There was always a photo that hung in our house, black, white and grainy. You had to squint to see the details, allowing your eyes to blur the pixels. It was a vintage photo from sometime in the 70s. An old pick up truck was sitting in front of the towering mountains in Alaska. Four young adults, with long hair, big beards and oversized sunglasses, true hippies, were taking a break from exploring the Last Frontier. These four individuals were my parents and two of their best friends, pioneers of travel in Alaska and of the National Parks in United States. I always looked at that photo and admired my mother for going out and exploring the unknown.
Here we are 35 or so years later and I end up on the phone with my mother constantly saying things like, “I’m moving to Germany,” or “I’m going to Brazil, alone.” She remains in awe of my reckless travels as I take off around the world on my own. Little does she know, it was her, those vintage photos of wild North America and the travels we took as a family that inspired me to continue traveling, probably for the rest of my life. Here is the ode to my mom, the woman that inspired me, and made it possible for me to travel.
Her traveling career is broken up into four categories, child, young married adult, mother of two and mother of two adults.
Family Travel in the 60s
You know how people say my generation spends too much money on travel and not enough money education? Well, it looks like my family has been prioritizing travel since the 60s and 70s, so it’s not just my generation, thank you very much. My Grandpa, (mom’s dad) despite being fairly well off, was bit by the travel bug and when he would start to itch he would march down to the bank and take out a $5,000 home repair loan. Instead of repairing their perfectly livable house he would pack up the family and drive. Now mind you, my family lived in Alaska, so driving meant driving through Canada, down to Arkansas or Texas to visit family. My mom, her brother and their foster sister would sit in the top of the camper as they drove the bumpy Alcan road. I asked her how many times she drove that road and her response was, “too many to count.” When they would reach the lower 48 my mom said she was just constantly awe-struck. Growing up in Alaska, she had never been in a place that was both dark and warm at the same time and she would go out at night and just sit in the dark, listening to the crickets in the warm summer air. (In Alaska if it’s warm, there is 24 hours of daylight) Her love for the open road and family trips became part of who she is and how she raised her family.
Meanwhile, my dad was growing up in Saskatchewan Canada (I know this is a mother’s day post, but my dad has some pretty cool stories too and had a big impact on my mom and our family travels.) He had never seen a mountain, been to the United States, eaten a Big Mac, or gone on a vacation. His only “vacation” was driving 100 miles north, as far as the road in Saskatchewan would take him to his cousin’s farm. He and his brothers would spend their vacations, running wild and free and that was as close to a vacation he ever got.
After he moved to Alaska, he met my mom. According to my mom, he got cold feet when their relationship was starting to develop and took off on a wild road trip without even telling her! According to my dad, three of his friends decided to pack up a small car and drive from Alaska to New York. My dad, still had never been to the lower 48 and asked if he could join. I get it dad, I had to get my wild travels out of the way before I could ever settle down. Sometimes you have to let the wind blow in your hair and see the world to really know yourself. So, four dudes crammed in a car and drove from Alaska to NYC in 3 days. In total on that trip they drove 30,000 miles in 6 weeks. I don’t really want to get into the details of what happened in that car in three days, but four guys, taking shifts driving, peeing in cups, you get the idea. It was the ultimate bro-trip. My dad ate his first Big Mac and saw sights he never dreamed of seeing, growing up in Saskatchewan.
It’s funny when I ask my dad about this trip, he always focus on the Big Mac and how good it was. Welcome to America, Dad. He grew up pretty poor in Canada and a Big Mac was always just something he heard about, but never thought he would ever eat. He still loves his Big Macs today. They eventually made it back to Alaska and I guess he decided to take the leap and him and mom married and started their journey traveling together, one that still continues to this day.
Young, Married, but still Wild at Heart
On any given weekend, after their marriage, my parents were hiking in Alaska. They were true pioneers of the Alaskan hiking trails, blazing their way through wilderness, hippies at heart. It wasn’t enough though, and two of their best friends decided to hit the road and invited them along. My dad built a camper with his own bare hands and hooked it up to their truck and an epic road between four best friends began.
I asked my mom if they quit jobs or school to take this trip. She said she took a leave of absence for a little over two months and school was never on their list of things to do.
