Lance and his parents seeing the Lincoln Memorial while visiting all 50 states

The Quest: Visiting All 50 States

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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.

Lance at the NASA training facility in Houston (this is the Space Shuttle Simulator)
At the NASA training facility in Houston (this is the Space Shuttle Simulator)

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.

Lance carrying vegetables at the Sturbridge Village
Sturbridge Village

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.

Lance at Alcatraz
Alcatraz

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.

Lance and his mother at the Hoover Dam
Hoover Dam

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.

Lance at the White House

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.

Lance and his dad at the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System
Learning about oil at the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System

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.

12 thoughts on “The Quest: Visiting All 50 States”

  1. Kristin Addis

    That’s so cool! The more I travel internationally the more I want to see at home. I haven’t even been to the Grand Canyon, and I’m from California! Failure. Complete failure.

    1. Lance Longwell

      My mom is from Iowa, so that made that one easy. There’s actually a lot of great stuff in Eastern Iowa. I recommend it!

  2. I absolutely loved this story, Lance. Very inspiring and heartwarming. Congratulations on meeting your goal. I just got to state #20, and you’ve got me all fired up about the next thirty!

  3. Mindy and Ligeia

    What an awesome way to get an education!!! You learned so much more and it is clear that what you have learned has stayed with you! We have a goal to visit every country in the world and we figure even if we don’t make it, we will have had a wonderful life and have learned so much and that’s what it really is all about. Congratulations! What is your next goal?

    1. Lance Longwell

      Next goal is to visit every country that starts with the letter “I” – sounds random. When we started traveling, some of the first countries were Italy, Ireland and Iceland (in that order). Why stop with that? Need to go to India, Ivory Coast (although technically it starts with the letter C), Indonesia, Israel, Iraq and Iran. I suppose this tongue-in-cheek goal is really just “visit every country” in disguise. And I’d like to finish out my second set of 50 States (just Alaska and Hawaii to go).

  4. Robert J. Straub

    Our goal is to visit all 50 State Capitols. We’ve got to be inside the building and get proof of the visit for it to count. So far we have 41. For us, proof usually consists of an ink stamp at the tour desk or the gift shop. There’s a “passport” booklet available with a page for each state, a picture of the building, and a space for the stamp. It’s been fun and educational.

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