Have you ever had a really big goal? For many years, mine was visiting all 50 states. The goal was actually my mom’s. Somewhere along the way, she decided she wanted me to visit all 50 of the United States by the time I graduated from high school. Not long after we started, I began picking our destinations. Here’s the story.
Like all stories, there’s a backstory. My mother grew up in a very rural and impoverished area. Poor can’t really begin to explain it. The house where she grew up was small and she had to share a bed with her sisters – until they were in high school. Like all of her siblings, she got her first job at the age of 9 cleaning people’s houses so she could buy her own clothes. Her one dream was getting out. And she did.
She left the Midwest and went on a road trip to Yellowstone National Park before settling down in the mountains of Colorado. In the process, she realized travel was possible, even with very little money.
I grew up with very modest means. At the time, I didn’t appreciate my financial situation. I always felt we had enough – food on the table, activities for me, music lessons, etc. My financial situation was only apparent in the tiny house where we lived and in my clothes. We couldn’t afford new cloths. I got the hand-me-downs from my cousins on the farm or what my mom could pick up at the thrift shop (long before Macklemore and Ryan Lewis made it cool). It was a source of endless embarrassment at my suburban school.
While other families lived in luxury, my family had other values: travel. And this was represented by what we called the 50 State Project: a goal of visiting all 50 of the United States and the District of Columbia by the time I graduated from high school. In each state, the goal was to have an important educational experience.
Mom and Dad conceived of the 50 State Project to supplement my public school education. When it was time to study the American Revolution, we’d go to Valley Forge in Pennsylvania and walked on the lonely road from Lexington to Concord in Massachusetts. For the Civil War, I visited Fort Sumter in South Carolina and slave plantations in the south.
In science, I went to NASA facilities in Houston, Florida and Virginia – seeing the space shuttle Challenger on the launch pad just days before the tragic explosion. I went to Fermilab to learn about physics (as a 12 year old) and Super Computing facilities in San Diego and Illinois. To learn about government, we visited the White House, the Capitol Building and many different state capitals.
Somewhere along the way, we realized that the education I was getting from travel was more important than what I was receiving in public schools. I was supposed to be in one of the top school districts in the entire United States, but I was bored to tears. Public school was basically daycare – an endless series of mindless assignments from teachers who would tell us they were there because they couldn’t get a job doing anything else. My father, not one for the following rules, decided it was time for a change.
I would still continue to be officially enrolled in public school. But I would be missing a lot of it. My parents would pull me out. This was long before “common core” and “No Child Left Behind.” It started with my dad taking me on short 2-3 day road trips in the Rocky Mountains.
But soon, the trips were becoming much longer – up to 6 weeks in the quest of seeing all of America. I’d study my public school curriculum in the car, but it could be easily managed in an hour or two. Meanwhile, I would have hands on learning.
I’m happy to say that we accomplished our goal of visiting all 50 states by the time I graduated from high school. In fact, I almost did it twice – missing only Alaska and Hawaii the second time (still working on those for the second time around).
Along the way, I learned about a life of travel. I learned how to read maps (we’re talking pre-Internet era), navigate unfamiliar places, embrace unusual cultures unfamiliar to me and fan the flames of intellectual curiosity.