In total, we traveled through 23 states in about 34 days, in search of rural resilience, working landscapes, and grand adventures. A better person than I might insert a disclaimer: do not try this at home. But on the contrary, I think every family should do this.
Granted, as many nomadic families will tell you, this is not the most ideal way to hit the road. Slower travel is frankly a good plan with kids, especially when you have six of them shoehorned into a 1976 Travco camper. On the other hand, sometimes a flexible perspective trumps good ideas, like not spending more than two hours in the car during any one day.
We started out with a few big plans. We wanted to find some rural places in our continental U.S. that were thriving. With a nod to Robert Reich, we wanted to find out if there were folks who had bounced back from the recession, who were prosperous and optimistic about the future. And we wanted to determine if they were thinking about some of the big obstacles that a lot of us are facing: How were their communities dealing with climate change, for example? And how had they addressed the widening income disparities in our nation? How can we nudge our communities toward more resilient, self-sufficient and people-centered places?
We quickly learned that we needed to stay off of interstates, since everyone drives faster than we do. But this ensured that we venture through many, many small towns. From our native New York, we traveled southwest through Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Virginia, heading toward Tennessee to boondock with a friend outside of Nashville.
If I could start with an unscientific claim, if you have a college or university in your town, you seem to do a pretty good job of keeping up appearances. Those communities that had some institute of higher education within their ranks seem to be thriving, with bustling downtowns and parks and what appeared to us passersby as some semblance of community. That contrasts starkly with many of the places we drove through in northern New Mexico, Texas, and Oklahoma, where there were many near-ghost towns.
That said, even when we weren't feeling overtly welcomed, folks stepped up. We were broken down in Arkansas, along a pretty desolate county route. We gently backed our ride into an old logging trail and hoped for the best. Arkansas rose up to meet us: a young guy from the local O'Reilly Auto Parts drove a wheel bearing and grease out to us after he closed for the night, even though it was in the opposite direction of his home and family, and an elderly man, with a charming, thick Oklahoma brogue, happily sat and chatted with us for hours while Jason changed out the bearing the next morning.
They might smile sympathetically at my foolishness for thinking the climate is changing, but lots of folks wouldn't pass up an opportunity to help a stranded motorist, especially one with six kids. That gives me hope.
As you might imagine, some of our greatest moments happened because of similar accidental meetups and the resulting conversations. We met a young mother in Virginia who'd recently moved with her military spouse and small children from the coast, exiting the armed forces for life in the private sector and, they hoped, a bit more abundance. We spoke with folks in laundromats and gas stations, workampers at state parks, and fellow RVers, many of whom are making the best of less-than-ideal circumstances.
We got to talk with a few experts, too. The Land Institute, in Salina, Kansas, forgave our rudeness at boondocking in their parking lot after arriving late the night before, and welcomed us with a fantastic tour. There we learned about their quest to develop a perennial strain of wheat, to better feed our growing global population while recreating the conditions of the prairie and significantly reducing fossil fuel inputs. Park rangers across the country were happy to share their local knowledge and to explain how they were preparing their parks for the inevitable effects of a changing climate, despite reduced funding.
"Why does abundance always become entangled with money? Why must we trade our time for cash...? And why must we always forsake security for freedom...?"
And while the amazing scenery of the Rockies is captivating, some of what we were forced to contemplate had as much to do with those we met (and were reacquainted with) than the snow-covered peaks of Pike National Forest. Why does abundance always become entangled with money? Why must we trade our time for cash, especially during those decades when we have young children? And why must we always forsake security for freedom, money for a life blessed with adventure?
And what might happen if we all, gently, started to refuse to do those things, and to instead prioritize family, a money-less economy, and greater freedom?
We are determined to thrive, still, but are even more determined to bless our children with both security and comfort, and the freedom to have great adventures. Perhaps one of our favorite moments was when we returned: we had the pleasure of hosting some boondockers ourselves. Dan and Shirley and their five beautiful, amazing children joined us in Medusa, deciding, after reading our blog, that we were a family they'd like to meet. Traveling has become, for them, a lifestyle choice made partly by necessity and partly because they are adventurous and trusting enough to take a leap of faith. Through barter, hard work, creative thrift and a do-it-yourself ingenuity, they are truly carving out a new American dream.
We are avid followers of New Dream. We are deeply committed to a more sustainable way of life, and one that allows everyone to participate.
We have come to rethink some of our initial beliefs about the importance of geography. To paraphrase something we heard at the amazing Flint Hills Discovery Center in Manhattan, Kansas, we understand the beautiful, irrational commitment to place. But those ties are becoming far less resilient over time, and more and more of us are taking to the open road, either because our homes have become economic wastelands, or because our concern for the future, for our children's futures, compels us to search farther and farther away from home.
"We have decided it's high time we gently refuse to go along with the lifestyles we were prepared for, that we have been groomed to accept."
We have decided ourselves to try for something different, to make a break for a more nomadic lifestyle, to search for abundance, to give our children the world. We have decided it's high time we gently refuse to go along with the lifestyles we were prepared for, that we have been groomed to accept.
And mostly, we have recommitted ourselves to being mindful of where we are, or who we are with, of what we are eating, buying, and using, and what kind of impact we are having on the planet. As my 12-year-old daughter, looking around the 100 square feet of space inside our camper, at her siblings, and her parents, succinctly reminded me as we neared the end of our trek: “You know, Mom, we really don't need anything else. Everything we need is right here.”
I couldn't agree more.