A Year Around America


Some dreams won’t wait. Like the dream of taking a year off to travel America while the children arc still young. Postpone that for a couple of years and the kitchen will need re-doing and kids will lose their compact and pliant natures. They’ll grow legs and opinions.

So we did it. My family just completed a yearlong lap around America.

Our adventure started with a phone call. “I know what we need to do,” my wife, Jennifer, whispered to me one afternoon. She was driving carpool. “We need to take the kids out of school and drive around the country,”

lt didn’t sound crazy coming from her. It sounded logical. Reasonable. Not even expensive, but then again, I hypnotize easily and like the feel of a new atlas. The kids (John, 10; Gracie, 9; and Tate. 4) jumped on the idea, although they informed us about halfway through the ^ year that they had misunderstood the part about home schooling. They thought that home schooling meant no schooling at all or really easy schooling.

Anyway, as soon as we all signed on. a hundred obstacles arose. It look a summer to beat them back: work, school, community commitments, pels, and our home in Dallas. Finally, on October 4,1998, wearing brand-new shoes, we set out for Bo.ston.

We did not travel continuously. In fact, we based our year on Charles Kuralt’s hist book. America. In it, Kuralt chronicled his return to his 12 favorite places at what he believed was the best month Tor each. We thought Kurall’s idea made panicular sense for us. I was convinced we would see the country more deeply by setting up camp in one area at a time and exploring in concentric circles.

The first was in Stonington. Maine. Then Followed Charlottesville, Va.; Manhattan: Charleston, S.C.; Tucson, Ariz.; San Francisco; Seattle; Salt Lake City: and briefly, Lewellen. Neb. We toured for a week or two between each stop to link il all together.

For the first rive months, we towed a U-Haul trailer filled with 17 camp trunks from home hase to home hase, a terrible idea. hard to explain even now. Then, in Dallas, in March, we bought a 23-foot RV, named Hallelujah by its former owners. We cul the 17 trunks to five and pulled a Jeep behind us.

Evidently, the dream of taking a year off while the children are young and traveling the counlry is a shared American fantasy. At least for women. From Cadillac Mountain, Maine, to Cape Flattery. Wash., mothers and grandmothers grabbed Jennifer’s arm and asked about traveling, packing, about how lite kids were getting along, While she revealed our secrets (“If you can’t wash the dirty clothes, iron them”). their husbands circled me, “What do you do?” they asked.

“I write notes,” I told them.

“Like, what kind of notes?

The day we attended the Cheyenne Frontier Days Rodeo, the Daddy of ’’Em All, a memorial service was held to honor the life of world champion bull rider Lane Frost. Frost had died 10 years earlier in the din in front of chute No. 7 after successfully riding a bull named Bad to the Bone. Dismounting, he somehow landed on the ground in a sitting position. The bull rammed him in the back, breaking several ribs, one of which busted an artery. Frost stood up. called for help, then fell down dead.

At the memorial, a group of straw-halted men gathered on a raised platform in the middle of the arena during the afternoon session. “I was asked by-Jim Johnson, chairman of Frontier Days, to come down here and say a few words,” the rodeo announcer begun. His voice was 10 feet tall; he looked about five, His hat overwhelmed him, as i though he was wearing a satellite dish and a .string tie. “Lane Frost was a bull rider’s bull rider,” he boomed. “He loved 1 life, loved to smile. People were drawn to him. ’Let’s go ride some bulls,’ he’d say.”

At that point, 1 was reading about Frost in the souvenir program and hunkering down for a long and sentimental remembrance, maybe some cowboy poetry. I should have known better. In rodeo, nothing much lasts more than eight seconds.

“Cowboys loved to watch Lane ride bulls.” the announcer continued. “He scared us. though, with his git-offs. He’d go fiyin’ off the bull any which-a-way. We said to him. “Lane Frost. if you don’t leam how to git off those bulls, you’re going to git yourself kilt.’”

A buzzer must have sounded inside the announcer’s head because he shut the gate on grieving: “And we all know the rest of that story, don’t we?”


Just past the wrought-iron entry arch to the cemetery sat an empty school bus. It was white and had bars on the window. The driver’s compartment was a cage. The lettering on the bus and the convicts appeared at the same time: Rivers State Prison.

