To describe Mike Leonard’s recent trip across the U.S. as merely “ambitious,” does not do the odyssey justice. After taking a sabbatical from his job at the Today Show, Mike drove across country in an RV with three of his grown children and a daughter-in-law to pick up his eccentric parents (and rent another RV) for a family trip like no other. Leonard’s The Ride of Our Lives, his humorous travelogue of the month-long adventure, should inspire others to take a vacation with the whole family.
What inspired you to head off in an RV with your parents and three of your grown kids?
My parents had moved into a rental home in Phoenix, sight unseen, and were stranded in a location where they couldn’t walk to stores or communicate with people on a daily basis. They had made a mistake and it made me sad to think that they would have to ride out the year-long lease in that lonely state. Then I had a dream about picking them up in an RV and giving them one last lap around the country. It was a crazy dream because normally we don’t do that kind of stuff. We’re not campers. We’ve never been RV people. But the dream was so compelling that I rented two RVs, rounded up the kids and headed west.
Can you explain the route you took and highlight the most scenic (and not so scenic) stretches?
My kids and I rented a Winnebago in Chicago and drove to Phoenix, where we rented a second RV and picked up my parents. From there we went through New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island and then backtracked through Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois before returning to Phoenix. I know I’m leaving some states out. I think the total was 18 states and 8,000 miles—all in a month’s time.
The best sights were the most common. Although we did visit the Alamo and the Grand Canyon, we made an effort to avoid the tourist areas. We wanted to meet the locals and see the stuff that was real. One of our favorite stops was Cajun country in Louisiana, specifically Breaux Bridge, the self-proclaimed crawfish capital of the world. The town is full of characters, musicians, and cool sights. The most touristy place we saw and liked was the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina. Eighty-eight average American homes can fit under its roof. Everything about it is stunning.
As the trip’s ringleader you attempted to satisfy the various temperaments of your clan. Do you think traveling in the Winnebago was helpful to this end?
No, you can’t please everybody, which is why I didn’t plan much of an itinerary. It was very democratic. We would head toward some location and take a vote: “Who wants to roam around that seaport village?” “Should we keep driving or find a campground?” The majority ruled, although sometimes I rigged the vote with my kids because I doubt my parents would have voted to stop at the go-kart track in Virginia. We did and my 87-year-old dad flamed out after one lap.
Trips involving multiple generations of family are growing in popularity. Do you have any advice for those who like the idea but cringe at the thought of planning such an undertaking?
My advice to people considering this type of family trip is to relax. Don’t overdo it on the planning end. Make the schedule loose, the driving time short. Pad your days with free time so you can be flexible enough to stay longer when the spirit moves you. Above all…expect something to go wrong. It will happen. When it does, don’t freak out. Roll with the punches.
Try to laugh off things that normally bug you and do something to control the situation. When left to his own devices my dad will invariably launch into some boring lecture about “the rich getting richer.” I derailed those sermons by asking him very specific questions. Instead of hearing the same old stories, we got an education about life at a different time from my dad and mom. It was illuminating for my children to hear about the Depression, World War II, and immigrant life. I thought I knew everything about my parents. I didn’t know half of what I do now.
Was there ever a moment on the trip that left you speechless?
There were several cool little moments that made me feel as if I were watching a scene in a movie. In a Louisiana roadhouse a local man learned of our trip and taught my mom how to do the Cajun waltz. Hearing the music and watching my 82-year-old mother float across the dance floor, a big smile on her face, was magical. I got goose bumps in a New Jersey cemetery watching my dad stand over the grave of his father, who left Ireland for America as a 19-year-old kid with ten dollars to his name. That’s what these journeys are all about, those unscripted moments that can only happen when you take the time to let them happen.
Care to learn more about Mike and his fantastic family vacation? Visit his website to find out more about the trip and his book. Click here to see if Mike’s book tour will be coming to a city near you.
Listen to an excerpt from the book read by the author.