Editor’s note: Herald reporter Jen Cowart traveled across the country with her family over the last several weeks. This is the seventh and final installment in a series documenting the journey.
Our Sunday at Mount Rushmore was meaningful in so many ways, and it was our last sightseeing adventure on our trip. All along, as we discussed the upcoming trip with our kids, we reiterated the fact that after Mount Rushmore we were really going to have to push hard to get home on time.
Don was heading back to work on Aug. 3, and he’d finished up work on June 26, which was just 24 hours before we ended up leaving. He’d had very little break and had worked very hard throughout the duration of the trip. We were hoping he’d have some down time before he had to go back to work.
We didn’t know what we’d be coming home to, either. We hoped all would be well at home with our house and new pool both as we’d left them, but we would need time for the re-entry process – emptying the camper, doing laundry, etc.
Little did we know, just three days after our arrival home, we’d have a tremendous storm, and although we were thankful to have escaped with no damage, we would have lots and lots of down time, as our power went out and stayed out for a few days. Ultimately, we had until Aug. 2 to get home, but we were really hoping to be in by day’s end on Friday, July 31.
As we pulled away from the Rushmore monument, I looked back at the sun going down, and I was sad. I could feel the lump in my throat. As a kid, I never wanted to see things come to an end, and my dad always used to say, “All good things must come to an end.” His words ran through my head as we drove down through the mountains of the Black Hills, and I knew that this, too, was coming to an end, as it had to, and that even though I was now an adult, I still didn’t want it to. When we pulled out in the morning, we’d start the journey home.
We hoped to get to Minnesota by the end of Monday afternoon, and stay overnight just over the border there. Whereas our past four weeks of the trip had seemed like a series of short trips and extended overnights, we knew that the next four days were going to be pretty grueling, with some long driving days we’d have to endure, and we were quite right.
Monday’s driving was difficult. It was incredibly windy and we could not go very fast at all. The windsocks that were posted periodically along the route to illustrate just how windy it was were flat out, and the grass and corn along the side of the road were almost sideways with the weight of the wind upon them. It was hot. Our air conditioning didn’t seem to be able to keep up very well with the temperatures hitting the upper 90s, despite the fact that we’d had it fixed the week before our trip. We drove with the windows and sunroof open, and the wide, flat land around us didn’t seem quite as awe-inspiring as it had the week before when we had arrived in South Dakota. By the end of the day, we just wanted to be out of that state, and into the next one, we were ready to put the flatlands behind us.
Toward the end of the ride, we pulled into a gas station, hot and tired with very little sense of humor left in us. A family was pulled up next to us for gas. As they came out of the convenience store, the son took a look at our license plate and started pointing, jumping and cheering. Somehow, we’d made their whole day. It turned out, they were from Illinois, the direction we were now heading in, and they were playing a license plate game. They feared they’d never, ever see a Rhode Island license plate, and yet here we were. They checked it off on their phone app, thanked us for driving out west, and we went on our way. That little interaction gave us all a much-needed smile and laugh.
We arrived in Minnesota by sundown, and we were probably never so thankful to cross a border thus far on the trip. It had been a hard ride, and we had taken almost double the time to cover the ground we’d hope to cover, thanks to the high winds. We pulled into Adrian Municipal Park, our campgrounds for the night. It was a different sort of lodging than what we’d previously gotten to try. It was a city park, complete with playgrounds, basketball courts, walking paths, and a pool with a lifeguard (the first pool with a lifeguard on our trip), and yet it was an RV park as well. It had the tall trees and shady spots that we liked with the state parks we’d stayed at, and yet it seemed to have lots of activities for kids, too. We got in just as the pool was closing, so we didn’t get to swim, but it seemed to be a nice option and as we drove the next morning, we wondered where else city parks were combined with RV parks.
Our goal for day two of driving was to get as far as Wisconsin, and the ride was a much easier one this time around. There was far less wind as we drove through field after field of corn and farmlands in Minnesota. We crossed into Wisconsin, breathing a collective sigh of relief. The landscape changed almost immediately after we crossed the border, and it suddenly looked a lot like home, with the trees looking just like ours. It was a nice feeling, and we immediately liked Wisconsin. We were getting in at a decent hour and our next campground, which advertised being family friendly, had a pool. We still lived for our pool time at each stop, and looked forward to it most on our driving days, a small reward for all the time spent in our car.
Fox Hill RV Resort and Campground in Baraboo, Wis., was probably my top favorite campground of all the ones we stayed at, and I wish we could’ve stayed longer. It seemed to combine all the things we liked most at each of our campgrounds, all in one stop. It had a big pool, a big playground with the option to borrow equipment from the main office for some of the playground activities, it had both indoor and outdoor shower facilities, wooded campgrounds with fire pits and picnic tables, go carts for rent, and giant game boards for games of chess and checkers located up on a hill which had a beautiful view of the sunset.