Thirty men were in various stages of bent: mowing, weeding. mulching. A few looked up. We were still lowing our king-sized Li-Haul trailer. Two guards gave us the eye.

I’m edgy in graveyards normally. The addition of convicts armed with rakes, hoes, and shovels had me yanking off my sunglasses and leaning into the back seal. “Listen to me,” I said to the children with as much authority as I could muster. “I am going to get out and look for the grave. No one gets out of the car. No one. Especially you.” 1 swept my hand across their faces like a klieg light until they were bug-eyed.

We were in Milledgeville, Ga., looking for Flannery O’Connor’s grave. O’Connor is the author of, among other things, .4 Good Man is Hard to Find, in which a killer breaks out of prison and terrorizes a family on a long drive.

I got out and walked up and down rows of graves. Found every name but O’Connor. The Milledgeville Visitor Center finally had to vector me to it. As I was paying my respects. I looked up. Gracie was skipping toward me, the swale behind her dotted with white prison jumpsuits. “Gracie!” 1 screamed. “What are you doing? Get back in the car! Go!”

“Dad…” she protested, hut I cut her off and chased her back, dodging monuments, yelling all the way.

What she was attempting to tell me was thai her mother had decided to practice pulling the U-Haul. In the cemetery. Past the convicts. That’s the problem with traveling: You lose your mind at the precise moment you need it most. Before 1 could gasp oui a “What-are-you-thinking?” the car and the U-Haul tore off down a siretch of asphalt loo narrow for golf carts, leaving me feeling I was behind several enemy lines at once.

When they returned live minutes later. Jennifer stepped out from the driver’s side, “You about done?” she said, her hands deep in her pockets. “We kinda need your help down there.” She nodded with the back of her head toward a grove of pines.

Wedged between a 100-year-old tree and the cornerstone of a family’s burial plot and unable to back up. Jennifer had taken out what she determined was the easier of the two. The wheel well of the trailer had caught the concrete just right and ripped 60 pounds of cement out of the ground. I look one look and knew that putting it back was hopeless. The edges were ground into pieces. Meanwhile, the whine of string trimmers and mowers was moving our way. Then I saw thai the U-Haul had run over the feel of somebody’s grandpa.

When we passed the prison bus still parked at the entrance, we were topping 25 miles per hour and blowing the cuttings off the road-all our eyes straight ahead,


In August, the Southern California Timing Association sponsored “National Speed Week” at the Bonneville Sail Flats. The Sail Lake Tribune reported that 60-year-old Don Vesco was hoping to “uncork a fat one”-sail talk for a fast dash over the horizon. He had entered the Turbinate, a 3.700 horsepower missile of a car. 32 inches tall at the top of the tail, and needful of two parachutes and three miles to bring it to a hall. After months of slogging the West in our wobbly box of an RV. the idea of machines low to the ground and fast seemed impossible-a streamliner powered by a giant helicopter turbine engine-a sign of hope.

We drove Hallelujah west from Salt Lake City and eventually wound our way through spectator traffic to the race start area. No sooner did we park, pull out the awning, and lick the salt off our lingers, did we spot Vesco being lowed into the staging area for the five-mile course. Just before he shimmied in to the Turbinator. I overheard one of his teammates say, “You know, lie’s only got the one eye.”

Folks had told us that the speed trials were not exactly a spectator-friendly sport. What we weren’t prepared for was an auto race where there’s no advantage to standing 11 feel off the ground shouldering high-powered binoculars,

The Vesco Turbinator was slow to spool up. accelerating in two minutes from zero to 145 miles per hour, no better than a properly geared minivan loaded with groceries. At the 145 mark, however, the jet engine explodes, taking it up to 400 miles per hour in just 20 seconds. We couldn’t see any of it. At the three-mile mark, Vesco disappeared behind a rooster tail of salt spray and took the whine of the turbine with him.

We chased the crew truck to the pits and waited. Hot dogs were curling upon a grill. “325.4.” a crew member told me as he removed cameras from atop the salt encrusted beast. “No! bad, though. The track’s real rough. Don said he couldn’t see the instruments.”

Vesco didn’t make another run that day. and we never made it back to the flats. 1 called him at his home in California a week later. The eye thing wits bothering tne. In fact, I closed one of mine when he answered. He was finishing up lunch. I could hear dishes rattling around, water streaming from a faucet. “Went real good.” he said. “We did a 417, a new record for wheel-driven vehicles. The track was so rough, though, that it was hard to go really fast.”

“Mr. Vesco.” I said, inching to the main point of the call and wondering what kind of fraternity considers driving 400 miles per hour something less than really fast, “when I was at Bonneville, I overheard someone talking about your-ah. well-your vision. Would you mind…”

“Sure,” he interrupted, mercifully. “I can’t see out of my right eye, It’s blank. Three years ago, I went to a dirt track race in California. I was sitting in the stands. A car threw a dirt clod and it hit me smack in the face. Haven’t seen out of it since.”

“What’s it like to drive with one eye?”

“It’s most noticeable when I’m in traffic. You know how you can keep one eye on the car ahead of you and one on the rear view mirror?”

“Sort of.”

“Well. I can’t do thai. And backing up is a pain. J have to hit the car behind me to know where it is.”

Three weeks after losing his eye. Vesco was off to the Daytona Motor Speedway to race motorcycles. “I know the Daytona track,” he said, “Besides, I was being paid by somebody to race. J ’d signed up before I lost my eye and it was good money for not really doin’ very much.” With one eye still closed, the idea of racing motorcycles on the high banks ol’ Daytona sounded like doing very much to me, but Vesco was laughing, not a trace of self pity.

“I told my doctor.” he continued- “if you’d just put a notch in my nose, I could have a little peripheral vision.’” Then Vesco paused, The water stopped. “You know my dog has one eye,” he said.

I reopened mine. I was dizzy. “Huh?”

“Yeah, my dog only has one eye. He got run over by a hay trailer when he was S months old. I guess I know how he feels now.” Vesco kept talking. “My dog’s got real weird depth perception problems, just like me. He loves to play Frisbee only lie can’t catch the thing, fie either overruns it completely or jumps way short. And he’s always runnin’ into stuff. He needs a notch in his nose, too, ’cause he’s a dog and has a big nose.”


In Maine, we voted to have lobster for Tate’s 4th birthday party. At the Stonington Lobster Co-op on Deer Isle I asked the clock hand, “Where do I put them?”

“Put ’em in the fridge,” he grunted, his belly peeking out from under his sweatshirt. “Different drawers if you got ’em.”

All day long, between home schooling and the construction of an elevated train track, John, Gracie, and Tale ran back and forth to the vegetable bins. They checked and recheeked the rubber bands holding the claws closed, stared into the lobsters’ black eyes, and van their fingers up the antennae.

By noon the lobsters were playmates. By three they had names. When I pushed open the door at five o’clock, the lobsters were family. And I was about to murder them,

The longer the lobsters boiled, the further the kids drifted away from the kitchen. By birthday party time they were on the other side of the house. Only darkness and a screen-rattling wind kept them inside at all. For a birthday parly if was a somber affair, Tale and Gracie never touched their lobster at all. John only picked at the parts of the meat that were colored red; Jennifer, the parts that were while. But neither knew of their potential partnership until it was over.

Only as I was scraping the shells into the trash, everyone else off to bathtubs and bed, did 1 remember AI and Laura Van Dyke, friends id Colorado. Laura had once told me, over a meal of elk steaks cut from an animal she’d shot herself, “We raise our own chickens and cows. We name them after specific meals: Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner. You have to name them something. for the kids.” She and AI have four. “That seems to go a long way toward solving the problem of attachment.”

I should have done that, christened those lobsters.”Lobster Roll,” and “With a Little Butter.” As it was, they were bardly caten and therefore died in vain, martyrs to the power of names and a little lime alone with children.


“On the other IB side! Look there!” John B screamed Bb^ down from his perch atop a rental truck parked near the finish line of the Bay to Breakers running nice, Che largest in the world, besun in 1911 by The San Francisco Examiner to pep up the city after the great earthquake. In May of last year. 73,000 people showed up on a perfect Saturday morning, half of them in costume, and a bunch. perfectly nude.

No more than 15 minutes after the greyhounds finished, a tall, barefoot man sprinted past. There is no naked like running down the street barefoot naked, It was impossible not to stare ai quite specific areas. Jennifer’s mouth gaped open, her eyes, ungovernable, bounced with every stride.

Though the finish was clogged, John, Gracie, and Tate announced every naked runner’s approach with an exactitude approaching that of radar. “Three more!” John signaled just before a trio, in Mikes, cowboy hats, and nothing else-guntighters of the new West-swaggered past. With only two exceptions, all of the naked runners were men, paunchy, their rear ends hammered flat by a Lifetime of commuting and desk jobs.

When the first naked woman shuffled past. Jennifer and I stared at each other, disbelieving. After she digested the sight of the true redhead. Jennifer fell into a spasm of head shaking. “Not for 10 million dollars would I run this race naked. Never. 1 can’t imagine it. I can’t.”

Mer incredulity matched the radio commentator’s. “I don’t know who these people are.” she said, laughing mostly. They must have uninformed body images. Thai’s why you don’t see many women running naked, at least not like the men. They know they have 17 cats jiggling around underneath their arms and butts, and they’re not showing them to anybody.”

Every conceivable costume floated past. Forest Gump did. both sides of his head shaved, toting a suitcase and his own race motto: “Momma always said Bay 10 Breakers was like a box of chocolates-you never know what you’re going to see.”

There was Jabba the Hut’s Hoi Tub Parts. There were men in tutus, women in grass skirts. We saw Batman and Robin twice and a girl pushing her grandmother in a wheelchair. Among the class of pushers-ot-things, she appeared the sentimental favorite, but my vote went to a grizzled man, folded over, wheezing, the fun almost out of il. stolidly advancing a backyard barbecue grill.

Just as we were about to leave, the winners already an hour and a half done, a young man snuggled toward us in a beige dress suit, his pillbox hat slumping. He 1 had a small handbag at the crook of his arm and his I lipstick was smeared. “It’s Jackie Kennedy,” I ” yelled, over the top of blaring music. “It’s Jackie Kennedy.” By then, he was no more than 10 feel away and laboring. The dress, the makeup, the hat. the keeping up the image for the seven-and-a-half-mile run had worn him down. He looked over to me. mustered a lopsided red smile, and dipped his head a little. He ws on the verge of becoming just another man dressed as a woman, which. in San Frncisco, isn’t quite the distinction it might be in Lubbock.

I would swear in a high court that upon hearing and seeing us affirm his homage. the man regained his poise, his place I in the world, and sprinted for Came lot. a blur in beige.


In Jack Russell terrier racing, everything happens car-wreck quick. The contestants yap and squirm while awaiting their turns, struggling to break free from their owners to chase something, anything-each oilier even. The breed is named for Jack Russell, the 19th-century English spoiling parson who bred them to bedevil burrow-dwelling game. “Fifty-pound dog in a 10-pound body,” Eileen Barney declared, pointing to a writhing. bullet-headed version at “The Montpelier Races.”” held in November on James Madison’s estare. 30 miles from Charlottesville, Va. Eileen was officiating and wound pretty light herself. “Jack Russells.” she winked, “have more personality than most of the men I’ve dated. They’re more loyal, too.”

The racecourse was a fenced-off plot of grass 20 feet wide and 100 feel long. The dogs were loaded into a plywood start chute that had a mesh gate holding them back, bin providing a tantalizing view of a foxtail lying on the ground in front of them. At “go,” a man at the finish retrieved the tail with a fishing reel contraption. The dogs tore apart the earth to get at it. Several times they caught the tail when the reel broke down or the man’s arm got tired. Eileen would run over and grab the rope and hoist the dogs into the air. When they hit the ground they had hair between their teeth and were grinning.

The drama was at the finish line, which consisted of a wall ol’ hay hales with a one-dog opening in the bottorn center. Imagine the Olympic 100-meter dash with eight lanes of sprinters aimed at a pocket door. Second place is a broken neck, We watched dogs gel nudged cock-eyed a yard away from glory and hit the hay with violence-an explosion of dog and dirt and straw. No matter. They bounced up and forced their way through, thinking scraps.

All morning, we kept hearing (he name Marvelous Myron. We pulled aside Myron’s owner, Megan Walker. She gripped him tight. John, Gracie, and Tate stroked Myron warily, the way they might pet a bomb.

“He was given to me,” Megan said, an eye over our shoulders. The main event was a couple of heats away. “He was the runt. No one wanted him, They were about to take him to the pound. When I took him in. I had no intention of training him to run. I felt sorry for him and didn’t want him put down.” Somewhere in the story Myron got run over by a car. Just before she loaded him into the chute for the final, Megan told us that Marvelous Myron had won the prestigious “Washington International” terrier races two years in a row and the “Virginia Gold Cup” three years running.

Inexplicably, a bigger dog beat Myron to the hole.


For 20 years people have been sending Bob McCoy medical equipment originally devised to fleece the unwary. “It started when someone sent me a couple of phrenology machines,” he told us. “I didn’t know what to do with them so I decided to build a museum. I mean the things worked; well, they produced readings.” Phrenology is the pseudoscience of profiling a personality by mechanically interpreting the contours of the subject’s head. We had John’s done. It scored him high in veneration, cautioning a tendency toward hero-worship, and low in agreeability. His kindness, it said, will be limited to, “a few whom he likes.”

McCoy is founder and curator of the Museum of Questionable Medical Devices in Minneapolis, a museum unlike any we’d stumbled into in a year of stumbling. “I’ve always been a debunker,” McCoy explained.

Our first stop was an Electro-Metabograph. “Why don’t you sit down right here little lady,’’ McCoy said to Gracie. He was jowly but clear-eyed. The machine was as big as a Baptist church organ, outfitted with dials, pull tabs, and mechanical switches. It was supposed to work by a coordinated bombardment of radio waves. McCoy grabbed a sheet of paper, a roster of medical problems thai the wood-grained beauty was claimed to cure. “Homesickness,” he said. “I bet you’ve got homesickness after being gone so long.” He reached over and pulled knob No. 117. “There,” he said, “You’re cured.”

Gracie looked back at us and moved to speak. McCoy leap! to a perceived problem of loquaciousness- Knob 125. There were knobs for sleep, dream, and nightmare episodes, and a condition I had never imagined was a problem, thirsylessness. Was there ever a time when people begged for the end of their thirstlessness?

We were shown a shelf of breast pumps. foot-operated and water-powered, and all guaranteed to make men’s eyes jump their sockets. The kids folded into each other, a single giggle. The water-powered pump looked like a leather football helmet. “It hooked to the faucet,” McCoy said holding it up. “It was supposed to pump hot and cold water around the tissue to stimulate growth.” I pointed questioningly ai a spout at the bottorn of the helmet.

“The spout allowed women to wash the dishes with the discharged water,”

A huckster sold 10,000 Spectro-Chrome machines. Bob got his from the AMA. They send him all kinds of quackery. To get the full Spectro-Chrome treatment, a patient was supposed to face the machine, inside a building, oriented north, at precise phases of the moon. The machine flashed a series of colored lights at the subject, in a specific sequence, curing them of nervous and physical ails. When the inventor of the Spectro-Chrome went on trial in the 1930s for fraud, one woman testified mightily on his behalf, claiming that the machine had cured her of epilepsy. She then conducted an effeclive, if unintended, cross-examination of her own testimony-she had a seizure on the stand.

A whole glass case is devoted to the promises of radium, including a radium-based love potion named Radithor. It was sold in a halt-ounce bottle. One fool for love, a Mr. Byers. drank 1.400 bottles of Radithor, then watched in surprise as his jaw fell off.

Just before we left, McCoy slid a rigid Tate inside the MacGregor Rejuvenator. a device intended to reverse the aging process. The Rejuvenator was an otherwise empty barrel lined with red lights, which, when turned on, reproduced the glow from a restaurant kitchen prep line. Thank goodness it didn’t work. Tate’s only 4.


Our first two weeks in Seattle had me convinced that the whole of Puget Sound is a rain forest. However, the precipitation at the Hon Rain Forest in Olympic National Park is truly staggering, Hoh is one of only two rain forests in the lower 48. A shaved-headed park ranger looked away when I asked him what winter was like. His answer began in summer. “It only rains 10 inches in June, July, and August,” he started out, almost hopefully. “But basically it rains from September to May, 14 feet a year in the valley, in some places more.” In February 1999, Hoh got 35 inches. It was not a record.

On the day we visited, il was 75 degrees and crystalline. Sitka spruce. Western hemlock, Douglas fir, many of them more than 200 feet tail, lined the three-quarter-mile Hall of Mosses trail and were polished bright green. As we hiked the trail, John and Gracie labored their way through a National Park Service Junior Ranger workbook.

Somewhere in the Park Service an employee is rocketing up the bureaucracy on the genius of one idea: awarding plastic badges to kids who, among other educational tasks, are required to scour park trails and camp sites free of cigarette butts and candy wrappers.

There wasn’t enough trash on the Hall of Mosses trail to fill up a coin purse. Halfway through., John and Gracie had only three teeny bits of paper. “We’re gonna have to tear up the map,” I whispered to Jennifer, “if we don’t find something pretty quick.”

We started and stopped, studied Hemlock and spruce growing out of stumps or nurse logs. When the nurse logs finally melt away. the trees appear to rise on stilts, creating odd and tangled houses for children and gnomes but no place for a napkin to lay in peace.

Finally, 200 yards from the trail’s end, John spotted what we’d been mostly searching for: an honest Kleenex, enough for two gold badges, raisiné the trip total to 12.

The Bowden Family’s Best Picks From a Year Around America



Travel Films

The Long, Long Trailer. Lucille Ball and Desi Arnez

Lost in America, Albert Brooks. Julie Haggerty

Kid’s Car Videos

Candleshoe, David Niven, Helen Hayes. Jodie Fostr

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Harrison Ford

Veggie Tales

Lesser Known Parks

Fori Clatsop, Astoria, Ore. (Lewis and Clark’s Winter Camp 1805-06)Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park. Seatt

Itasca Stale Park. Lake Itasca. Minn. (Headwaters of the Mississippi River)


The Statue of Liberty. New York City

Fort Sumter Nation Monument. Charleston, S.C.

Mount Rushmore. Rapid City. S.D.

Tour Guides

Sue Burns, The Paul Revere House. Boston

Kate Kennelly. Alcatraz. San Francisco

Bernice Mundhenke, Laura Ingalls Wilder Tour, DeSmet, S.D.

Company Tours

Ben and Jerry’s. Slowe. Vt.

Schramsberg Vineyards. Calistoga. Calif.

Boeing, Everett, Wash.

Underground Stuff

Carlsbad Caverns, Carlsbad. N.M.

Bill Speidel’s Underground Tour. Seattle

Queen Mine Tour, Bisbee, Ariz.


Keene Pumpkin Festival. Keene, N.H.

The Low Country Oyster Festival. Ml. Pleasant. S.C.

The Annual Railroaders’ Festival. Golden Spike National Historical Site, Promontory, Utah

Large Museums

The Children’s Museum, Boston

The Smithsonian, Washington. D.C.

Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York City

Small Museums

‧ Mark Twain’s House. Hartford, Conn.

The Forbes Magazine Galleries. New York City

Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Tucson, Ariz.


Trapp Family Lodge. Stowe. Vt.

The Gage Hotel, Marathon, Texas

Chico Hot Springs Lodge, Pray. Mont.

Girls’ Favorites

The Nutcracker Ballet. New York City

Cooking with Chef Ken Woytisek, Culinary Institute of America. St. Helena, Calif.

Tea at the American Girls Place, Chicago

Boys’ Favorites

Hangliding with Doug Haber. Kitty Hawk Kites. Nags Head. N.C.

The Rocket. Utah Winter Sports Park. Park City. Utah

Cubs vs. Pirates. Wrigley Field. Chicago

Top 10 Pizza

Places in America

We ale pizza in excess (if 100 times during the year-live nights in a row during the stretch drive between Chicago and Boston. Humbly put. we are America’s pizza experts.

1. Tomatina. St, Helena. Calif.

Crozet Pizza. Crozet. Va.

John’s Pizzeria. New York City. 260 W. 44th

Rosalie’s Pizza. Bar Harbor, Maine

Shakey’s Pizza. Santa Monica, Calif.

Sammy’s, Grand Rapids, Minn.

Strombolli’s Italian Restaurant. Page. Ariz.

Regina’s Pizza, Boston

9. Campisi’s Egyptian, Dallas

10.Trattoria Mitchell!, Seattle


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