The Power of Road Trips
Updated: Jul 27
Units #59 – 64 / 413
- Adams National Historical Park
- Cape Cod National Seashore
- New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park
- Roger Williams National Memorial
- Blackstone River Valley National Historical Park
- Springfield Armory National Historic Site
“As I barreled down the interstate, hands tightly wrapped around the wheel, I noticed something other than the posted speed limits.
I was slowly being overtaken by the transformative power of travel.”
In March 2005, I planned my first independent road trip.
After 19 years living in the Midwest, I was itching to get out and see the world. And after years of family road trips, this seemed like the way to start.
So I begged my dad for permission to use his car, and asked my high-school best friend, Tom, if he'd like to join.
Though securing the use of my dad’s car was something I initially feared the most, the greater anxiety came from wondering what Tom would say.
Over the previous year, that which found me stuck in the one state I wanted desperately to leave for college, had me working 4 different jobs to try and earn money to transfer, and saw the return of my dad’s cancer, I’d become a pretty horrible person to be around—and my friendship with Tom suffered the most.
After being nearly inseparable during our senior year of high school, we barely spoke over our freshman years at the University of Nebraska.
But after a happenstance meeting at a Nebraska baseball game, and a short drive to visit colleges in Kansas City, Tom agreed to join my inaugural road trip, that which I’d planned to the glamorous vacation spots of South Dakota and Minnesota.
This weeklong endeavor was set to begin two months later, in May, immediately after Finals Week ended and our first collegiate summer break set us free.
However, something happened during that Finals Week. Something I knew was coming, but also couldn’t imagine happening.
My father passed away.
So there Tom and I were. 10 days after my father’s funeral. Sitting in the car I’d secured permission to use months earlier.
It still smelled of my dad's lingering pipe fumes, had his sunflower seed shells scattered about, and held his tattered atlas in the back seat.
Before we left the driveway, I turned and handed Tom a letter while saying, "You can read it now or later."
While I wish the letter started, “I know your secret!”, the truth is my writing was that of a confession.
Over the course of my dad’s death, I’d realized I’d also let my friendship with Tom die. I needed to let him know I felt bad about it before it was too late.
Tom opened the letter and began its opening lines, then appropriately threw it in the driver’s side door, saying “I’ll read it later” and saving me the awkwardness of sitting there and checking the mirrors as he read.
During the next seven days of road tripping, that letter sat in the side door of a former owner who believed deeply in the resurrection, and led to the resurrection of my and Tom’s friendship.
That road trip taught us that tomorrow isn’t guaranteed, and you might not have people around as long as you think: so you’d better appreciate them while you can.
The lesson gained on that trip was so important that Tom and I agreed to take one road trip every year to honor the experience, and at the very least, make sure the friendship that had just been reborn would stay strong no matter where life took us.
Three months later, when life allowed me to finally leave my home state for college and attend the University of Memphis, that decision took on heightened meaning.
So that following May of 2006, I returned to Nebraska and climbed back in my dad’s car for the second installment of those annuals road trips.
Fast-forward to 2016, and Tom and I found ourselves 11 years into unbroken annual trips.
Locations by year:
2005 – Northern Midwest (Red)
2006 – Northeastern Midwest (Green)
2007 – San Francisco (Red Star)
2008 – Missouri (Blue Star)
2009 – Montreal (Blue Star)
2010 – South Central (Yellow)
2011 – Washington D.C. (Blue Star)
2012 – Southwest (Pink)
2013 – Pacific Northwest (Pink)
2014 - Machu Picchu, Peru (Green Writing)
2015 - San Francisco (7 years later/gayer) (Yellow Star)
While some of those trips were longer and some had to be combined with moving to new cities, as this interview with the National Park Foundation discusses, it was on the 2012 trip that a visit to the Grand Canyon helped form my interest in National Parks. Leading me to present day, where I find myself attempting to visit all 413 of them.
With 2016 consumed by preparations for and the launching of this journey, my and Tom’s annual trip almost fell by the wayside.
But where there’s a will, there’s a way.
So on October 13, after months of trying to line up flights with a moving target, Tom landed in Boston and joined Year 1 of my National Park Service trip by completing Year 12 of our annual trips.
