When you take a drive back in time along historic byways, you experience the country's heritage in a way a textbook can never convey. The experience gives you a feeling of freedom and a connection to the country unmatched by any other vacation. “You see why a certain village grew up where it did, or why a certain music or cuisine came out of a region,” says Cheryl Hargrove, associate director of the Center for Sustainable Destinations at the National Geographic Society. “You see how movements developed. Look at the Selma to Montgomery march. Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights leaders walked the 54 miles in 1965 because they believed in something strongly enough to persevere. To drive along that road and see where they camped, you get a feeling for the dedication they had to a dream. It helps start conversations about what individuals can do and overcome.”
A road trip can also add depth to current conversations. Paul Buckalew, a retired high school English teacher from Madison, WI, drove through New England to places he'd talked about in class. “I saw Emerson's home and where Thoreau had his little cabin. It was very, very small. He believed in making things simple, simple, simple. The trip affected my understanding of the books I taught. Seeing something in person, really brings it alive.” Here, three other history buffs tell about their road trips.
Your Country's Roots. Rebecca Hessler, a part-time realtor living in Florida and Ohio, drove through every state with her children when they were young. For her, part of the pleasure is teaching others about the country's past. “Recently, my son was going up to the University of St. Augustine for his final interview for medical school, so we drove up and visited the city, which is the oldest one in the United States. My son's girlfriend had never been there, so we showed her the old fort, the Castillo, the fountain of youth, and Flagler College, which is partially housed in one of four huge hotels that Henry Flagler built when he was building the railroads down here. Historic sites are your country's roots. It can be as exciting as learning about your family's roots.”
Hidden Hieroglyphics. Myrna Klapwald, a retired teacher and executive assistant in White Plains, NY, says visiting places with still-palpable history helps put her own present in perspective. Two summers ago, she and her husband took a road trip through New Mexico en route to see friends and family in Colorado. “Boris and I are interested in the history of Native Americans and the early settlers. We went to Santa Fe and the Governor's Mansion. We went off the beaten path to see hieroglyphics. It was a great hike because we had to go up ladders to see the cave dwellings. Exploring the history of Native Americans you learn the beauty of how they lived and the difficulties they faced. At Taos Pueblo, the elders still live in adobe houses piled one on top of the other, with no running water or electricity. When you're there, you're struck by how amazing it is that the place has lasted all these years, but you're also angry at how these people were broken, and how things are not really improving for many Native Americans. Many people today are so into owning things, they don't think about the have-nots. It makes you look at your own life and think about what you're doing.”
Family Secrets. Minnie Criado, a retired escrow officer in , hits the road regularly to uncover her personal heritage. Criado spent her early childhood in , a small border town five hours southwest of . In the 1980s, her mother was invited to be a claimant in a lawsuit about borderlands lost to settlers after the Mexican-American war. That lawsuit led Criado to dig deeper. She discovered that her family had settled in the before 1750. Though she was raised Catholic, she learned that her ancestors were Sephardic Jews who'd fled and for the in 1570. She became interested in her family's “secret” history, and that of others with similar stories. She began traveling to the area, and making research trips to and . Eight years ago, she started writing a novel about her findings.
“The area is full of winter Texans who come in their RVs because it's warm and inexpensive and is five minutes away,” she says. “I go for the history. I like to study the people and listen to their speech. They still use some Ladino words, the language of the Sephardic Jews. I ask people about their traditions. I try to find out about how things were done and why. The little downtown is full of old buildings, homes built around 1849. And there's , and an historic inn called LaBorde House. This is a way to learn about the land and towns settled by the Spanish colonists around 1750. So many people have someone from the , and they're hungry to learn about the past and where they came from.”
For Criado, the historical road trip has become part of a personal vision quest. But even for the casual traveler, a retro road trip can be a reminder of the richness of our shared past and contemporary culture. “You don't have to go to Europe or Mexico," says Klapwald. "We have all these marvelous cultures right here.”
Wendy Paris has contributed to Marketplace on NPR and has written for the New York Times and other national publications.
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