U.S. history comes alive with one trailer, three kids and a baby
By Kathy Chin Leong

When Barb Jensen announced to friends they were tackling a family road trip covering 27 states in 80 days, with four kids and a trailer, they didn't know what to say.

"Some of them told me that they wouldn't be able to handle being with their kids for that long, twenty four hours a day," says Barb. "But we home school our kids, so we are used to being together. The only difference was that now Daddy would be there joining us."

HOW IT BEGAN

The San Jose, Calif. clan launched the expedition at the end of August 2002. They returned home in November 80 days and 11,500 miles later. Husband Dave had had this dream trip marinating in his mind for many years prior. Barb finally bought into the idea a few years before the journey. Once she gave the okay, Dave arranged to take a 3 month sabbatical from his job as a mechanical engineer. While she wasn't worried about going on the trip, she was concerned about what it would be like being away from home for that long. "It seemed that we would be disconnected from our regular life for quite a while."

PREPARATIONS

Examining the costs for the trip for six people seemed daunting at first, but the Jensens had an idea. Instead of staying in hotels, which would be expensive, or tent camping, which would be physically taxing, they opted to buy a travel trailer with enough beds for everyone. Dave's #1 criteria was that beds would always stay beds. He did not want the hassle of converting dinettes and sofas into beds at night. The trailer would be used for many trips for the young family, so they reasoned that it would be a long-term investment.

The year prior to their departure, they rented a large trailer from a local RV dealer, hitched it to their Suburban, and traveled to Lassen National Park and Lake Tahoe for one week of camping. This was the perfect opportunity to try pulling a big trailer and get used to the ins and outs of hooking and unhooking the thing.

With this successful trailer trip behind them, Dave began to research trailers and features offered by different RV manufacturers. Renting a trailer for the entire trip was considered, but at $1,100 per week, the Jensens reasoned that it would be more cost effective to buy their own. In the end, they purchased a KZ Sportsmen, a 25-footer which could be extended to 30 feet after parking. Double bunks in the front and a queen size bed in the back were just what the Jensens needed. Dave even converted one of the lower bunks into a crib for little Micah, only 14 months old when they left.

The Jensens were able to find a young lady to house sit for the duration of their trip. Free room and board for her, peace of mind for Dave and Barb.

WHERE TO GO

Planning where to go within the 80 day timeframe was the fun part. It took them a leisurely 18 months of discussion and prep work. The family read books, purchased a computer program about U.S. road trips, and brainstormed together. Barb said there was really no one to talk to because none of her friends or family members had tackled a trip like this before.

Each member of the family, except for Micah, the 14-month old, had the opportunity to share what he or she wanted to see. For Barb, it was the Longaberger Basket factory in Dresdon, Ohio . For the two daughters, Michelle, 9, and Megan, 12, the horse country in and around Lexington Kentucky was at the top of the list. Husband Dave and his son, Mark, then 10, hankered to see National Parks and baseball haunts.

The overarching theme from the beginning, though, was to see and experience U.S. history first hand. With Barb and the kids studying U.S. history together in their home school, this would be the perfect opportunity to bring history to life. So the historical stuff came first with a smattering of factory visits, famous baseball attractions, and living history attractions thrown in. And, along the way, they would pick and choose those destinations that were important to each members of the family.

Dave and Barb knew they wanted to spend the majority of the trip on the East Coast which meant getting there as quickly as possible. They chose to skip over a lot of the sights heading east from California in an effort to get there in the fastest and most efficient way possible. Barb eventually warmed up to sharing the driving; no small feat given the 7500 lb. trailer in the back. They headed due east to Salt Lake City, over the Rockies through Rocky Mountain National Park, and on to Kansas City Missouri. From there, they meandered roughly northeast, through Niagara Falls on their way to Massachusetts and Maine. Their travels took them to states as far north as Maine and as far south as Virginia.

BUDGET

Taking a family with four children on vacation is always a stretch on the budget. The family decided to cook as much as possible, easy to do with the kitchen (with microwave) in the trailer. When they wanted to eat out, they would try to dine out during lunchtime.

