I can’t recall how it all started though it may have been just a passing suggestion by our then eight-year old daughter, Isabella. It sounded daunting at the time, but for whatever reason, we relented and embarked on a journey that would take us to all 50 states. Had we thought through just what this would have entailed, we probably would have backed off, but it turned out to be an absolutely incredible and unforgettable experience. Breaking from our pattern of over-planning created enough of a shift in our behavior to enable the great gift of thoroughly engaging in all of the magical moments we would encounter along the way.
In an 18 month period, we made it to all of the states we hadn’t been to before. It took seven separate trips and by the time we finished, we would log over 13,000 miles by car and close to 30,000 in the air. We would see over 30 major colleges or universities, 25 state capitols, and several National Forests, Parks or Monuments. Our only rule was that we needed to either spend the night or have a full meal for the visit to count. In all, we spent a total of two months away from home. We never anticipated how remarkable the journey would be or the impact it would have on our lives.
It began in Hermosa Beach with a road trip to several southwestern states in December 2014. We spent substantial time planning every hour of the first trip. We knew where we wanted to be and when we wanted to be there. We even mapped out our food and researched restaurants in advance. As we would soon learn, this amount of structure inhibited us from really being present and embracing the adventures as they unfolded. The southwest provided a fortuitous first trip for this as there are countless ways to interrupt the comfortable familiarity of living by the ocean.
Our first epiphany on the benefits of unscripted travel hit us in Saguaro National Park. We arrived in a valley completely surrounded by thousands of tall saguaro cacti standing sentry to the majesty of the desert. We realized that trying to adhere to our tight travel plans would rob us of rare moments like this. We were struck by the stillness and serenity of the air, something we don’t experience often at the beach. It would be a recurring experience in the southwest in places like White Sands National Monument and the Arches and Canyonlands National Parks.
To interrupt Isabella’s increasing dependency on her iPad during our drives, we began to make random stops to get her active. These respites paid off and provided us with fantastic memories. In White Sands National Monument she would roll down the glistening hills while laughing hysterically the whole way down. The same thing happened on the slopes of Vail and sledding down Y Mountain in Provo. Spontaneous activity and fun can definitely transform the travel experience.
While on this trip we committed to eating local food and witnessing the culture as much as possible. We couldn’t get enough of Southwestern cuisine, especially in New Mexico. Santa Fe had fantastic food and offered opportunities to visit enchanting places like the pueblos of Nambe and Taos and to shop the Native American vendors at the Palace of the Governors. The uniqueness of El Paso, Denver and Las Vegas would add to the mix.
In the spring of 2015, we set out to visit family and friends in the Gulf States before venturing off to several adjacent states. Experiencing unfamiliar places with people we enjoy who happen to know the area well greatly enhanced our travel and would become a mainstay for our trips moving forward.
There were a couple of stops that we made that stand out above many other amazing places on this trip. Ruby Falls, outside Chattanooga, has an underground 145-foot high waterfall every bit worth the effort getting to it. Likewise, we will never forget digging for diamonds in the world’s only diamond-producing site where the public can do this at Crater of Diamonds State Park outside Murfreesboro, Arkansas. We spent a couple of hours, mostly in mud, not even caring if we made a discovery.
We were also able to enjoy some excellent Southern-style cuisine in Alabama and Florida in addition to old school ribs in Memphis. Of course, we had to try gumbo, jambalaya and even beignets in New Orleans. We also lucked out with some great food close to the Grand Ole Opry, the Gateway Arch, and in Mississippi.
We thought it would be fun to go to the District of Columbia and Philadelphia over Memorial Day weekend that year and it turned out to be a great decision. We didn’t need an iPad for Isabella much at all on this trip. Because of timing issues, we had to consolidate the D.C. trip and opted to use a bus tour for this, which worked out perfectly. We covered many monuments and had the opportunity to walk around most of them. It was fun for her to see the White House and I had a chance to meet up with a former college classmate after the tour.
We had great food in Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia, but missed out on seeing Liberty Bell Center because the line had at least 300 people in it. We grabbed Philly cheesesteaks to go instead before meeting up with friends for dinner in Cape May, New Jersey. Our shortest stay in a state would be in Delaware with a stop for cheesecake and we would only end up spending a couple of hours in Harper’s Ferry in West Virginia. Baltimore offered fantastic soft-shell crab, cannoli in Little Italy, and a chance to burn it off paddle-boating in the Inner Harbor.
