Our family was just wrapping up a vacation in southwest Florida eight years ago when we learned that the space shuttle would be launching the next morning 280 miles away. We had planned to be halfway to Illinois by that time, but this felt like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. So we stayed an extra night and then, in the predawn darkness, loaded our sleepy sons -- Nicky, then age 8, and Matt, 6 -- into the car for the four-hour drive.
We pulled into the recommended viewing spot at Cocoa Beach with just ten minutes to spare and joined the crowd of cars parked along both sides of the road. With the top down on our convertible, we tuned the radio to a local station and reveled in the party atmosphere. Then came the countdown: "Five, four, three, two, one ... " Roaring filled our ears, and the whole car vibrated as the silver triangle of shuttle shot above us.
We relived that amazing moment many times over the next day and a half, as we drove through Georgia, Tennessee, and Kentucky. We also discussed the fact that we had just traveled through 10 percent of the 50 states. "Hey," we thought, "that was easy!" And then my husband, Nick, and I had a crazy idea: What if we visited every U.S. state before the boys graduated from high school and sought out equally unique experiences in each?
That was 2005. Since then, we've been to all of the lower 48, plus Washington, DC. A Hawaiian splurge is on the calendar for this summer (Nick's and my 20th wedding anniversary), and in 2014, we'll cap it all off with an Alaskan cruise, just before Nicky starts his final year of high school. Along the way, we've developed a few key rules.
1. We never do activities that we can do at home. That means no shopping malls, no amusement parks like Six Flags, and no museums too similar to the Field Museum in Chicago. Instead, we have seen two whales breaching at the same time off the coast of Boston, floated above Albuquerque in a hot air balloon, ridden a mountain gondola in Colorado, found sharks' teeth on a South Carolina beach, and toured the red rocks of Sedona, Arizona, in a bright pink jeep.
2. We seek out unique restaurants and dishes. We don't have fancy dinners out; that's easy enough in Chicago. Instead, I research one-of-a-kind diners and regional food for us to try. (This is easier now thanks to the Food Network's shows on out-of-the-ordinary cuisine.) We have watched a man eat a 72-ounce steak in an hour at the Big Texan Steak Ranch, enjoyed beignets covered with powdered sugar at New Orleans's Café du Monde, and sampled boardwalk specialties like fried Oreos in Maryland, Delaware, and New Jersey. One summer, we tasted a vinegar-based barbecue sauce in North Carolina, then a month later compared it to tomato-style versions in Missouri and Kansas.
3. We bring home two souvenirs from every state. Specifically, these are a photo of our family in a unique location and a Christmas tree ornament. With the latter, we look for something meaningful, such as the branding iron we picked up in Oklahoma or the miniature Space Needle from Seattle. Some places offer up so many memories, we come home with more than one. In Washington, DC, we chose ornaments from both the International Spy Museum and the White House, as well as an oversize penny from the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. The photos we take at famous landmarks, such as the Grand Canyon and Mount Rushmore, or at offbeat sites, like outside a KFC in Kentucky. I put the pictures in a special album, along with notes about the locations.