We all swam that night, and between the five of us we utilized the outdoor and indoor showers, and we ate our dinner outside, even though we cooked it inside. The kids took pictures at sunset and played the giant board games for at least an hour. Had we spent time in Baraboo, the main office at Fox Hill offered discount tickets to nearby activities and attractions. It was the first time I began thinking of home, and the campgrounds that were available nearby, wondering if there were any like Fox Hill near us. If so, I’d love to spend a week there.
Wednesday was an ambitious day for us. We hoped to leave Wisconsin and pass through the states of Illinois (not going through Chicago, but around it), Indiana and into Ohio, where we hoped to stay for the night at a state park there. It was a fast ride, and we took pictures of sign after sign as we traveled in and out of states. We were making great progress, although we were tired. We arrived in Ohio at Harrison Lake State Park that evening, again at sunset.
The park was absolutely beautiful. It was situated near both soybean fields and cornfields and was on a lake. The campsites were nicely wooded, and again there were picnic tables and fire rings at each site, something we knew not to take for granted after having seen so many glorified parking lot RV parks. On this night we were exhausted. Alex and I walked around with the camera, taking photos of the fields and farms and the sun going down over the lake, watching other kids riding bikes, playing basketball and taking walks with their own families. Our surroundings were beautiful and we walked together until after 9 p.m. Once again, we would not get to utilize any of the amenities here, but had we stayed longer, we knew we definitely would’ve enjoyed our stay.
Thursday we were set to conquer Pennsylvania. We’d enter the state in the far west, and it was a big state to get through. We figured we’d need all of Thursday and most of Friday. We drove and drove. Pennsylvania was pretty, like Minnesota and Wisconsin had been with trees and farms, and yet it was hilly, too, like some of our earlier days of driving through hills and mountains. Partway through the day we realized we were “only” eight more hours from home. We began to consider the idea that we could possibly just keep going, driving all the rest of the day and night and arrive home at 1 a.m. Personally, I thought it was risky. We’d been on the road since 9:30 in the morning, and it was approaching dark. We’d always made it a priority to be settled in somewhere by dark, and the thought of driving through the night didn’t appeal to me. We also had no idea what things would be like at home when we got there. I voted to pull off somewhere for the night, and ultimately that is what we did.
By about 10 that night we pulled into a 24-hour Walmart and had leftovers for dinner, using our propane stove in the kitchen to heat them up, since without a generator you can’t do much else. We slept fitfully and we were all up early, ready to go. We were so close to getting home, we could almost taste it, and if this week had done anything for us, it had ensured that we were now ready to be home, even me. As we got in the car at 8 a.m. and headed to the nearest gas station, we estimated we’d be home in five hours, at about 2 in the afternoon, if all went well.
It didn’t all go well by any means, but it was certainly a good effort on our part, and as the day’s events unfolded, it made me glad we hadn’t chosen to drive through the night as we’d been considering just hours before.
At the gas station, Don needed to put air in our new tires, because his display was reading that one had low pressure. While there, he opted to put air into both tires, and as he started on the second one, the valve and stem popped right off into his hand. I’m not sure if I’ll ever forget the look on his face as he came around to my side of the car, the broken stem sitting in the palm of his hand. You could hear all the air seeping out of our tire, and before we knew it we had a completely flat tire.
It wasn’t how we planned to start our day, and we now had to figure out what to do, as we sat all hooked up and ready to go in the parking lot of the gas station. We had a full-sized spare, buried beneath the things in the trunk, but we couldn’t get on the road again without another spare ready to go, just in case this happened again somewhere between Pennsylvania and home, and the camper would need to be unhooked to change it.
The thought of unhooking the camper and changing the tire wasn’t appealing, nor was heading back to the Walmart where we’d just spent the night in order to have them replace the stem and valve on the tire since it was purchased at a Walmart in South Dakota. Ultimately, we opted to call AAA. We had the service, we figured we might as well use it, and in the end we were glad we did. They sent out a tow truck, using Falzone Towing from Wilkes Barre. The man who came assessed our situation and said that he could remove the tire, take it to his shop nearby, fix the stem and valve and come back to put it back on. In two hours’ time we were on our way again. We’d lost the two hours, but we were so thankful we had our tire and our spare, and even though we’d wanted an extra-early start, we were still getting on the road at the time we normally started at, just after 10 a.m.
We flew through the rest of Pennsylvania, into New Jersey and New York, and right into bumper-to-bumper traffic. Welcome to Connecticut. We saw our early arrival time disappear as we spent hour after hour, after hour, sitting in traffic. We were so frustrated and so tired, and most definitely ready to be home. It seemed that the “Welcome to Rhode Island” sign, the last sign of our 29 state signs, was just a carrot in front of us as we inched along.
