In the upstairs hallway of my parents’ house hangs a very special quilt. Sewn by my mother as a gift for my father’s 50th birthday, the quilt has 50 photographs imprinted on the fabric. Some of these photos feature my father as a knee-knocking youngin’ in the ’60s; some present a smiling bearded man with his arms around me and my siblings. In the center of the quilt is a patchwork compass rose with “Fifty states, fifty years” embroidered underneath. As the quilt’s central text reveals, my dad — at age 50 — achieved his goal of traveling to all 50 states.
For me and my siblings, that aspiration was reached in about half that time. By age 17, I had seen this country, sea to shining sea. I have been to more than 100 historical houses, museums, monuments, attractions and national and state parks. While this achievement is not unique — I sometimes meet others who can boast the same accomplishment — it’s rare. Plus, my family doesn’t count “driving through” a state as legitimate. We have requirements. You must spend at least two nights in a state and do something of historical, local or cultural significance.
I was unique in my group of childhood and teenage friends. While most people I knew got to lounge around during school breaks, my family was on the road at the crack of dawn and didn’t return until the last possible minute. We would go on at least three “vacations” a year: one during winter break, one during spring break and one behemoth three-week-long journey we would undertake every August before school started. And to be clear, these “vacations” were not of the relax-on-the-beach variety (though we have been visiting Hilton Head Island annually ever since I can remember). But on a “Daddy Trip,” as we called them, we were up at dawn and at the first stop of the day at its opening time. We didn’t return to the hotel until after dinner. And after dinner, we were required to write journals of everything we did during the day and what we learned. These trips were not vacations — they were an extension of my education.
And my God did I learn a lot. In addition to the general knowledge I osmosed just by experiencing the cultures of different corners of the country, I learned so much about history, literature, science, industry, paleontology, geology — you name it, I’m sure I learned about it at some museum or National Park.
In fact, my siblings and I, on occasion, corrected our teachers. In the fifth grade, my class studied Lewis and Clark and their exploration of the unknown West. One of the test questions for that unit dealt with the mountain ranges the pair crossed on their way to the Pacific Ocean. I wrote down the Bitterroot Mountains. My teacher marked that answer wrong — the correct answer was the Rocky Mountains. After class, I had to patiently explain to her that the Bitterroot Mountains are the portion of the Rocky Mountains that Lewis and Clark passed through. After a phone call to my dad and corroborating evidence on the Internet, my teacher had no excuse but to admit I was right. I don’t remember if I ever got that point back.
Beside making me an insufferable know-it-all, traveling to all 50 states instilled in me an insatiable curiosity for the world around me. It still amazes me that even with all the time I’ve spent crossing this country, I can return to states I’ve been to and still discover new parks and museums. It’s mind-boggling that there’s so much to see and so much to learn, just in one country alone!
And these vacations were intense bonding experiences for me and my family. Imagine spending three weeks every year packed tight into a minivan with your annoying little sister and gross younger brother. There was no respite: It was five to a hotel room, five to a bathroom and you could never escape. We learned to deal with it and co-exist with each other. Now, I’d say we’re as close as any siblings could become — not only because we’ve spent so much time together and have so many stories to share and memories to recount, but because we three are the only people on this planet who really understand what it means to see America through the fanaticism of our father. And we three are the only people I know who could have that bizarre of a childhood and still, for some reason, love to travel, love to learn and love to be with each other.