Geography the Hands-On Way:
One Dad, Two Kids, and a lotta' miles
By Kathy Leong
For the past five summers, Burlingame’s Randy Smith has mini-vanned his children, Travis, 12 and Samantha, 9, across the nation, leaving tire tracks in over 39 states to visit friends and relatives.
With each trek lasting from 17 to 22 days, Smith finds these adventures worthwhile building blocks in connecting with his children as they spend long stretches of time on the seemingly-endless roads. (On the photo on the left, Randy and kids are pictured with his grandma in eastern Tennessee. She recently passed away).
In addition, Smith says that compared to folks who fly, road travellers get to see and experience unique aspects of the country. The inside of a doctor’s office in the Blue Ridge Mountains, tornado warnings in Iowa, the taste of real Texas barbeque, an expressway that cuts through a main post office in Chicago. "You don’t see these things on maps. It’s remarkable the things you can view on the road," he says. "Lush areas, plain areas. You only know know it when you experience it."
Like clockwork, this ambitious father packs the kids into a Chrysler minivan, and off they go on their semi-regular route: Reno, Nevada to Salt Lake City, Utah to Cheyenne, Wyoming. From there, they hit the cities of Omaha, Nebraska and Chicago, Illinois, and others.
We asked this seasoned road warrior to share some of his survival trip tips, and here’s what he had to say:
BAFT : How can kids take a part in a cross-country adventure?
Smith : I think it is absolutely critical that the children be involved in planning. Each child should get to choose at least two places to visit or things to do. For example, the trip to the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago was important to all three of us. Travis discovered that it had one of the largest model train exhibits in the world. Samantha found out that there was a special collection she wanted to see. And, I wanted to see the U-505 submarine (the only captured German sub of WWII).
BAFT : What skills can kids learn as they plan?
Smith : I purchased the huge road atlas from CSAA for about $5 (a really good bargain). As the kids look at the CSAA Tour Guides, they see things in particular cities, such as a children's museum. With the road atlas, they are able to look up the location of a city, and see how close it is to the road we plan on traveling. This greatly improves their geographic skills, measuring skills, math calculations for time and distance, etc. The disadvantage of the road atlas is its' lack of a relief map.
BAFT : What other products have been helpful?
Smith : Another cool item is the Microsoft Streets and Trips software product. The database at Microsoft is updated each year to show planned road construction projects on all the major highways in the USA. As you can imagine, each state knows which highways will be repaired and the timeframes involved. Somehow Microsoft obtains this information, and builds it right into the product.
BAFT : As the sole adult, it must be hard to stay awake. What tips do you offer to solo drivers?
Smith : Don’t drive at night. On two different trips, a deer appeared in front of me on the wide open interstate late at night. Once it was in Iowa on I-80, and the other in Illinois on I-72 near Springfield. I just missed both of them! I can't wait for Chyrsler to build in the thermo-detection system as seen on the Mercedes. In the meantime, I will stick to 99% of my driving during daylight hours!!
BAFT : Anything else?
Smith : Don’t drive too far each day. The children will become really obnoxious otherwise. Also, each morning, gas up the car, and make sure that they have all gone to the bathroom.
BAFT : What have you learned about driving from state to state?
Smith : In California, it is common to drive 5 to 10 miles over the speed limit. When traveling in different states, it is important to stay with the flow of traffic. Many states are generating tons of revenue by giving speeding tickets to those who drive ONLY 1+ miles per hour above the speed limit. Plus, it is legal in many states for the state police/highway patrol to use radar traps.
In one instance, Kentucky had a broken down car on the side of the interstate highway. Well, that car had a radar gun and video camera inside of it, along with an officer radioing ahead to the waiting state police cars (about 25 of them!!!!). I knew about it before I got there because I was listening to the truckers discuss it on my portable cb radio. After I passed them, I noticed that about 10 drivers were getting tickets.
BAFT : What communications devices do you use on the road?
Smith : A cb radio is a very handy device, because cell phone reception is very poor or non-existent in mountainous areas, and this is usually when you probably need to communicate the most.
BAFT : How do you handle the bathroom situation since you are one parent with two kids of opposite sexes?
Smith : With my daughter, I only take her to places with a single entry bathroom like McDonalds. Some of the rest stops have facilities that open on both the front and back, which makes it dangerous. I try to avoid all rest stops.
BAFT : What about rest stops? Any comments on those places?
Smith : AVOID rest areas that are sprinkling the lawns at dusk! I found this once in Nebraska, and the place was swarming with mosquitos. Fortunately, this happened before the West Nile virus appeared, but I did get bitten about 25 times. Unfortunately, I had no rubbing alcohol until I could find the next town, which was 15 miles away.
BAFT : How do you pace yourself on the road?
Smith : I try to do a maximum of 500 miles each day, then stay at a motel with an INDOOR POOL. Because of the West Nile virus, we try to be inside the motel by 5 p.m.
BAFT : How do you keep the kids happy?
Smith : I feel it is important for them to have something to look forward to each day. I try to include some new museums on each trip. Once we went to the Boy Scout and Girl Scout store. A bit later we went to see Shrek2. I also buy workbooks for their grade levels. I pay them 25 cents for each page they complete. I also have a DVD player in the car and told them they could bring 3 of their favorite DVDs.
BAFT : What other tricks do you have up your sleeve?
Smith : I try to bring some new books that might interst them. Sometimes travel puzzles, too. But, I don’t give them out all at one time. I keep them hidden, and about every 3 or 4 days, I give them something new.
BAFT : What do you get out of the trip with the kids?
Smith : I love travelling with them. It gives me a chance to really talk with them. I also point out (other people’s) bad driving habits. Several years ago, my daughter was the one that recognized that a lot of the accidents we saw involved Ford Explorers.
BAFT : How do you keep yourself sane?
Smith : In the front seat, I get to control the music. With a four-disk player, I put in communal music such as the Beatles or Celtic music, and I get to listen while they watch their DVDs or read.
BAFT : What benefits do the kids get from these trips?
Smith : Wow, they really know their geography now. They can tell you that they’been in about 39 states. They know what it is like driving over the mountains to get to Reno. They are building strong relationships with our family back east.
BAFT : What kinds of trinkets do the kids buy in each state?
Smith : We've been collecting refrigerator magnets in the shape of the various states we visit. They are really cool. We also buy the booklets from different museums we visit.
Noteworthy websites with Randy’s comments:
http://www.archway.org Somewhere in the middle of Nebraska is a national monument that spans I-80 from one side to another. The archway monument is a tribute to the Native American Indians.
http://www.microsoft.com/streets/ProductDetails.aspx?pid=002 - Look for Road Construction Information.
http://www.emporis.com/en/wm/bu/?id=117250 Here it is, a website that refers to the fact that the expressway runs right through the middle of the building:
http://www.exploratorium.edu/membership/pages/astc.html -We joined the Exploratorium (family membership) especially so that the kids could visit up to several hundred science museums around the world (but most in the USA).
On another point, I mentioned the free coupons available at McDonalds and some gasoline stations along the way. Here are a few websites:
Randy Smith lives in Burlingame with his wife and two kids.
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