“Academics weren’t really a thing in Alaska at that time, going to college was not a particularly important thing in anyone’s life that I knew. There was corruption, protests and they just seemed to be a little messy.”
“Do you regret not going to school?” I ask.
“Sometimes, I think I missed out on a real life experience I should have had by going to college.”
“It’s funny, I went to school and sometimes I think I learn the most about life through traveling and sometimes wonder if school was pointless.”
“Well, I think it’s good to have that balance the smarts and the global experience.”
“You’re smart mom, you don’t need school to tell you that.”
During those three months my mom said she was constantly pushed out of her comfort zone. The group always decided to take the road less traveled and the path that wasn’t marked.
“A lot of these photos we got in the Parks no one else has, like this photos of me kissing George Washington. We found trails that don’t exist anymore or you’re not allowed to go because of overcrowding. Back in the 70s not very many people went to the parks. We were often alone, exploring. The parks themselves haven’t changed much, except for water levels and animals numbers (and stuff like that) but as someone who has been going to National Parks since I was a young teenage girl with my parents, they definitely are a lot more crowded. That’s maybe the biggest difference I notice. It’s good though, that more people are making the time to see these, but it does take away from that raw nature. I’m glad they’re protected parts from the rest of the U.S. They’re so beautiful.”
“I hope they stay around longer,” I say, “they’re cutting a lot of funding.”
“You know, you’d have to be really stupid to sit by and let these parks disappear. If funding is cut in the next four years, I think it will either come back or we will find a way to fund them. They can’t go away.”
My mother’s optimism is something I need in my life. I worry too much they will soon disappear.
She said that her and my dad were just along for the ride, while their two friends mostly decided where to go next and what to do next. Even in my carefree travels I don’t think I have ever traveled with that amount of reckless abandon and I admire their true hippy spirit as they explored North America and the National Parks.
“Did traveling like this at a young age, help your marriage or spark the romance?” I ask my dad.
“Of course it was special for our marriage, but there have been times you mom and I have traveled alone, like the time we drove from Alaska to Washington in 2007 and that was one of the best trips for our marriage. Your mom told me she would join the road trip and sleep in a tent in her old age, if I got up every morning made her coffee, bought her a queen blow up mattress and a tent she could stand up in. So every morning I would leave the tent before she was even awake, and make her a cup of coffee. Those were the things that made our marriage stronger.”
It was on this trip my dad saw the Grand Canyon for the first time. He had trouble finding words to explain the canyon to me, just that it was so amazing to see the earth fall away into breath-taking beauty. My mom was partial to Yosemite, it’s her favorite park. That and the Redwoods. It’s crazy how much she looks like me, sitting there, looking so small under the trees.
“You know I look back at these photos and I see them, but sometimes I don’t remember it. It’s like all this happened in a totally different life. I know I was there, writing in my journal and my journal was so important to me, I know that looking at the photo, but it’s hard actually recall the memory. So much has happened since then.”
Three months on the open road, traveling from Alaska and Denali National park, to California and the Redwoods, to Wyoming and the Tetons, Montana and Glacier National Park they went, before they returned back to Alaska, only to continue their never ending hiking adventures.
Traveling Mother of Two
Then my sister and I came along. My mom, thinking of her days where Grandpa would take out a loan and pack up the family, or traveling the open road with my dad, carried that reckless abandon to raising my sister and I. Living in Alaska we got a PFD, or money from the state oil revenue. It’s basically “free money” for living in Alaska. A lot of parents choose to blow that money on a new TV, car or house or maybe even save it for college. My parents however, took that money and we went on an amazing vacation every few years. This money took us to the East coast when I was two, Grand Canyon when I was 6, Hawaii when I was 8, Florida when I was 10, a massive road trip from Alaska to around the U.S. when I was 12 and many, many more.
“The thing about traveling as a family, is it takes you out of the normal every day stuff and you’re free to enjoy each other’s company on another level. I felt that way when we traveled, as a family, we connected on a level that we never did at home. It sets you into an experience together. When you experience a lot of things while traveling like I did as a kid and young adult, to be able to share those experiences with your kids, you get to see them through your kid’s eyes all over again and it’s just amazing.”
