On the Road Again
Summer in the Old Northeast: the shouts of kids splashing in swimming pools, the howl of leaf blowers, the hum of mosquitoes, and the song of the ice cream truck – warbled by the humid air. In summer, there’s plenty of parking on Beach Drive and you don’t need a reservation. But a lot of our neighbors beat the heat by disappearing north. A few years ago, we decided to join the club.
It wasn’t retirement that afforded my family the chance to spend summers in a cooler climate. Our life changed five years ago, when I spent much of the summer of 2016 hospitalized from a series of major medical events. I was ultimately diagnosed with a serious genetic condition affecting my arteries, the only silver lining of which is I now have lots of time for things like travel and contemplating life’s meaning. After a couple of years in old vans, we upgraded our summer home to a still nimble 24-foot-long RV.
From coast to coast, we’ve explored hiking trails, museums, battlefields, riverfronts, cemeteries, and harbors. City or country, beach or mountain, you can bet we’ll find a good bookstore and a coffee shop. (Our kids even added a series called Coffee Quest to their soon-to-be-famous Sibling Spectacular YouTube channel.) We’ve acquired so many books that I’m starting to calculate the weight of our rolling library when I encounter New England’s small bridges.
This isn’t just a family vacation, though. On this year’s getaway, we’re finishing up a year of homeschooling (courtesy of COVID-19). Some of our stops are coordinated with things in this year’s curriculum: for Civil Rights history we stopped in Selma, AL. We visited Helen Keller’s home to go with the biography we read; and our kids were ready to enlist with Civil War reenactors at Bull Run Battlefield in Manassas, VA. It’s so much easier for our kids to understand the raid on Harper’s Ferry and the first flight at Kitty Hawk when they’re able to stand on the spot where it happened. My wife, Monica, even tricked the kids into thinking we were buying ‘school supplies’ when she led us to the Hershey Store in Times Square to get a trove of chocolate bars that could be broken into fractions for the greatest math lesson ever!
All this travel has given our kids the unique perspective on living their formative years during a pandemic. They walked the corridors of an eerily empty Ellis Island the week it reopened. I don’t think the Great Hall has ever been so quiet while it was open to either immigrants or tourists. They met reenactors in Williamsburg who compared the challenges faced by early settlers to our current plague. Bloodletting and leeches anyone? “We’ll always know when these pictures were taken,” historian Monica says, “by the masks people are wearing.”
As I write, we’ve been on the road six weeks and we’ve probably reached our northern terminus: Bar Harbor, ME. We’re not quite sure where we’re going next. I’m often asked how a family of four lives in a 150-square-foot RV without killing each other. It’s something we’ve had to learn. In small spaces, one grumpy family member can ignite a spreading gloom. We spent a week in the Boston area, some of which was magical, and at other times had me worried there’d be a new Boston Massacre. But, we all smiled our way through a rainout at Fenway Park, and had a hearty laugh after I nearly got us stuck in a parking entrance that was 4 feet shorter than our vehicle. (Boston drivers offered helpful hand gestures as I backed down the ramp.) Later, we taught the kids how to play poker – our homeschooling covers life skills too.
We enter a different pace of life when we travel. Between the bumpers of this home on wheels, everyone has found their cozy spot – from our son’s ‘tree house’ in the bed above the cab, to Monica’s corner reading spot with a view of whatever is outside the window. (Right now it’s Frenchman’s Bay and Maine’s rocky coast; air temperature 55 degrees.) I’ve learned to whip up delicious, healthy meals in its tiny kitchen and our daughter’s art has given our walls a personal touch.
Taking time to get off the beaten path, we like to dip into local history, literature, and culture. You really get a feel for a place when you visit a small museum, read a biography, or take a house tour. Reading a local memoir about a small organic farm in Maine, I was struck by the Robert Louis Stevenson quote, “To travel hopefully is better than to arrive.”
It’s a philosophy that resonated because Monica and I often wonder if the next stop will be where we find what Kerouac called “It.” As the landscape changes, we’re continually imagining ourselves as a permanent part of the latest tableau. Perhaps lasting contentment will come from the views in the Smoky Mountains, the serenity of a cold Atlantic harbor, or the comfort of world-class hospitals in Boston. We find ourselves perusing the real estate and wondering, “What if…”.
Just last night, while walking in the neighborhood near our campground outside of Bar Harbor, we discovered a three-bedroom cabin sitting on eight wooded acres for sale. Our imaginations ran wild with visions of setting our own lobster traps, hiking Acadia National Park and reading on the wide porch overlooking a thick forest carpeted in moss. Indeed, our Maine dreams could be a reality for the price of an empty lot in St. Pete. Then I read the listing’s fine print: “Seasonal water service, ready to be winterized.” I’m not kidding when I tell you that the ad listed the heating source as “wood.” After a couple of Maine winters we’d be dreaming of bright January days in the Old Northeast again.
And it’s not just Maine that has enticed us; we’ve entertained new lives all across the country. Surely, Jersey City – just across the Hudson from Manhattan – would offer a New York experience at a palatable price. (Not unless you have a couple million dollars burning a hole in your pocket.) Maybe the little village of Hingham, MA, a quick ferry ride from Boston would be a place to find a deal. (Sorry, Hingham was trendy, and expensive, not long after the Mayflower landed.)
No, if we’ve realized anything by traveling to 44 states in four years, it’s that we may have actually found the ‘sweet spot’ in choosing to live in St. Pete. Bitter Maine winters, New York real estate prices, Boston traffic, North Carolina’s – well, I still haven’t figured out what’s wrong with North Carolina yet – but my point is that even though we’re curiously checking Zillow, we still always look forward to returning home. From Missoula to Mackinac Island, Charleston to Cape Cod, not many places offer the robust combination of art, community, dining, and outdoor splendor as St. Petersburg.
Like Johnny Cash, I’ve been everywhere, man. And I’ve learned that contentment isn’t found in other places. Like Robert Persig says in the classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, “The only Zen you find on tops of mountains is the Zen you bring there.” This year I’m bringing my Zen home with me.