Learn As We Go
Travels with My Son
On August 16, 2002, my son, Ryan and I left St. Louis and headed north up the Great River Road along the Mississippi. This was the beginning of our great experiment: a junior year spent traveling across the continent. We were going because he was ready for something different, something to fire his passion for life. We were going because I believed that there are often better ways to learn than sitting in a classroom. Travel ranks with the best. That is my belief. Thanks to my husband, Chip, we sat high above the road in a blue 1987 Volkswagon Westphalia van, decked out with extra lights for studying, a transformer for plugging in my laptop, bicycles, even a motorcycle; everything that would assure us a fantastic school year. We were also loaded down with books, crammed into every cabinet and niche. Who knew how much research we would do along the way? For two days we followed the big river, reading Mark Twain’s â€œThe Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Solo Mississippi by hometown writer now removed, Eddy Harris. In Hannibal we wandered about Tom Sawyer’s stomping grounds. In Nauvoo, Illinois, we visited the early Mormon settlement. High above the river in Iowa we walked about the constructions of Eligy Mounds, built by early Native peoples. What kinds of ceremonies did they do there? We learned about river traffic and locks and how dams worked in Minnesota. I was revved. So much to see and learn. By the second day Ryan was worried. He couldn’t possibly complete all the projects and studies I was rattling off, he told me. And so it went for the next three and a half months. Grand adventure and high spirits one day, second thoughts the next. We traveled across Canada, from Ontario to Newfoundland, then south through New England to New York, home for thanksgiving and the holidays. History was everywhere and so was science and literature, art and geography, anthropology, archeology. We toured forts and hydroelectric plants and the home of a Canadian patriot who warned the British of the American advance in the war of 1812. In the St. Lawrence, we went whale watching, wandered Quebec City’s artfully lighted streets and walls, stopped to explore waterfalls, villages, battlefields and, in the point farthest north in Newfoundland, Lance Aux Meadows, the Viking Settlement founded a thousand years ago.
We had to take a pass on an awful lot. There just wasn’t enough time to do everything.
All in all, we were picking up a lot. But could we this new knowledge to state requirements towards Ryan’s graduation? That was our challenge.
From time to time we stayed with friends, some of long-standing, others met along the way. We camped in RV parks, state and national parks, on islands. We free camped.
Now and then, we splurged on a motel.
When we dropped back down into the States, we focused on American History where it was made. Concord with its North Bridge from where rang out “the shot heard round the world.” Lexington. Boston and Beacon Street and the Church from where shone the lantern: “one by land, two by sea.” Plymouth and the Mayflower II. A week in New York gave us the new as well as the old, so there was Ellis Island, all the neighborhoods, comic opera at Lincoln Center, and, of course, the great lighted pits where once stood the two towers.
Hightailing it home for Thanksgiving, we stopped at Valley Forge and Gettysburg.
We were pleased with ourselves. We got on each other’s nerves. We found great, unplanned opportunities for learning, met fascinating people, found treasures. We made plans for course work, revised them and then revised them again. I was thrilled how much Ryan was reading and, again, lost good night’s sleep worrying that he wouldn’t get credit for the year. When I became concerned that our days were getting too disorganized, I initiated morning coffee and donuts at Canada’s Tim Hortons, where we set goals, reviewed work and solved problems.
I insisted he write regularly. He resisted. Then, when I least expected it, he picked up his journal. He read, more than he ever had in his life.
Second semester we dropped south for two months in the city of Oaxaca, Mexico, where Ryan studied Spanish along with history and culture and music and, well, all the things one learns when they love where they live. Our last weeks we spent in Silverton, Colorado, with mountains and snow. In Silverton, also, Ryan snagged a construction job for a week and made enough money to pay me off for his snowboard and a weekend trip he made with friends. He also learned that playing with children can bring good money from parents going bonkers with cabin fever. Baby-sitting worked for him because he always liked kids.
At mid-point I had some doubts: was this year giving him what he needed? Would we end the year on speaking terms?
By the time we returned home in May, I was proud.
And, in spite of the fact that his friends thought he was crazy, he reported,“I’m very, very glad we did this year. Nothing can take it from me.”
On my Learn As We Go blog, I want to share our year, as I finish my book with the same name (a working name, anyway) I promise to be honest about our foibles, missteps, magical moments, surprises, loneliness, false starts. I’ll tell you what worked and what didn’t, let you in on the human kindnesses and my nights of anxiety. I’ll recount our annoyances and friendships formed. And, in case, doing something like this appeals to you, even for a week or two, I’ll talk about the books and museums we loved, and how we managed our everyday lives. We blundered into plenty of pitfalls and potholes along the way. I’ll tell you about some of them.
I’ll pass on some things about my son; as much as he wants you to know, anyway.
When I drive across this country, and sometimes Canada and Mexico as well, I come across special places that make me think; there’s a lot to learn here. I’ll report those, too. Maybe you’ll want to take your kids if you are in the neighborhood. Or take yourself.
Because we never stop learning. That is, if we still love life. That is my belief. Probably yours, too, or you wouldn’t be reading this.
By the way, in case you get the itch to do something of the same, whether for a week or a year, know that other families are out there doing the very same thing. I know. We met them.
All right. This is a long-winded introduction. But now you’ve got a clue about what you might find here.
Hope you enjoy.
Mary Lois Sennewald