Cross-country journey with daughters helped mom reconnect with America in wake of 9/11

Long haul for healing
The author with daughters Sara and Morgan at Badlands National Park in South Dakota.
The author with daughters Sara and Morgan at Badlands National Park in South Dakota.

Given the distance and expense, trips to see my parents in California were once-a-year events when my daughters were growing up. We flew each summer to southern California for extended stays so that my parents could soak up their East Coast grandkids for several weeks.

But after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, my mother, who had an aversion to flying anyway, was terrified to have us board an aircraft. To ease her fears, I told her that in 2002, the girls and I would make the trip via car. 

In truth, I was not concerned about flying. I had a vastly different reason for wanting to make the trip by land.

I wanted to heal.

I wanted to experience the grandeur of our nation from coast to coast and the parts in between. I wanted to witness goodness. I wanted to connect with old friends and make new ones. I wanted to celebrate our country’s rich history. I wanted to see the manifestation of “United We Stand” in the Great Lakes, the wild west, the desert, the Pacific coast and the heartland, and feel healing in my heart at the same time.

That’s how my daughters, Sara and Morgan, then 10 and 7, respectively, ended up crammed in the back of my new maroon PT Cruiser for what turned out to be an epic journey that none of us would ever forget. 

What stands out to me most when I look back on that trip is that I was absolutely fearless. I drove through big cities, desolate stretches of interstate highways with no cellphone coverage, and a tremendous thunderstorm with complete confidence. And this was before GPS. 

A piece of that confidence stems from my stint as a Navy wife, handling everything myself for months while my husband, Scott, was on deployment, circumnavigating South America and enjoying Latin ports of call. Perhaps another part of it came from my meticulous planning of our voyage. Part of that confidence, I know, came from who I am, plain and simple.

If my husband had any reservations about me taking the three most precious beings in his life on a cross-country trek, he didn’t voice them. Maybe he figured that if I could handle a trans-oceanic move solo while seven months pregnant, birth a 9-pound, 5-ounce baby with no drugs whatsoever (epidurals were not among the amenities offered the 400 women a month who delivered “Desert Stork” babies at the Army hospital) and survive an island hurricane with an infant to protect, then a car ride with our two girls would be a breeze. Or perhaps he knew that trying to dissuade me would be an exercise in futility.

He is a wise man, indeed. Instead, he said, “Maybe I can fly out and drive back with you.” 

Whatever the case, armed with maps and an inch-thick TripTik from AAA, the three of us set out from Charlton in July 2002 on this healing, mom-stuffed-us-into-the-back-of-the-car-because-she-said-it-would-be-fun, what-the-heck-is-she-doing?-but-I-can’t-stop-her-craziness grand journey from one coast to the other. Spoiler alert: My children survived.

I set some strict parameters for the trip. Our itinerary was based on extreme significance, connecting with people and places that had meaning for us. I wouldn’t drive over 400 miles a day, and we would take our time (two and a half weeks, to be exact). There were only two “wild-card” overnights, i.e., those not yet determined stops in between planned destinations. 

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The author with daughters Sara, and Morgan with PT Cruiser at Yellowstone. Morgan is pointing out how packed the car is.PHOTO PROVIDED
The girls and their mom show off their new PT Cruiser at Yellowstone, with Morgan pointing out just how packed the car is.

Our journey began in Niagara Falls, Canada, due to the rebel in me. The school had canceled Sara’s fifth-grade trip to Canada after 9/11, so I decided I would show the girls Canada anyway. Waiting in line at one of the tourist spots, I was shocked to take in a glimpse of the Islamic culture we had only heard about on the news in the preceding months. The woman in front of us was wearing a burka covering her from head to toe. The only part of her we saw was a pair of dark eyes through a mesh screen on her hijab.

From there we drove to Hillsdale, Michigan, after waiting in line at the border in 107-degree heat for a couple of hours, as border security had tightened after 9/11. When it was our turn, I started to have serious doubts that the Border Patrol agent was going to let us back in the country. He kept questioning me about our purchases, which I explained were souvenirs from Niagara Falls. I bit my tongue, but I wanted to ask him exactly where he thought I would put these big purchases he was sure I had made in this small vehicle that was practically bursting at the seams. I finally looked into the back seat and asked my girls to hand me the notebook we had started, where I had stapled receipts for everything we spent (and where we made any interesting observations, like the boy in the plum-colored minivan next to us in the kitschy part of Niagara Falls who was picking his nose and wiping his boogers on the window). At that point, the border agent became uninterested and waived us through.

In Michigan, we stayed in the farmhouse of a couple I had met during my research on women in the Korean War. Five years prior, I had reunited Lu, in her 90s, with a MASH patient of hers who had been one of the few survivors of a POW massacre. She had always wondered if he had lived, as his injuries were so severe. I found him, then met her and her husband in Toledo, jumped in the back of their Cadillac, and rode to Collierville, Tennessee, for a bittersweet reunion. Her former patient was in the end stages of cancer. It is the most poignant experience I have ever had as a journalist. This visit is an example of what I mean by significant.