We started out by visiting a trio of Boston’s national parks and rounded out the weekend by meeting up with old friends, checking New Hampshire and Maine off Tom’s list of “States to Visit,” and though we couldn’t attend a Husker football game like the glory days, we cheered them on from Boston’s “Husker bar.”
With Tom flying home and the remainder of Boston’s parks completed, it was time to continue down the east coast en route to experiencing all 413 national parks.
Only a 20-minute drive south of Boston’s Logan Airport (without traffic*), Adams National Historical Park continued Boston’s pattern of national parks steeped in early American history.
With a trolley tour that takes visitors to three important Adams’ family homes, including one with its original 17th-century exterior walls, guests are allowed to walk through an important American family’s past. Much like the Kennedys, through their political service the Adams became one of the most influential families on early America. Their work in domestic policy, foreign affairs, and even the U.S. Presidency helped create a vision for what America could become.
With their homes now surrounded by present day Quincy, their personal history is interwined with the future country they helped make possible.
Leaving the Boston area, a two hour drive took Andy and I to a place I'd heard much about but never seen first hand:
With its charming seaside towns, numerous beaches, and dramatic cliffs, it provides not only an ocean retreat, but a number of wild animals. Whether watching whales spout in the distance, or getting within feet of a half-dozen seals catching fish on the beach, Cape Cod offered unexpected encounters with wildlife along with other-worldly sand dunes and marshes.
Continuing along Massachusetts' coastline, New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park offered yet another city that once played host to a successful earlier American industry. Its whaling business was so lucrative that it earned New Bedford the nickname "The City That Lit The World."
As with many other Massachusetts cities whose stories are told by national parks (see Lowell, Salem, and Saugus), New Bedford's primary industry eventually lost out to newer technologies and cheaper production, leaving the city's glory days to now be chronicled in "one of the best martime museums in existence" (as was overheard at the New Bedford Whaling Museum) and a local culture that will not forget what led to its existence.
Though one of the smaller national parks, Rhode Island's Roger Williams National Memorial represents one of America's most important tenets.
The park tells the story of Roger Williams' escape from the theocracy of Massachusetts and his eventual founding of Rhode Island as America's first colony to separate church from state.
While the Visitor Center video is a perfect overview of Williams' story, his wider contribution to America is showcased with a tour of the Rhode Island State Capitol across the street. There, visitors can view the original English charter granting Rhode Island as an experimental land of religious freedom, and examine the language that inspired the 1st Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
Just north of Providence and the Roger Williams National Memorial, travelers can experience another national park by visiting the Blackstone River Valley National Historical Park.
There, they'll learn of the various mills along RI/MA's Blackstone Valley which are considered the "Birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution."
With old mills and dams dotting the roads between Pawtucket, RI, and Worchester, MA, this national park allows for a leisurely day of driving between historic buildings and serene riverbanks.
As my last of Massachusetts' 14 National Park Service sites, the Springfield Armory National Historic Site provided one of the most intricate museums of my trip.
Housed in a building that used to produce America's military firearms, the space now contains models of guns from nearly every American conflict up to World War II, and even a pipe organ made from muskets.
Though private companies eventually took over the production of America's weapons, half of the museum is devoted to the evolution of techonologies that aided America's military prowess and even armed the Rangers who patrol the National Park System.
Upcoming Units (COMMENT with recommendations. What should I do at each park? Local interesting detours? Food stops?)
Connecticut to New York to Puerto Rico to US Virgin Islands
-Weir Farm National Historic Site
-Home of Franklin D. Roosevelt National Historic Site
-Eleanor Roosevelt National Historic Site
-Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site
-African Burial Ground National Monument
-Castle Clinton National Monument
-Federal Hall National Memorial
-General Grant National Memorial
-Governors Island National Monument
-Hamilton Grange National Memorial
-Sagamore Hill National Historic Site
-Saint Paul's Church National Historic Site
-Statue of Liberty National Monument (includes Ellis Island)
-Stonewall National Monument
-Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site
-San Juan National Historic Site
-Buck Island Reef National Monument
-Christiansted National Historical Park
-Salt River Bay National Historical Park & Ecological Preserve
-Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument
-Virgin Islands National Park
The journey thus far: