11Q: Roadtripping with Wendy Swart Grossman

Posted on: Monday, October 31st, 2011
Posted in: Sabbatical Shuffle, Blog | Leave a comment

Friend of a friend. That’s how I met Wendy Swart Grossman, today’s guest blogger.

Face to face. That’s how we will soon meet, instead of screen to screen.

St. Olaf College. That’s where we both were a few decades ago, though we have no memories of that—of each other, I mean.  (Not to worry, we’ll make some up.)

Jealous as heck. That’s how I feel about WSG’s gonzo-America trip with her family in an RV.

Bucket. That’s the list where that dream, for me, remains.  So WSG sits on a pedestal.

But she doesn’t sit still long.  Presently, she’s traversing the states—again—to promote her self-published memoir about their amazing experiences, Behind the Wheel: A mother’s journal of a year on the road.

Please join WSG, me, and (one hopes) a bunch of book-lovers and BreakAway artists when she comes to town in early November to do two readings + some Q&A at neighborhood bookstores.  For a sneak preview, here’s Wendy’s bold answers to our 11Q test.  Clearly, this is one fearless woman.  Thanks, Wendy; see you (offline) soon!

11Q : Wendy Swart Grossman

  • Biggest getaway challenge

Trying to keep the fear factor at bay and the voices in my head quiet. What were we doing heading out in an RV, yanking our 7 and 12 year old away from all their friends, doctors, our own support networks and home schooling? As a parent you always wonder what screw up is going to get your kid on the therapist couch…maybe this trip was it. We were also heading out on our big adventure in the midst of the worse recession since the great depression. Our biggest challenge was having the trust that we would be alright and that we would find jobs once the adventure was over.”

  • Grandest arrival

After months of traveling through 23 states and 15 national parks where the ratio of elk to people was about  300:1 it was time to show the kids the seedy underbelly of America.  We tooled into Las Vegas with our 12 year old shouting in our ear, “LAS VEGAS! My spiritual homeland.” We got a great deal on a room at the Excalibur Hotel. You know, the knight-themed hotel next to the more luxurious Luxor and Mandalay Bay. Twenty-three bucks a night. It is half the cost of an RV park and we will more than double our hangout space, plus a full-size bathroom. We were there for three nights in between Joshua Tree National Park and the Grand Canyon.

We introduced our kids to gambling culture, smoke-filled casino floors, Breakfast of Champions Las Vegas-style (when the man walked past us at 7:30 a.m. with a beer in each hand), one-armed bandits, video arcades, cheap buffets, The Mob, and sexism in a variety of ways from female escort services to scantily dressed women. If you haven’t been to Vegas lately, the strip (for those who decide to walk) is chock-a-block with groups of what appear to be newly arrived immigrants from south of the border, dressed in neon-yellow shirts and matching hats all emblazoned with the same motto: Girls to your door in 20 minutes. They also hand out the matching business cards with the number to call. How convenient.

In the 13 years since Evan and I had last been to Vegas, the free Pirate Show in front of the Treasure Island Hotel has gone from showcasing Disney-approved, fresh-faced pirates to pole-dancing, g-string-wearing pirates. Thirteen years ago there was a battle between the British man of war and the pirate ship. Now it’s the ship of Sirens (the aforementioned scantily clad women) vs. the Pirates. To add misogynistic insult to injury, when the pirates decide to fire their cannons at the Sirens (how else could the show’s directors showcase all the pyrotechnic power designed for the original show?), the Pirates decide to bring the Sirens to submission by “attacking their closets, where it will hurt the most.”

I apologized to Josh for taking him to this X-rated show. In a good-natured way he replied, “This will be a good story to tell my friends: Then there was the time my parents took me to see naked ladies in Vegas . . .”

  • Favorite place

The real answer: all of them, and for different reasons.

The passenger seat.  Staring out at the vast expanse of road and open spaces in Montana. Watching my husband Evan’s profile as he drove, with the kids in the back happily reading.

Crater Lake, Oregon in November in a snowshoe hike when we stopped to listen to the sound of nothing.

My aunt’s patio in Jacksonville, IL on an early autumn evening.

