I thought that was something I would also make a point of doing someday. It seemed to me like the thing all responsible Americans should do.
My kids became accustomed to road trips shortly after they were born, when they frequently went to visit family near the Minnesota-Iowa border and in Wisconsin. My kids were good travelers from the very beginning and provided me with hours of precious entertainment from the backseat, so I was motivated to travel with them. Our first big road trip was in 1997, when we drove through neighboring Wisconsin. My daughter was four years old and my son was two and a half. We visited the House on the Rock, I guess to show them what creepy hoarding looks like, and visited lots of Frank Lloyd Wright’s buildings, because you’re never too young to appreciate good architecture. Their Lego creations took on a whole new vibe after that. We also did kid-friendly things like seeing Baraboo’s Circus World and Milwaukee’s Zoo. On the long car ride home, already obsessed with numbers, my son asked how many more hours it would be. It made me laugh when he groaned after I told him it would be more than five hours because we would stop for food and bathroom breaks. My daughter, who never experienced boredom, decided to distract herself from the lengthy car ride by trying to blow up a whoopee cushion with her nose. She had helped pack for our trip. I laughed deliriously and was a little grossed out, but I did not realize it was actually a good omen for future family travel.
The following summer, in 1998, we journeyed to Illinois. The kids told jokes and giggled during most of the road trip to see all of Chicago’s kid-friendly museums. The highlight of the trip for me was the laughter in the backseat, but the highlight of the trip for them was sleeping on a couch-bed while laughing at Cow and Chicken on Cartoon Network in the hotel room because we didn’t have cable TV or a couch-bed at home.
In the summer of 1999 and 2000 we did lots of short trips around Minnesota to State Parks and museums, and the best part of those trips for me was seeing familiar places through my kids’ perspective. In 2001 we road tripped to our kids’ first foreign country: Canada. They were impressed by how similar Manitoba was to Minnesota because they were expecting something much more “foreign.” We traveled to my cousin’s wedding in Washington state in 2002, and at ages seven and a half and almost nine the kids were traveling so well on our really long road trip that my husband suggested we make it a goal to eventually see all of the states together. This was before the kids saw something splat on the back window and argued about what it was for the next two hours. My daughter said it was bird poop; my son kept responding that it was a bug. I got out and looked at the source of their argument when we pulled over to get gas at a station in Idaho Falls. It was a bug covered with bird poop. Because my kids found it really funny, they continued to dramatically “fight” about the bug poo over the next 34 hours, until it suddenly flew off the window.
Despite minor conflicts, being in a vehicle for at least two weeks with my children every summer was something I looked forward to every year because of the sheer joy I experienced when they were in my captivity. So that my children wouldn’t know they were captives during our adventures, I tried really hard to plan experiences that would be fun for them. To engage them in each day of our trip, we collected “oddities” as a family. I would record in an Oddities of Our Odysseys journal, all of the strange people, places, and things we saw in other states. We noted the gradual change in people’s accents, colloquialisms, clothing styles, menu offerings, architectural preferences, zoning laws, billboards, and road kill. Most of the things we recorded had great comic value and the kids would beg me to read to them all that we had documented—again and again. They enjoyed reliving the strangeness of the unfamiliar states we were visiting. We also made note of how we were actually the strangers in other states because we ordered things like “pop” instead of soda and we dwelled on our O sounds a little too long; so long that people in other states would tell me they were excited to encounter actual Minnesotans. The take away from our American family road trips was that everyone, and every place, is strange to someone.
As my kids grew older the road trips became more and more entertaining. My daughter used her McDonald’s Happy Meal cell phone to call the stuffed animals at home, who always seemed to be having a disco party when we were away. I laughed the entire last day of one of our road trips to the western states. I heard a weird grinding sound and turned to look in the backseat and saw that my son was sharpening an already sharp pencil, just to justify the space the large electric pencil sharpener had taken up in his backpack during the trip.
After thousands of miles of strange memories and laughter, in the summer of 2006 we raced our car through herds of wild horses standing on a dusty gravel road to ceremoniously pose for a family photo in Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado—our 48th state—at Four Corners Monument before it closed. Later, we celebrated that our family had successfully driven through all 48 of the contiguous United States together, and didn’t hit a wild horse. I privately celebrated that I had acquired enough odd and entertaining memories with my children to fill the trunk of a car. Even though we had been to all of the Lower 48, we continued taking summer road trips across America until 2012, when the kids were both done with high school. The last few years, we were traveling under the guise of checking out colleges for the kids to attend, but I think we were actually road tripping all that time just to continue seeing who could point out the best American oddity.
When my children were born, it was my intention to introduce them to other landscapes, other kinds of people, other ways of doing things … otherness, in general, because I thought it would help them become open-minded people who weren’t afraid to explore. I was pleasantly surprised that the road trips during school break that were meant to be fun and horizon expanding, easily turned into an educational adventure that taught my children about geography, geology, science, social studies, language, history, civics, and what human decency does and doesn’t look like in this country.
