How We Saw All 50 U.S. States While Raising a Family of 5
Disclaimer: Not all of our 5 children saw all 50 States. We make it a point not to set life goals for them. :) Although a few of them do have the goal of seeing all 50 and some of them will get there by default.
We (Mike and I) accomplished a life goal when we visited our 50th U.S. state last August, checking off a major bucket list item by stepping foot in Alaska. I must say, I am still on a high from accomplishing such a monumental task. We had been working on seeing all 50 states since we were in our twenties. I hit all 50 by fifty, and Mike hit 50 by 51.
You could say our adventure officially began when we married in 1998. At this point, Mike had been to 26 states, I had visited 9. For perspective, the average American visits around 12 states in their lifetime (Carmichael, 2016). Mike was in the National Guard and had traveled to many places in that capacity. In contrast, Myrtle Beach and Disney World were major vacations of my youth. When we first met, I learned that Mike had a folded piece of notepaper in his wallet; written on it was a list of life goals. One of the goals that resonated with me was "seeing all 50 States." So in my mind, it was decided that this would become a shared goal. In short order, my best friend became my husband, and without words but definitely with this goal in mind, we set out on our honeymoon to see our first new state together.
I had dreamed of living in Montana, Big Sky Country, in high school. It wasn't hard to convince Mike to make this place of adventure and wild spaces our honeymoon destination. It was my first time "out west" and visiting a National Park. We visited Glacier, The Tetons, and Yellowstone, and a new bucket list goal was planted in my mind. More on this in future posts. During our honeymoon trip, I had the sneaking suspicion it wasn't just the two of us. We bought a baby names book at a quaint bookshop in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. I clearly remember sitting on a street bench looking through the book and deciding on baby names. Laurel for a girl, Logan for a boy because we really loved Logan's Pass in Glacier National Park.
It turned out that our hunch was correct, and our second baby was born, and with our firstborn in pre-school, travel was harder to attain. Mike traveled a lot with work and I didn't like missing out. Neither of us wanted to be away from each other for extended periods, so we took our oldest out of school, and I began traveling with Mike for work. Our first long stay was living in Rockford, Illinois, for a couple months. Hotel living with a toddler and a kindergartner wasn't easy, plus we had our dog, a Siberian Husky named Lhotse (after the mountain in the Himalayas) . During the day, I would take the kids and dog for walks, go shopping, and explore local parks and museums. On the weekends, we would venture out further to other areas like Wisconsin, Iowa, and our 4th National Park, Gateway Arch.
Between 2000 and 2007, Mike's progress at checking off new states was slow, and I quickly started to catch up. As Mike was relocated around the Midwest for work, first from Michigan to Indiana, we began to collect the states east of the Mississippi. We also saw our next group of National Parks, Shenandoah, Great Smoky Mountains, and Mammoth Caves. In 2002, we took another trip out west, now with three kids. We visited Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Rocky Mountain National Park, Black Canyon of the Gunnison. As we clicked off more and more states, we realized that the National Parks were the true gems of our country, and another bucket list item was added to the list of life goals (see the list).
From 2008 until 2019, life got in the way of travel. Although we were still homeschooling, our kids were involved in all sorts of activities that kept us rooted in New Hampshire. Even I went back to school during this time to become a nurse and then, again, to get my doctorate. As those years passed, we took a couple of little trips to Florida but mostly drove back and forth to Michigan to see family. After our oldest three had graduated high school, there was a shift. Life became a little different, and we were pulled in fewer directions. We took our first major trip since our honeymoon together as a couple. Mike and I went to Mexico for Dia de Los Muertos and had the best time. It was decided we would never again wait so long to travel. Our goal to see the 50 States was renewed, and our next big trip was planned. We would tackle all remaining states east of the Mississippi. But before that, Mike took a work trip to Alabama, and EJ and I went with him.
It was early December 2019, EJ was 8, and we all flew from Boston to Newark and then on to Huntsville, Alabama. During the layover, we spent a couple of hours in the airport lounge. EJ shared his tablet, begrudgingly, with a little boy, and they watched movies sitting in the same armchair. Occasionally, I shot my son icy glances encouraging him to be friendly and share because the little boy dominated the movie selection. One time the boy even reminded EJ to not pick his nose because it spreads germs further irking my son. This happened to be the most prophetic moment of the trip because, within the week, EJ had a horrible cough, a temp, and was generally unwell.
I was worried about getting home because he was coughing so frequently. Looking back, this was most definitely Covid Round 1. It was before masking, testing, and screening and even really before it had become a thing in the U.S. The nation and world was watching it unfold in Asia and then Europe. The rest of the family became ill after we returned home, and we were worried our trip called the "5-State Blast" would be canceled. We were hoping to check off 5-new states during this adventure.