More from A Summer to Remember: 2020 Big Edition

From there it was on to Chicago, where we stayed with the family of my husband’s U.S. Naval Academy roommate and then ventured into the city to American Girl Place. We did the whole shebang — café, musical theater and shopping — with our dolls Addy, Kit and Josephina in tow. 

Maquoketa, Iowa, was next. Sara’s second-grade teacher and a teacher in Iowa paired their students up to be pen pals, and the kids corresponded throughout the school year. Sara and her pen pal, Hannah, kept on writing, and now we were going to their farm to meet them in person. The family welcomed us warmly, and the girls got acquainted with farm life by jumping on hay bales, meeting the farm animals and riding in the tractor. Conveniently, Hannah’s little sister was Morgan’s age and a perfect match. We even got interviewed by a reporter from the local paper, which was an odd experience for someone used to asking the questions. 

Our next stop had a literary connection. We had been working our way through the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, so we drove to the little town on the prairie for the Laura Ingalls Wilder pageant. Each summer, residents of De Smet, South Dakota set up five small outdoor stages, and as the sun sets on the big slough they act out various scenes from the books. We did the whole little town in style — visited the Ingalls’ homestead and other associated sites, shopped at the Loftus store and stayed in a bed-and-breakfast located in an old bank, complete with vault.

A visit to South Dakota could not have been complete for me without seeing Mount Rushmore. We arrived just in time for the dramatic illumination, narrated by James Earl Jones. The next day when we returned to the memorial, we saw a park ranger pull out a gun and go after someone who was trying to climb up the mountain, despite all the “KEEP OFF” signage. Before departing the area, we visited the Crazy Horse Memorial and learned about that bit of history.


Badlands National Park was on the way to our next planned stop. The bonnets we bought in the little town on the prairie came in handy to protect the girls from the intense sun. We continued for miles on a desolate stretch of I-90 where there were no buildings save for an occasional shack, which we later learned were for the cowboys who herded cattle. We happened on a wild west town tourist attraction whose claim to fame was that Kevin Costner’s horse from the movie “Dances With Wolves” lived there. 

After spending the night in Cheyenne, we made it to a ranch in Wilsail, Montana, where we reunited with Army friends I had met in Hawaii through the Baby Hui, a moms’ group. They took us on a picnic to Castle, an old mining ghost town, and then we camped in nearby Yellowstone National Park. 

After we parted from our Army friends, the girls and I drove through Grand Teton National Park and weathered a severe thunderstorm to get to Sandy, Utah, where my best friend from high school and his family live. They were gracious hosts and took us to Salt Lake City, showing us the places so important to their faith. 

Bryce Canyon was next on the list — and on my bucket list for years. This stunning place with red rock formations that only nature could have created was well worth the wait. We arose early and went for a ranger-guided hike through the canyon, surrounded by the great red walls of a very different kind of “Wall Street.” I long to go back.

From Bryce, we made our way to the north rim of the Grand Canyon, a frequent childhood vacation spot for me, where my parents met us for camping. My mother was elated that we had made it. She had no doubt spent the past two weeks worrying. From the Grand Canyon, we caravanned to Zion National Park in Utah and then back to their home in Ventura County for our annual visit. 

My husband, Scott, did fly out to drive back with us. We enjoyed a few days visiting with my parents’ and soaking up the Pacific Cost vibe. 

The morning of our departure, Scott ran into a piece of furniture in my parents’ home and broke his baby toe. We spent six hours in the emergency room of the hospital where I had volunteered as a candy striper, having his toe set so that he could run the New York City marathon later that year. (He had won the lottery to earn a slot.) 

I was actually relieved that he was on so many painkillers; it was up to me to pack the car and drive for the first couple of days. He would have been appalled at how I had stuffed everything into that vehicle. 

The addition of dad definitely shifted our dynamic on the drive back to New York. It was much shorter and faster with dad in the car. We stopped at Arches National Park, the Coors Brewery in Golden, Colorado (where my cousins lived), the Gateway Arch in St. Louis (a fabulous spot) and a town in Indiana to visit another one of my MASH nurses.

More from A Summer to Remember: 2020 Big Edition

I did get my healing on this amazing trip. I had connected with people, experienced grandeur, and seen the greatness and hardiness of the Americans who came before me. Now, with the pandemic and civil unrest our nation is experiencing, I find myself craving healing again. I want to see change. I want to see people coming together in unity and inclusivity. I want to see compassion, understanding, kindness and caring, no matter what someone’s skin color, ethnicity or socio-economic background. I want people to remember that we are all in this together. I want to see the world’s potential for greatness realized.

Maybe another drive cross-country is in order. 

Categories: A Summer To Remember, Special Sections, Uncategorized


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