Before they were born I wanted my children to know that, as an American, they had the option to live the kind of life they wanted, in a place they liked best, doing whatever made them happy. As we traveled beyond our comfortable winter white Minnesota borders, it was clear to me that my children could indeed do and become whatever they wanted to in this country. But because I also wanted to make a point of taking my family on a road less traveled through America to see some of the “real” non-touristy parts of our country, it also became clear that other parents in other parts of states know that their children probably won’t have the opportunity to live wherever they want, doing what makes them happy. Our journeys through our country underscored that my children have certain opportunities because they were born into a nurturing middle-class home environment, in an excellent school district, in an area with relatively no crime. And they were born with the color of skin that allows them to by-pass many of the hurdles that still exist throughout our country for non-white Americans. For many families in America, survival is their only goal; there’s no room to dream when thoughts are consumed by not being able to put food on the table. This is strange—the bad kind of “strange” that’s surprising in a way that is hard to understand. It’s the unsettling—Hey Americans it’s 2018, so why are we still allowing elitists, bigots, racists, xenophobes, all kinds of “phobes” to prevent people who were born into the wrong location, wrong economic class, wrong skin from pursuing their version of the American Dream?—kind of “strange.”
Our United States family travel goal has finally been achieved. It happened twenty-one years after our first entertaining road trip with the whoopee cushion, and sixteen years after we decided to visit all of the states. Last month my husband and I and our two college-graduate children landed in Honolulu on the island of Oahu in Hawaii—state #50 for us! The mood was celebratory when we found ourselves in the airport of a strange state with a new adventure about to unfold. We also started celebrating the morning of my 50th birthday in the 50th state on the island of Maui, and we continued the celebration on Hawaii’s Big Island with a luau. We went to Alaska last year, the 49th state that we visited as a family, which is also the 49th state in the Union, and we celebrated my 49th birthday there in Denali National Park. I can plan eccentric adventures like this, in part, because my husband and I were born into white privilege. I have met so many people during our journeys that have never even left their home state. They have never had (or taken) the opportunity to experience a strange state (an unfamiliar one) in order to experience other ways of thinking and living.
Experiencing the 50th state with my family was bittersweet. Going to Hawaii was a dream come true for me. The state seemed so amazing to me in all of the shows I watched as a child in the 1970s. It was so different than anything I had ever experienced in Minnesota. I grew up watching Hawaii Five-O and fantasized about someday visiting Steve McGarrett’s building that was featured in the opening sequence. I thoroughly enjoyed staying with my family in that very building—now the Ilikai Hotel—during our first night in Hawaii. It was a reminder to me that my dreams can come true. And I soooo enjoyed having my daughter and son in my captivity while experiencing Hawaiian oddities with them—another dream come true! I’m pretty sure they knew they were my captives on my family dream trip, so I deeply appreciated them for coming along anyway. I treasured every moment they were in my presence. But having reached our travel goal, it is the end of an era that I wanted to continue forever with my family. As I sat in a rental house on Kilauea’s active volcano, experiencing many earthquakes from the nearby eruptions with my kids, I wanted to stay forever frozen in that wonderful oddity with them. I would now like to set the goal of visiting every country in the world with my family because they are my favorite and most entertaining traveling companions, but I know that as adults they have their own agendas—and limited vacation time. Traveling with my kids this past year still provided me with an ample amount of entertaining moments that have been added to the trunk of memories I will always cherish.
Traveling with adult children allowed for several conversations concerning the state of our country and current political events that were coming in on their news feeds. On this final American trip with my family, I realized that I am so pleased with what adventurous and decent human beings my children have turned out to be. They are fearless when it comes to travel because they aren’t afraid of strange places and strange people. They’re respectful toward the residents of the places they visit. If they no longer have the opportunity to travel with me and my husband in the future, I hope my children someday find themselves traveling with their own captive kids so that they can experience this country again through the eyes of a child who believes in the American Dream.
After visiting all 49 states, it occurred to me that I want to hold every child in America captive in my backseat. No, that desire doesn’t stem from my chronic empty nest syndrome. I want to take my country’s children on an American odyssey, where they have to document the oddities they see and consequently discover the joy in celebrating the strangeness in others instead of fearing it, trying to destroy it, limit it or use it as license to make an enemy of someone. I want to borrow America’s children for several summers and show them that there are so many different ways of living and thinking—and that these are all examples of American states and American people. While traveling with me they would discover that it is self-evident that there is no single definition of “American” other than being endowed “with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are ‘Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.’” The children on my road trip would come to accept that every single person they encounter on their journey has the right to pursue their unique version of the American Dream, no matter what circumstance they are born into. Hopefully the children would realize, at the very least, that a true American does not prevent others from traveling toward their dreams.
If I could put all of America’s children in my backseat before they reach voting age, I believe that in the time it takes to travel 49 strange states I could help create a country that is educated about America—and united by human decency.
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© 2018 by Julie Ryan. All rights reserved
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