Field Trip to Beat All Field Trips

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This is the story that was published in HomeLearning Canada magazine. I will be rewriting this at some point, but am including what I have here for now.


In Tolkien's story of The Hobbit, it is told that hobbits were quiet folk who prefered to stay close to home and avoid adventures -- except for the Tooks, who were the wanderers and explorers of the hobbit world. If a hobbit was feeling "Tookish," it meant that he wanted to travel and experience adventure.

My family lineage must be of the Tooks, though an awful lot of Scottish has been mixed in since the time of The Hobbit. Perhaps it is that tiny smidgeon of Gypsy heritage that gives me itchy feet now and then. Whatever the source of my wandering spirit, I find that life becomes a little too stifling if I have to stay in one place for very long.

That is how I one day found myself telling my sister Janine, also a homeschooling mom, about a trip I was planning to take with my children. My plans up to this point had been only tentative, but sipping coffee at Janine's table that day, the weak winter sun filtering through her curtains, we somehow formed a plan. She was feeling just as Tookish as I was it turned out, and in fact had been thinking it was about time she and her young'uns got out of the bounds of our city to feel the wind in their hair.

By the time I left that afternoon, we had designed a rough outline of a trail that dropped south through Montana (to visit Grandma Sheila), Wyoming (Yellowstone National Park) and Colorado (Anasazi Cliff Dwellings), over to Arizona to see the Grand Canyon, west to California to see the Mojave Desert, the Golden Gate and redwood forests, and finally up along the famous Oregon coast to Washington (Mount St. Helens), and home again.

Of course, being single moms with a total of five still-at-home children between us, we didn't have a lot of money to spend on a trip, so we had to get creative with our plans. We found out about hostelling, a whole new experience for both of us, and got our Hostelling International cards. We called all over Calgary to find the most inexpensive mini-van that we could rent. Unexpected obstacles kept rearing up at us, like van insurance that cost an arm and a leg plus our first-born children, but we found affordable work-arounds in every case. By putting our heads together to come up with ideas and by calling around to everyone we could think of, we slowly overcame every obstacle.

Our trip was scheduled to begin on March 30 and run until April 14. It was more than just a chance to ease Janine's and my itchy feet, though. It was going to be a marvelous educational opportunity for our children. Mine had traveled a little with me, but my sister's children had barely been out of the province. We planned sites we wanted to visit with care and counted every kilometer and liter of gas. We printed out pages of information from the Internet and bought journals for the children to write in. We planned to make this one big, grand field trip that would be fun and educational at the same time.

This is the story of two crazy Gypsy mamas and five homeschooled children, wending their way through post-911 America in a rented mini-van, on an adventure of grand proportions.

All packed up and rarin' to go. Were we brave? Foolhardy? Just plain insane?

My sister Janine and I had rented a mini-van, planned every inch of our route and calculated gas expenses almost to the dollar. We set out on a snowy March day with a van load of homeschooled young'uns, bags of groceries, piles of luggage, and a lot of high hopes. This was going to be the field trip par excellence.

We learned a lot, alright, but only a small percentage of it was academic. Much of it belonged in the School of Hard Knocks category. We saw scenes of heart-breaking beauty and survived moments of sheer terror. We experienced times of hilarity and those of bone-weary fatigue. Would we do it again? In a second!

After a couple days' snowy drive through Montana and a brief stay at grandma's cabin, our first state border was cause for celebration. We hit Idaho and stopped for what was to be the first of many border pictures. It was also the first time the kids did their "border dance," hopping from one state to another with one foot in each, chanting, "Idaho, Montana! Idaho, Montana!" The picture shows beaming faces and jackets removed. The weather was already warmer, though Idaho still had some snow on the ground.

Temple of the Sun, Mesa Verde National Park We stopped often along the way and kids would pile out and scatter in all directions. Isaac could be seen scooping sand into Ziploc bags for his now impressive collection of dirt and pebbles from every state. Hills were climbed and mini-explorations were made. Wildlife and plant life changed with every stop, so no two were the same. The children had opportunity to learn about death when they found a deer that had been caught on a fence and died there. With morbid fascination they watched maggots crawling around in the eye sockets. They learned about climate variance and that even stark, barren desert is full of life. We spotted salamanders and little desert rats and many kinds of cacti and bristly bushes.

The red sandstone arches and towers of Utah were breathtaking. My first close-up view of the late afternoon sun slanting onto these immense structures literally brought tears to my eyes. I remember gazing in amazement and thinking, "Here we are on exactly day three of our adventure, and I am already witness to something so humbling. Imagine what there is to see in the rest of the world." This trip did absolutely nothing to cure our itchy feet; it only made us want to see more!