My dad’s favorite vacation we took as a family was to Hawaii. We would boogie board our hearts out. My sister and I also imprinted on a nomadic sand artist. I think that bond we had with Mary, the artist, brought joy to my dad. To be able to see my sister and I bond with a nomadic adult and see her for the beauty in her art and in her smile meant a lot to him, as a father. He loves to tell that story of my best friend, Mary. I would wake up, run to the beach and help her build her sand mermaids.
My mom’s favorite family trip was our massive road trip. Seeing all the National Parks that she saw with her parents, then my dad and then with her kids was really something special to her. However, she always tells the story of the long road back through Canada to Alaska. With two wiggly pre-teens in the back it could have been a nightmare, but she just remembers my sister and I entertaining ourselves with silly jokes, games and laughter.
We didn’t have a lot growing up, but we had an amazing life though at home and on the road. At home in Alaska, I remember I was free to roam around the woods and the mountains whenever I wanted. I think this was a major contribution to my love of the outdoors. We would go on ski trips and hiking trips as a family. Staycations were something we did almost weekly. On the road, looking back at what my parents sacrificed, so my sister and I could see the nature around North America brings tears to my eyes. I will forever be grateful to the life I had.
“Do you regret us not saving the PFD money for your college?” My mom now asks me.
“Not at all, those memories we shared as a family and the spark it ignited in me to see the world is something that money or education could never buy or take away from me. I cherish that family time with every fiber of my being. Thank you for that, mom and dad.”
Traveling with Adult Children
I grew up and I went to college. I was the first in my family to graduate. My parents worked hard to help support me through school, but I graduated and immediately wanted to travel. Thus began an era of giving my mom heart attacks, traveling alone to Brazil, backpacking Europe and taking off on a whim to Bali. As a natural worrier, I know it stressed her out.
“Mom, when I look at all the wild things you did in the 70s and 80s I am baffled as to how my adventures scare you, you were so brave!”
“I never went anywhere alone, I never left the country. I still have a natural fear of the unknown sometimes and I admire you, Susanna for doing it all on your own.”
I don’t believe her, she’s more brave than she thinks, because recently my mom, sister and I went to Zion National park together and at the age of 60 my mom hiked up Angel’s Landing like a total bad ass. I had never been more proud of mom or my sister during that trip. She still has that young woman, there inside of her fighting to explore and hike.
Traveling as an adult with your parents, you really start to learn about how they are as a person and not just as your parents. It seems that stories of their past don’t come out when you’re a child growing up. The focus is always on the child or the here or now. I treasure these adult family trips to learn about my family and bond with them in new ways.
Even after all this travel, my parents had never left the country.
Leaving the Country for the First Time
Remember that quote earlier on? “Hey mom, I’m moving to Germany.”
Well, I moved to Germany. I wasn’t sure if my parents would come visit me or not. Other than Canada my mom had never left the country. Maybe it would be my job to visit them. Them my mom told me she was going to do it. My mother who hated airplanes was going to fly to Europe to see me!
My dad being the ultimate budget traveler decided to book the cheapest ticket possible. Using airline miles and the craziest layover sequence, he booked a 34 hour flight to Europe, but he only spent like $90. So you know. Worth it? hahah ask my mom, the one who hates flying.
Finally, they made it. My mom and dad were in Europe and they went from hiking the mountains in Alaska to the mountains in Bavaria and Cinque Terre, Italy. They fell in love with Europe, the ease of travel the new exciting Alps, just getting on a train and going. I wonder if it made them feel like back in the 70s just getting in the car and going. My mom says it was her favorite trip of all time though, because it was here they were able to meet the love of my life and the reason I moved to Germany. It’s funny, I never thought I would have that relationship where I could have it all, travel with my boyfriend and my family. But, you know what? Travel made it all possible, travel made my family what it is today.
Honorable Mention to My Grandma
She hitch- hiked, alone, from South Dakota to California, in what must have been the 40s, to start nursing school only to give it up to work to put her sister through nursing school. It seems like travel has been in my family for a long time.
So, heres to the brave daring women that traveled above all else. To every mother who put travel into their families lives. And most of all to the pioneers of the wilderness in North America. Heres to my mom, to my grandma and even my sister and my dad. Happy Mothers Day!