Average food costs per day, when cooked, was approximately the same as at home. Eating out would have been twice or three times the amount. Their goal was to keep costs down as much as possible.

ON THE ROAD

Once the family hit the road, they stopped every night in RV parks, state or national park campgrounds. Entrance fees for overnight stays ran from $15 to $30. The national parks, said Barb, had no water or electrical hook ups, so they had to get used to what RV'ers call "dry camping". The trailer does have a large fresh water supply and onboard batteries for lights, but conserving these resources was essential. They merely relied on the park shower and bathroom facilities then.

In New Jersey and Maryland, they spent the night in a Walmart parking lot, (dry camping), free for RV'ers.

The entire family pitched in to help the trip go smoothly. The kids were eager to help and shared the "chores" at every stop. While Dave was out hitching or unhitching the trailer, one of the kids would help set up or take down the trailer. The other kids would take turns watching the baby and helping Barb prepare the next meal or organize the trailer.

Each day, they would head out as early as possible and go as far as they could. Driving long distance with a toddler was a real challenge, so they quickly learned to stop frequently and to time the longer drives to coincide with naps. When it was necessary, they found laundry mats in a town to wash and dry their clothes. Once, they had to find a haircutting salon because the family all needed trims.

They had a couple of flat tires along the way (once on the truck and once on the trailer) which meant finding the local tire repair shop. Dave actually had to have all four tires on the Suburban replaced in Ft. Worth Texas on the return leg of their journey. And once, they even ran out of gas, but found a station only a few hundred yards away.

KEY ATTRACTIONS

Using "Watch It Made in the USA," a book on United States factory tours, the family hit the Longaberger Factory and Hershey Chocolate Factory. Barb says they definitely will go to the Crayola Crayon plant next time they are in New Jersey. The Louisville Slugger bat factory in Louisville Kentucky was another factory tour (and baseball) highlight.

Michelle and Megan's equestrian dreams came true when they went to see a live horse auction and the Kentucky Horsepark in Lexington which showcases different breeds of horses.

Barb, as the kids' teacher, found that visiting towns with period re-enactments gave the children a greater appreciation for the different time periods that they studied. Each of the four towns with live actors was different, she says, each reflecting the socio-economic status of the period. The family visited the following:

  • Plimoth Plantation, Massachusetts -17th century - Very primitive village with early colonists.
  • Colonial Williamsburg,Virginia - 18th century - Most prosperous of the four villages.
  • Old Sturbridge Village, Massachusetts - early 19th century - Most developed of the villages during the 1830s.
  • New Salem, Illinois- mid 19th century - Where Lincoln the formative years of his adult life (before becoming a lawyer).

THE BOTTOM LINE

What the Jensens experienced was an unforgettable journey that brought them endless memories. The older kids learned the true meaning of cooperation and teamwork whenever they stopped to hitch up the trailer and unload. "In retrospect I'm amazed that we did it. I actually enjoyed the long driving and seeing the United States," says Dave.

However, having a squirmy 14-month-old in the car was difficult. Notes Barb: "The hardest part was keeping Micah entertained. We had to really work to keep him busy."

Now that they have the 27 states and 11,500 miles under their belt, Barbara says the family has no hesitation in going on another lengthy road trip. "I would do it again because I want Micah to be old enough to remember it. Next time, we will drive even further distances!"

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WHEN YOU GO, BE SURE TO...

  • Avoid over packing. Spread out all the toys and books you plan to bring, and take along half.
  • Be realistic about what you want to accomplish.
  • Eat healthy on the road. Fruit is great travel snack.
  • Bring jump ropes and Frisbees. After long drives, kids need to stretch and burn off some energy. Consider athletic activities such as jump roping, playing catch or tag at rest stops.
  • Do not rely on guidebooks or brochures for hours/days of operation. Call attractions in advance to make sure there is no maintence, special holiday, or other disruption that would require closing early.
  • Give yourself flexibility in your itinerary. You may find yourself in a place that you would enjoy staying an extra day or two. Depending on the time of year that you travel, you may not even need reservations. The Jensen's rarely made reservations while on the road, calling a day or two in advance only if they planned on being in an especially popular destination.

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