The bed in the back of the RV with seven year old Simon. Hanging up party lights and making special cuddle caves out of blankets with his stuffed animals.”

  • Logistical nightmare

The wonderful thing about traveling in an RV without an agenda is you are on your own time schedule. The nervousness about making a connection or if your luggage is over weight just wasn’t an issue.

  • Most meaningful moment

We were traveling between Ketchum, Idaho and Crater Lake, Oregon and had stopped over night in the long forgotten town of Vale, OR. While most people know about western Oregon and it’s beautiful coast line, Eastern Oregon and it’s poverty isn’t on the map or in the tourist books.  We pulled up in the dark, made dinner and went to bed and when we looked out in the morning on a gray November day, to say it was depressing would be an understatement.  Many times in an RV we shared campgrounds with people who were there permanently.  The RV’s were up on blocks and the folks were there for awhile.  While we were just passing through, many of the folks we were sharing bath houses and Laundromats with weren’t.  That is when my older son lost it, “You have ruined my life.  We are 4000 miles away from all my friends and we live in an RV.”  The wonderful part  was that we had no where else we needed to be so Josh and I took a long walk around Vale, Oregon and talked about poverty, choices, refrigerators in front lawns and how lucky we were to have options.”

  • Worst disaster

I would hardly call this a disaster but it does fall in the scary column. Imagine if you will:  Our 29’ white Winnebago with the sporty strip camped out in the Wal-Mart parking where they court the RV’ers and let us park overnight for free.  We are in Grand Forks, North Dakota. We were making our way down to Minneapolis after a wild adventure to Churchill Manitoba to see the polar bears in the wild.

The Red Lobster sign shines a nice ruby red glow in the front window of the RV. And the trees that are planted in the parking lot in an attempt to make it not look like the vast parking lot that it really is, are skinny and losing their leaves but appreciated. Parking Lot, Sweet Parking Lot (if I knew how to embroider, that’s what I’d be putting on one of our pillows). After a nice swim at Splashers Water Park, a dinner of left-over’s and an exciting game of Clue we are all snuggled into our beds.

Then at 3 AM a loud beating of hands against the side of the RV wakes us all up.   Funny how we are thousands of years from cavemen but our responses are programmed just the same. My husband, the protector, wakes up yelling, “Get out of here!”  I, on the other hand, wake up silently thinking to myself, “If we hide, they will go away.”

We hear the drunken voices and laughter of teenagers as they continue their weaving path across the parking lot. We are fine.”

  • Serendipitous experience

We need to talk about pajamas. I don’t mean night shirts, nightgowns, or boxers and tee shirts; I mean 2 piece pajamas – usually flannel – with either a draw string waist or an elastic one. A button up top is a given. But not the kind with built in feet – those are too hard to wear when you are driving an RV, especially the kind with the little plastic bumps on the soles.

My mother has accused me of wearing my pajamas a little too often. I have been known to get in to my pajamas far before bed time and to stay in them well past noon. I have cooked meals in them, gardened in them, walked to the end of the driveway to pick up a poorly tossed newspaper, and on our first Christmas in London I went to my next door neighbor Jane’s house in my pajamas and had coffee in a move that cemented our relationship.

And yes, I have thrown a coat and boots on and worn them to the grocery store – but only before 9 am. Not that there are any set rules and regulations regarding improprieties and pajama wear like there are with white shoes after Labor Day, but I do have some self respect.

And then of course there are the Pajama Adventures I have had with my jet lagged kids in various parts of the US where we sneak out of the house or hotel and look for trouble (and donuts) between 5 and 6 am in pajamas.

Everything is a little more fun if you do it in pajamas.

I wore my summer stripped pj’s to visit Lincoln’s house in Springfield, Illinois at 6 AM one early summer morning. I wore my yellow sunflower set to Hapgood Pond in Peru, Vermont in August. And the tropical flowers pair I wore in a memorable swim in the Pacific Ocean in San Diego with the boys when they were no more than 5 years old.  The swim was unintentional but when they both went in…how could I stop myself?.

My mom has commented that I am the only person she knows who has worn out pajamas. But considering how much I wear them, that is to be expected.

