So what madness brought us on such a trek? It certainly wasn’t for vacation. Had we gone for fun, we would have flown and stayed at some relaxing resort somewhere. Instead, we gratefully accepted friends’ generosity in giving us free room and board when possible and found that careful balance between decent and low cost hotel rooms when a free bed wasn’t available.
To put it in the simplest terms, we went on a tour of colleges as my husband is considering pursuing his Ph.D. Being a family with school age kids, a single car, and me unable to drive, we needed to make certain that we ended up in a place we could manage to live in. The last thing we wanted was to apply to a school, get accepted, lease an apartment we’d never seen, then get there and realize the school was too far to walk, the cost of living too high to survive, and the apartment intolerable or unsafe. We did lots of research online first on apartment reviews, school reviews, Google Maps, and so on. But there’s a big difference in seeing pictures and reviews online and getting a real idea of a place in person.
Statue of George Washington at The University of Washington in Seattle
We also never would have known that, in Seattle, at the grocery store, you have to pay for grocery sacks. Back home, this simply isn’t done, so it came as a bit of a shock. But it’s something to remember if we end up there.
Some apartments had decent pictures and reviews online, but in person, they were a disappointment. We could see peeling paint or realized that the streets, which the kids and I would have to cross to get to school, were extremely busy. In our apartment visits, we also learned, in person, which places had friendly, helpful staff and which didn’t even bother to receive us. It certainly helped sharply shorten our list of potential apartments.
Triceratops skulls at The Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Montana
We also stopped at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Montana as a concession to the kids for getting dragged along. The museum was great fun. One of our favorite parts was a piece of a triceratops horn you could actually touch. My eldest, who’s obsessed with dinosaurs, loved the array of tyrannosaurus skulls, ones you could look right in the eyes, or down their gullet.
T-Rex adult and juvenile skulls at The Museum of the Rockies, Bozeman, Montana
Triceratops horn fragment and mammoth tooth at The Museum of the Rockies, Bozeman, Montana
My husband and I enjoyed the visiting the Napoleon exhibit, of which, unfortunately, we were not allowed to take pictures. However, they had some awesome items: the cushion Napoleon knelt on when crowned, his camp bed, old books that belonged to him and even a letter he’d penned in English, which was partially legible. I also particularly liked the figures they had set up dressed in imperial attire. It’s one thing to see such clothes in a picture, another to see them in real life.
Snoqualmie Pass, Washington, shrouded in fog
While my husband hated some of the driving, particularly Snoqualmie Pass in Washington which was shrouded in thick fog, we loved absorbing the scenery. I have around 3,000 pictures of our journey, none of whose date stamps are accurate, and not a one captures the beauty of the Rockies,
The Rocky Mountains
the great expanses of the plains,
The Great Plains
the traffic in Chicago,
Chicago, Illinois traffic
or the startling sight of the Mississippi River so low islands adorned its course where there had not been islands before.
Mississippi River, August 2012
It didn’t capture the sad sight of riverbeds worn dry by drought,
Arkansas River in Kansas, low water levels
the lushness of the Washington forests adorning the mountains,
Forested slopes in Washington
or the spreading waters of Lake Michigan,
nor the sunset over North Dakota.
Lake Michigan on Illinois-Indiana border
nor the sunset over North Dakota.
Sunset in North Dakota
But, in all this, the greatest gift we received was the inner journey of ourselves and our family. Sitting in a cramped car, sometimes for twelve hours at a single stretch, with other people is a great test of relationships and self. To my surprise, the fighting was rare, spirits usually floated at a decent heights, and the degree of fortitude and patience was amazing, especially in my husband, our expedition’s sole driver.
Even the kids enjoyed themselves, most of the time. Entering a new state became a moment of excitement. Taking pictures out of our windows became an enjoyable habit, and our collection of post cards grew to an inch thick. We also learned how much mess boys can make in a back seat in only 10 days.
And my husband and I discovered we enjoy traveling. No, we don’t want to do it for fun the way we did it this time for education. We’d rather be able to drive a few hours and stop when we felt tired of the road, ideally when we caught sight of a particularly interesting turnoff, all of which we had to pass up on this time. Driving 12 hours day after day with rare breaks is not our idea of fun or relaxation.
The other gift I received on this trip was an appreciation for our country that I’d never had before. Seeing it, at least nearly half of it, made it more real. Each place has its beauty, unique character and grandeur, even if of the subtle variety. Seeing so many people going through life like the rest of us yet possessing their own slight variants of culture was reassuring and made me feel more a part of my country. I didn’t always understand the cultural differences. For example, the southern girl that I am did not expect greeting someone with a broad smile and a cheerful “hi” to be unusual, but in parts of the country it is. My husband and I joked that, if we move somewhere where the culture isn’t so open, we’ll have a grand time baffling people with good ol’ southern friendliness.
And finally, one of the best parts of our journey was the chance to meet Jessi Gage, my critique partner and dear friend, in real life for the first time. One reassurance in meeting her was that she proved very much as I’d found her on the phone and online: thoughtful, gracious, honest, and a kindred spirit.
So I’m at last back home and back to work in edits at the moment. This trip will remain one of the highlights of my life, a sometimes challenging but always tremendous memory.