Finally, at 5 p.m., we crossed across the R.I. border, taking our last picture of our last sign, and giving a big cheer. It was still daylight, and although we had never paid attention to this sign before, it was a welcoming sight on this day. We drove the rest of the way home, marveling at how great everything looked. It was a sunny day, and the sun was about to set, and it was glistening through the trees, making everything on our way home look bright.
We turned onto the street that leads to our own, and the kids cheered and took pictures and video as we went down the hill toward our house and turned onto our street. There in front of us was our house. For years we’d complained how small it was, but on this day, it looked magnificent, and I thought of the famous quote from the “Wizard of Oz”: “There’s no place like home.”
The house looked big and beautiful and the sun streamed through the clouds, through our favorite tree in the front yard where we take all our important pictures, at just the perfect angle. We were home. We got out and brought a slightly confused Bella inside with us. All was well. Everything was as we’d left it and we went from room to room, marveling at how large our raised ranch now seemed. We couldn’t wait to sleep in our own beds, to shower in our own bathroom, to not drive anywhere for one entire day. As we got the camper situated, the Cranston Police Department pulled in, checking on our house as part of the Vacation Check program we’d signed up with. We told them we were home, all was well, and we thanked them for checking on our house for the past five weeks.
Our trip was an epic adventure. It was something our family will never, ever forget. We all agree that we would do it again, without question. In 34 days we traveled through 29 states, staying at least one night, but sometimes as many as four nights in 17 of them. We traveled almost exactly 8,000 miles in the five weeks, without a single complaint from a single kid. We visited family, met up with friends, some of whom we hadn’t seen in decades. We made memories that cannot be topped, but most importantly, we did it all together as a family.
Our days together as a family of five, here in our little house in Cranston, are numbered, and we know that. As our kids grow up, move out, and move on, our opportunities to make memories such as these, just the five of us, will disappear. New opportunities for new types of memories will present themselves, but we will always, always have this, our epic five- week, cross-country adventure from 2015, when we were 10, 13, 15, 44 and 46.
We’ll be able to remember seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time together, and we’ll remember the moment Caroline’s phone fell out of the selfie stick as we tried to take our photo there, smashing on the ground in front of us, and how she never even cried, just took a deep breath and moved forward while we watched in amazement, collectively letting out our own breaths that we’d been holding when it fell. We’ll marvel at the number of times we woke up in one state but went to sleep in another.
We’ll talk about the time the frog’s tank was empty in Utah, or how funny the dog was when she saw green grass for the first time again in Utah, or what a great time we had visiting our cousins, our friends-new and old, and our family. We’ll remember our red carpet experiences in Los Angeles, and our drive through Texas that lasted for days and days.
We won’t ever forget the flat tire in Pennsylvania, or the time we almost took out a gas station pump in Georgia as we drove on fumes, trying to find a big enough gas station for a 30-foot camper and a Suburban truck. We’ll marvel over the buffalo, antelope, elk, bald eagles, owls, llamas, camels and endless amounts of cows we saw as we traveled through Big Sky Country, and we’ll silently thank the one soldier from Rhode Island that we learned lost his life at the Alamo.
As adults, we were told we were crazy to take on a trip such as this, with almost no camper experience under our belts before the journey. We were told our camper wasn’t good enough or our car wasn’t good enough, that we’d spend too much on gas, or that we’d have to really love our family a whole lot to want to spend so many hours in a car with each other (which, clearly, we do). We knew however, that we weren’t crazy, and that we could do it all. We had no doubt in our minds that we could, we would, and we did.
We took hundreds of people along on the trip with us, virtually, and we tried to give everyone a glimpse of what we were so lucky to be experiencing. We took almost 10,000 pictures over the five weeks’ time. We truly believe that you don’t need to have a lot of money, or the very best of anything and everything to make amazing things happen in life. Our camper wasn’t the best or newest, and at just under $4,000 to own outright back in April, it wasn’t expensive and had everything in it that we needed. Our car wasn’t new but it took us where we needed to go. We didn’t spend a lot on our vacation, just over $5,000 all told for gas, groceries and lodging, tolls, parking, park passes, post card postage, car maintenance and souvenirs for five people over five weeks – some of which was absorbed by our normal gas and grocery budgets when we were not spending that money at home. The trip only cost a little bit more than our past weeklong vacations to California – and yet the memories we made in those five weeks, the experiences we had, are priceless, and our family is richer in ways it wasn’t before we left.
The only decision we have to make now is, where to next?
For more information about our #crosscountryadventure2015, and to watch the eight-minute video from our trip, visit my blog at www.thewholebagofchips.com.