And then, there we were staying with our friends in Zumbro Falls, Minnesota, population 177.  Five of those people are my friends Doug and Pam and their 3 kids. I hadn’t seen Pam for 20 years and she still looks 23. We parked the Big Pig (our pet name for the RV)  in a snowstorm Friday night next to their new house – their new house because the old house was damaged by a tornado.

Saturday morning I walked across the muddy driveway in my pajamas and boots around 9 AM to hang out, drink coffee and have breakfast. I walked in and Doug said, “Did Pam loan you her pajamas?” I was wearing my Gnome flannel pajamas. Pam was wearing hers.

There are some friends you don’t see for 20 years and those years just dissolve away over a cup of coffee in your matching Gnome PJ’s.

  • Strangest encounter

Did you know that at the RV park just outside of Devil’s Tower National Monument in Wyoming they show Steve Speilberg’s 1977 classis Close Encounter’s of the Third Kind every day?  So appropriate!  This park was the first declared National Historic Monument by Teddy Roosevelt in 1906.”

  • Requisite health dilemma

What do you do when you are living in an RV and your kid get’s sick…every month? We loved to catalogue the statistics of our trip, from miles driven to number of wild animals seen, to Junior Ranger Programs completed.  The one statistics I didn’t was the number of Urgent Care Center’s we visited. My 7 year old son Simon was sick every month with fevers and sore throats. He had his throat swabbed from Rochester, MN to Boulder, Colorado. Little known fact: Grand Tetons National Park has an Urgent Care facility on site!”

  • Profound take-away

Perhaps this is more of a profound realization of the absurdly obvious but–the less you are doing, the more time you have. And the more time you have the more open you are to new ideas and creative conversations. As a parent you never know when you kids are going to be open to having those big conversations. But with a year of open timelines and time on our hands we were available, focused and interested.  One day our kids asked us, “just what is the stock market and who is Dow Jones?”  Three days later we completed the conversation.”

  • Re-entry vibe

If we had moved directly from our lovely house in London into a small apartment in Boston while we looked for jobs and re established our life in the US we would have been sad.  It wasn’t our choice to leave London, but as expats on a work visa, we were there on the company’s invitation and not on our own accord.  But once we took the control back and decided to have the adventure in the RV, it was or choice again. And once we decided to end the RV trip, moving into an apartment with doors and 2 bathrooms felt like we were moving into a palace.

While we have been on terra firma for a year now, living in an old Victorian house that doesn’t move we know we are different from our neighbors. When people ask where we moved here from we know if we say, “an RV”, we are opening ourselves up to big eyes and a long conversation.

I think it is human nature to try to put people in boxes so we can better understand them. But we know we don’t fit neatly into any one box. We flop over the sides of them all. But that’s alright and, in my opinion, preferable.”

Bonus Bio & Book Blurb!!

My name is Wendy Swart Grossman and yes, I survived living in a 29’ Winnebago with my husband and two kids.  We traveled 28,000 miles through 37 States and Provinces while we home schooled our 2nd and 6th grade kids.  Yes, they still talk to us.  We have been on terra firma for a year I have finally gotten rid of the RV smell from my clothes and the book is just coming out.  It debuted at #4 in the Family Travel section of Amazon and was 8th on the Boston Globe’s Best Seller List.  It is called Behind the Wheel: A mother’s journal of a year on the road.

Behind the Wheel: A mother’s journal of a year on the road is a humorous collection of true stories and journal entries chronicling the adventure of a family of four as they trade their life as expats in North London for the Semi-Affluent Homeless subculture and trek across North America on a tight budget in a Winnebago. Laugh, seek inspiration and then take heed as these intrepid travelers—a menopausal mom, a techno-geek dad, a preteen, and a prophetic 7-year-old—confront unforeseen challenges and constantly adapt their goals in an effort to stay on the road and avoid becoming road kill.

Think Eat Pray Love meets Robin Williams in the movie RV.

Feel free to check out my NPR podcast at http://bit.ly/WSwbur

And please come!

Minnesota book readings:

Thursday, November 3rd, 7:30 PM Common Good Books, St Paul www.commongoodbooks.com

Friday, November 4th, 7 PM, The Bookcase, Wayzata



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