Later in the summer after Isabella turned nine, we would visit the Pacific Northwest and bring our travel to another level. We had an exceptional trip to Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, Washington and Alaska. Everything about these states made it easier and more enjoyable to be spontaneous. From swimming in a sink hole off the Snake River by Shoeshone Falls to watching the Jackson Hole Rodeo in Wyoming to swimming in the West Thumb of Yellowstone Lake, we had a blast. It helped that we had warm weather and got to see bison roaming up close, eruptions from Old Faithful Geyser, and the beauty of Big Sky while hiking.
Stops in Coeur D’Alene, Spokane and Seattle all added to the adventure. We got our Idaho potato fix in, a chance for Isabella to get on rides, and a fantastic ferry ride at night to view Seattle.
I could write volumes about our time in Alaska with friends. We were able to go dog-sledding with Iditarod competitors, raft in a Glacier river, tour Denali National Park, eat incredible salmon, and stay on military bases. I can’t overstate how special our time in Alaska was every day we were there. The signature moment occurred on the way back from a dinner cruise to Fox Island in the Kenai Fjords. We stopped in Emerald Cove and were blown away by the sight of countless moon jellyfish, sea lions trying to scramble up a tiny island to escape four approaching orcas, eagles on the side of a bluff not far from common murres, cormorants, puffins, and a random mountain goat. Definitely not something we see every day.
Over Labor Day, we flew round trip to Boston to capture the pageantry of the change of seasons and see all of New England. An hour drive can change everything there. We went to Pemaquid Point Light to scramble on the cliffs and tour the lighthouse before eating lobster rolls in Boothbay Harbor. Having Italian food was a must in Boston before spending the night in Cape Cod. Whether swimming at the beaches of Nantucket Island or just walking around the island, it left an indelible impression.
Isabella had a chance to scope out both Harvard and Brown on this trip and to see my childhood home in upstate New York. We swam in Lake George and would enjoy the company of one set of friends in Burlington and another set in Montreal.
It wouldn’t be until spring break in 2016 before our next trip to Michigan, three of the Great Lakes, the Rock and Roll Museum, and Notre Dame. This trip would mark another turning point in that Isabella became far more proactive in planning our activities. Her level of engagement ramped up and it hasn’t changed as we plan new trips.
She had us at the incredible Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, an indoor water park in Sandusky, the play Matilda in Chicago, the Wizard of Oz Museum in Wamego, Kansas and later the Little House on the Prairie site in Independence. She even managed to get a horse ride in when we were in Lincoln, Nebraska. We were encouraged to visit Woolaroc and it turned out to captivate all of us between the free-roaming wildlife and the extensive museum.
Food was a big part of this trip as well and we had brats with friends in Milwaukee, baked goods in the Czech Village outside Cedar Rapids, and steaks in Omaha. We even enjoyed a diner in Tulsa and great Thai food in Dallas.
On our last night, we pampered ourselves at the Westin Galleria which gave Isabella an opportunity to swim in the morning and ice skate later in the mall.
This left us with just three states to visit. We flew into Minneapolis just before Isabella’s 10th birthday and enjoyed the city before checking out the expansive Mall of America. Not surprisingly, Isabella loved Nickelodeon Universe and we would make it back a couple more times. We ventured off to Fargo and then spent the night in Bismarck. The next day we achieved our goal of hitting our 50th and final state when we made it to Ludlow, South Dakota without any signs of civilization in sight.
South Dakota proved to be another big surprise for us with Mt. Rushmore, Jewel Cave National Monument, Crazy Horse Monument and later Badlands and Sioux Falls. We would punctuate our last night of our last trip on this journey with a spontaneous stop at Bingham Lake in Minnesota for a swim.
Our quest had come to an end and it would prove to be nothing short of life-changing. We have been on a number of trips since and Isabella now actively participates in the planning process as little as there might be of it. We can’t help but smile when we recount the hundreds of stops we made for food or other activities to accomplish this incredibly gratifying goal.
When invariably asked what her favorite places are, Isabella offers New York City and the big island of Hawaii. We have been to Manhattan a number of times and to Hawaii before our quest to visit all 50 states began in earnest. She has vivid memories from both areas. Our travel has been an incredible blessing thanks to making the shift from a heavily-scripted approach to a mindset of just embracing the opportunities as they come.