Thankfully, we were all feeling well and set out on Christmas Night after my shift at work. On the trip, we saw Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi as we drove from New Hampshire in a loop to Florida and up the East Coast home. The trip took seventeen days to complete 4048 miles. Our family is no stranger to long car rides. The children became accustomed to extended road trips from birth, driving from New Hampshire to Michigan. I think this has been key to our road-tripping wins as parents. 16-hour car rides are not a big deal for the kids, but the trip to Nashville tested us.
The ride began around 9pm, and we didn't arrive in Nashville until the next evening around 4pm. It is a 17-hour drive straight through, but since I worked the day we left, I slept for most of the night while Mike drove, and then I drove in the morning. That made the trip a little draining for both of us. The kids basically sleep the whole way. It is a gift that car rides put most of us to sleep, except Mike, who usually does the driving.
The trip was fantastic. We experienced so much and were excited to be on our first major road trip since 2002. When we returned home in January, the country began buzzing about Covid-19. Future trips were threatened, my work at the nursing home began to pick up as fears became a reality, and many fell ill with the virus. We took a travel hiatus and, like many, stayed home and isolated. Mike began to work remotely; the kids, already homeschooled, noticed little change except many of their extracurriculars were canceled. We lived removed from society like everyone else for months. But come to Summer, after witnessing so much loss at work, and in our personal lives, we decided life was too short to wait. Around May of 2020, Mike and I decided that we would once and for all check off the bucket list item to see all 50 states in short order. At this point, I had 7 states left, and Mike had 5.
We looked for the best fares for the remainder of the states and took whichever kids were most interested. We benefited from Covid pricing, and since the kids were adults, we could safely leave them home if they didn't want to come. We made a 4 day trip to the Dakotas in July and saw Western Montana. Then in August, we flew to Las Vegas and rented a car to visit the southwestern states that I hadn't seen. Now Mike and I were caught up, and we each had 3 states left, Oregon, Hawaii, and Alaska.
Oregon was the easiest (read about it here), and we did that over the Labor Day long weekend in September of 2020 just two weeks after we returned from the West Coast. In hindsight, it wasn't the best use of funds flying back and forth in one month from the East to West Coast, but that is how it played out. Oregon was excellent, and we hope to return soon because 4 days wasn't long enough. We were scheduled to take a cruise in January 2021, which was in the balance because of Covid. As the date approached, it looked more likely that it would be canceled, and so we pivoted and put our sights on Hawaii for a warm getaway from the New England winter. We canceled our cruise, got a full refund, and used the time to go to Hawaii utilizing Marriott hotel points. In the end, we came out ahead financially.
January 2021, we went to Maui and checked off our 49th state. You can read about our trip and Must See Places here. Finally, we were left with one last state, Alaska. We decided in May of 2021 to not wait, and to see Alaska as soon as possible. The date was set for late summer. We were a little late in the booking process, and many hotels were sold out. Also, there isn't a significant Marriott presence in interior Alaska, so we paid out of pocket for almost all hotels. This would be our priciest trip by far.
We try to utilize hotel points from our Marriott Bonvoy credit card when we travel. We have saved over $10,000 in the past 2 years on hotels, making the $495 annual fee a value. I am happy to share more info if you are on the fence about signing up for this type of card, so drop a message, and we can talk.
In August, we completed our goal of visiting all 50 states, and the journey gave birth to new plans, like seeing all 63 U.S. National Parks. The 50-State experience was invaluable. We grew up during that time, and to accomplish something that you have been dreaming about for 20 years, well, you can't imagine the feeling. Needless to say, we are addicted to travel and box-checking. Our life is fuller for it as well. We didn't always prioritize travel, but the world opened up literally and figuratively when we did. We have connected with people in many unimagined ways, from Instagram, to work friends with a shared love for adventure. We didn't always have the means, but we found a way. I went back to school and started working. Mike began working remotely, both decisions helped us. But adventure looks different for everyone. Some people, like my mother-in-law, loved to read. That was her adventure. She would burn through books the way we crushed miles on a map. No matter your goals, I encourage you to work toward them and never stop dreaming up new ones.
As for us, we have a plan. Last September, we bought a 2000 Jayco Kiwi Camper. We will set off
this summer to see as many National Parks as possible. I have established a new Instagram page @Fern.the.Kiwi to log our adventures. If you are looking for inspiration or hoping to do something similar, give Fern a follow. I will still be posting on @isla_ramie and sharing our typical travel content. Fern's site will be the behind-the-scenes, nitty-gritty, not always pretty side of our camping adventures. We hope you join us for both if you are interested. The plan is to keep the content distinctly separate in the future.
Thank you for reading, and happy goal-setting, my fellow adventurers!
Carmichael, M.(2016, July, 25). How many states has the average American visited. Livability. https://livability.com/topics/education-careers-opportunity/how-many-states-has-the-average-american-visited/