America, How Are Ya?
Who The Herman/King family Home Base Brunswick, Maine Long Vacation A six-month cross-country drive in an RV, January 2003–June 2003 Trip Web Site www.wheresmolly.com
After two terms as governor of Maine, with a schedule that flipped from one 20-minute appointment to the next, Angus King needed to decompress and reconnect with his family. And so, the very morning after his successor was sworn in, he was on the road with his wife, Mary Herman, and their children Ben, 12, and Molly, 9. Imagine someone who'd just spent eight years being driven around suddenly finding himself behind the wheel of a 40-foot Newmar Dutch Star RV, with his wife's Honda minivan hitched behind. "It was like driving an IMAX theater," says Angus, who was happy when he finally hit the interstate and no longer had to negotiate turns.
The plan was to circle the whole country for about six months, heading south along the East Coast and then traveling west— visiting friends, family, and assorted parks. "We just marked what we wanted to see on a map and strung it all together," says Mary, who, as tour director, quickly learned to silence her inner schoolmarm. Obligatory stops (such as the Alamo) were offset by pure fun (sandboarding near New Mexico's White Sands National Monument). When both kids balked at keeping a journal, neither parent insisted, though Angus diligently posted updates on www.wheresmolly.com, his own record of the journey.
They drove in five- or six-hour jumps and stayed put in places that snagged them, such as Texas's Big Bend National Park . "It's got everything," Angus says. "Spectacular canyons, mountains, desert, hiking, hot springs—it's a microcosm of the West." With no pressure to get to any particular place at any particular time, Angus quit shaving, rarely took off his cowboy hat, and stopped worrying about shearing off the top of the RV—once he discovered the Professional Drivers North American Road Atlas, which lists the height of every overpass. "The most wonderful sight was an eighteen-wheeler coming toward me, because wherever he'd been, I could go." Satellite radio eliminated the annoyance of stations fading in and out. The family listened to 1930's serials like The Shadow, and Ben got into Little Richard.
Both kids had jobs: Ben hooked up the water and sewer lines at each RV park, and Molly unhitched the minivan. Mornings on the highway, the kids tackled the packets their teachers had assembled for them. "Roadschooling," of course, took place everywhere. At Yellowstone, where they had to brake for buffalo, Molly earned her 12th Junior Ranger badge. Ben, on the alert after a visit to Mount St. Helens, took a look at Old Faithful and said, "Hey, Dad, this place could blow any time!"
Heading east in the homestretch, Angus reluctantly put the RV up for sale on RVSearch.com. Fifteen thousand miles and 34 states after beginning their journey, they pulled into their own driveway. The kids rejoined friends for the last days of school, and Molly stood in front of her third-grade class recounting trip highlights (such as the time her father's horse stopped suddenly in Canyon de Chelly—but her father didn't).
Angus, now beardless, teaching at Bowdoin College, and affiliated with a law firm, acknowledges, "There are always fifty reasons you can't take a trip like this," but recommends ignoring them. "An old man once said to me, 'When you get to be my age, you're going to have regrets. See that you regret the things you did, not the things you didn't.' "
Our Top Stops
The International UFO Museum, in Roswell, New Mexico This is the spot where in 1947 a rancher reported finding alien spacecraft debris. On display is a world map with colored lights representing UFO sightings —most of them in the U.S. Either the aliens like us or we're the most suggestible people on earth.
The Corn Palace, in Mitchell, South Dakota It's essentially an auditorium covered on the outside with corn. Red corn, yellow corn, brown corn, stalks, cobs, kernels—you name it. The façade looks like a corn-by-numbers painting. Mesa Verde National Park, in Colorado The Native American cliff dwellings are more than a thousand years old. You can climb in and still see the soot from their fires.
Breaux Bridge, Louisiana A tiny town that's home to Café Des Amis, famous for its rollicking zydeco brunch. We stayed at Catfish Heaven, which has to be the only combination RV park and catfish farm in the country.
Canyon de Chelly, in Arizona This is the ancestral home of the Navajo, and the Anasazi before them. Most people take jeep or van tours, but we went on horseback. The pace and rhythm of the horses is just so right here—except when you fall off, as I did. —ANGUS KING