Anasazi Cliff Dwellings We swung east a little into Colorado to take in the ancient Anasazi cliff dwellings. I am not sure what I expected, but when I looked over the rail to get my first glimpse of the stone structures beneath us, I was again taken aback by the exquisite beauty of it. There was an unreal feeling to the site, and again I felt that lump in my throat. You see pictures of these kinds of things in books and on the Internet, but nothing can compare to actually coming face-to-face with history the way we did that day.

American people are great. Almost without exception, from the soft-spoken Navajo ladies in Arizona to the farm wife wearing all the turquoise rings somewhere in Utah, to the cool hippy dude with the long, curly, red hair in Moab, people were warm and friendly. Many caught our "accent" and asked if we were Canadian. Some wanted to hear the whole trip-across-America story and thought we were so brave and adventurous. Others went above and beyond the call of duty in being helpful. Like Carol, a young woman at a Shell station in California. After a particularly difficult day's travel, she offered to let us park in her station's parking lot to catch a few winks. She even promised to keep her morning clean-up duties quiet in our area until we left. I was amazed by her compassion and generosity.

Homeschooling at its finest We slept through our one earthquake experience in Twenty Nine Palms, California. It measured 4.2 on the Richter scale and was centered just north of where we were staying. Kim heard a boom and felt her bed shake some time during the night, but the rest of us kept right on snoozing blissfully.

Probably the scariest part of our trip occurred one night when we were somewhere near San Luis Obispo on a dark freeway. The shoulder lane was closed due to construction and there was no way to get off the road when the van started to fade on a long, steep hill. My heart was in my throat as I urged the car to keep climbing; slowly, slowly . . .

Traffic was moving up behind me so quickly I felt sure someone would not be able to stop. At one point I could see two semis hurtling up, side-by-side in my rear view mirror and I thought we were toast. I don't know how they managed to back off in time. Finally, my heart pounding wildly, I managed to creep along to a turnout where construction equipment was parked. There we sat for a long time, waiting for our breathing to slow down and planning our strategy. A California Highway Patrol officer spotted us and escorted us into the next town. Janine called him our guardian angel. I know I sure could have kissed him!

The California coast was a dream, but tragedy struck at a Big Sur campground we stayed at one night. Kim and Krista had gone for a walk and they arrived back in tears. They had witnessed a man severely burn his face after using kerosene on his campfire. A helicopter came in and air-lifted him to a burn unit in San Jose. It was a sobering moment for all of us, and a life lesson. Amazingly, his family was later seen using kerosene on their fire again.

Point Montara, California One of the hostels we stayed at was at a lighthouse. Near it was a long, gorgeous beach where we stopped so that the children could play. Kids scattered in all directions, as usual, and set about running in the waves and collecting shells. The hostel itself was roomy, yet cozy and inviting. Being off-season, there weren't many people there, so we pretty much had the run of the place. Stunning views greeted us from every window, including rocky cliffs, crashing waves and cypress trees.

Hostels give a traveller a unique view of a location but we found that for a family it was really no less expensive than renting a room. In the U.S. motels only charge for adults, but hostels charge for children, too. They also charge for extras, such as sheets and blankets. Customers have to clean up after themselves; there is no chamber maid. Nevertheless, we were very glad to have spent a night at the rustic little lighthouse at Point Montara.

Kim reminscing, San Rafael Civic Center duck pond Getting back to the Bay Area was what I had been waiting for years to do. We crammed a lot into one day there, beginning with a visit to Fishermans Wharf and ending with dinner at the home of our San Rafael friends. We had planned to spend a couple of days there, but instead decided to start for home early. The van continued to give us grief and our funds were running low. Heading out the next morning, we didn't leave a minute too soon.

Somewhere in Nevada we stopped for gas and I noticed a large pink puddle forming under the van. I knew enough about transmissions to understand we had a serious problem on our hands. We limped the van slowly three miles to Fernley, where we found Fred's Fixit. A big, burly fella with a heart of gold, Fred dropped everything he was doing and went right to work for us. Upon our departure that same afternoon, some of the kids gave Fred a big hug and he stood back so that we could take a picture of him in front of his shop. Why not? He was an integral part of our trip!

Several hours outside of Fernley we were again cruising down the highway when the van lurched, stalled, and the "Service Engine Soon" light started flashing. The seal had broken again and, rather than bother with getting it fixed, we made a decision to just keep the transmission fluid levels topped up and limp her home.

And that's what we did. Stopping every hour or so to check fluid levels, we slowly made our way through Nevada, Idaho and Montana, then on to Calgary and home. Exhausted, we all showered and crashed.

As I said at the beginning, we would definitely do it all over again, but not for awhile. We learned some good lessons about life and handling difficulties, but I hope all our trips are not so challenging. Still, there is something very rewarding about knowing that we faced difficult odds and won.

We are already trying to decide where to go next!

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