Our educational vacations

A vacation, by definition, is a break, a getaway from daily life. So school vacations should be free from education.

Try telling that to my mother. In her mind, you should learn something from trips.

Growing up, my family vacations were a little different from most. While friends of mine went to Mexico, I went to Jamestown. Their parents took them to Florida; mine took me to Gettysburg.

And we drove. A family of six with a mother slightly afraid of flying, we weren’t so conducive to air travel, so we piled in the minivan – often with an egg full of luggage on the roof – and hit the highway.

Those highways took us all over the East coast to American landmarks, presidents’ homes and colonial cities.

Too young to understand it, I took pictures Plymouth Rock with a plastic pink camera. Complaining about the long walk, four kids ages 2 to 10 trekked around the Tidal Basin to the Jefferson Memorial. When only in fifth grade, I stood in front of the bed on which Abraham Lincoln died. Having no idea of its significance, I gazed across the Hudson River at the World Trade Center just months before it was removed from the New York skyline.

It helped that every year we drove to family reunions in Cape Cod and detoured to various places along the way, but I’m sure that even without that my mom would have had us traversing the East Coast for all the history it has to offer. Journeys in elementary and middle school included Springfield, Philadelphia, Charleston, Washington D.C., Portland, New York City, Williamsburg, Gettysburg and Monticello. How many sixth graders have been to Thomas Jefferson’s house?

Finally, in seventh grade the rest of the family won. Just for once, we wanted to relax. My siblings wanted to go swimming. All I wanted was a tan. So we went to Tampa and spent an entire glorious week at the pool.

But the next year my mom was back at it, meticulously researching and planning, finding cities we had yet to explore.

She has a passion for history. Not the sit-in-a-classroom-and-read-a-textbook kind. No, she likes the be-there-and-see-it-and-imagine-what-it-was-like kind. She never enjoyed it in school, but she loves it in the flesh. She seeks out old things, from antiques to ancient buildings. Our house is decorated with old farm equipment and colonial sewing tools.

Her family didn’t travel the country. They went to a family cottage and visited relatives, so she’d never been to these places either, and her own excitement was thrust upon the rest of us.

Before long, we’d been to almost every state – and certainly every state with an icon of American history – on the East Coast. But a year before starting high school, I took issue with the fact that I had never been west of the Mississippi River. There was a lot of America left to explore.

So we went to California.

We drove to California. Three days we sat in the car on the way to L.A.

But we weren’t just going straight for the celebrities; there are sights along the way. We stopped in St. Louis for the Gateway Arch, in Oklahoma City for the bombing memorial, in Arizona for the Grand Canyon. Coming back, we hit Las Vegas and Four Corners. That plus about 30 hours of driving.
I’d say it was awful, but it wasn’t. In fact, I would do it again. Sure, I was painfully stiff by the time we got there, but I saw the terrain of the entire Southwest as it transitioned from hilly Missouri to flat Texas to arid New Mexico to tropical California.

My mom’s meticulous itineraries helped me enjoy history and get to know my country – the many different regions and cultures and eras encompassed by these 50 states. She taught me to love seeing new places and learning new things. It got harder as my siblings and I got older, but she made it work. With only four days for a trip to South Dakota, we left home at 1 a.m. to get to the Badlands during daylight on our way to Mount Rushmore.

And I want that to keep going. Although I love sunshine and beaches, I want more out of my vacations, at least most of the time. I don’t want to travel annually to the same Florida resort. I wouldn’t learn anything, and it wouldn’t be new. For my next trips, I want to go to San Francisco and Savannah.

On recent vacations with friends to St. Augustine and Boston, I was the one who researched the history and forced the group to visit the old castle and walk the historic trail. When I worked myself into a frenzy about Bunker Hill and how it’s the reason we have America, my friends smiled and laughed at me, and I thought of my mom.

Thanks to her, it’s on my bucket list to visit every state in the country and then travel the world, not going anywhere twice until I’ve seen everything once. But I do want to go back.

All these trips I hope to do again, with my own children. I want to give them that same chance to learn about history by being there and then have it be real when a teacher lectures. To have that snapshot in their heads. To understand what our ancestors experienced. Unlike most people my age, I have a sense of history that you can only acquire from standing at the site of the oldest settlement or worst battle or first slave trade. That awareness helps me appreciate what it means to be an American.

I’d put up with an endless chorus of “Are we there yet?” for my kids to be just as lucky.


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